Academic journal article Public Personnel Management

Civil Service Reform, At-Will Employment, and George Santayana: Are We Condemned to Repeat the Past?

Academic journal article Public Personnel Management

Civil Service Reform, At-Will Employment, and George Santayana: Are We Condemned to Repeat the Past?

Article excerpt

"There is much forgetfulness, much callow disrespect for what is past or alien; but there is a fund of vigour, goodness, and hope such as no nation ever possessed before. In what sometimes looks like American greediness and jostling for the front place, all is love of achievement, nothing is unkindness ..."

--George Santayana (1)

A constant tension exists between efficiency and effectiveness in American public administration--a tension that quickly becomes evident in determining exactly how to achieve efficiency and what constitutes effectiveness. (2) This is reflected in today's civil service reform controversies in state and federal government as antagonists juxtapose the competing values of business management and public service. (3) The debate is often not joined as positions become entrenched and sheer political power prevails. (4)

In such situations, insights from another time and place can provide a perspective on issues and events. A case in point is philosopher and poet George Santayana (1863-1952) who lived in the United States during an era when the patronage-based spoils system gradually gave way to the merit-based civil service of today. A Spanish immigrant, he subsequently studied and taught at Harvard University during his 40 years here, and departed, never to return, in 1912. Santayana, nonetheless, retained a fascination for, and outlook on, American politics and culture. (5)

Santayana is perhaps best known in the community of philosophers for his five volume series, The Life of Reason, published from 1905-1906. A prolific and engagingly lyrical writer, the topics of his books, poems, letters, and essays ranged from art to religion to social commentary. Considered by many to be an American philosopher, Jorge Augustin Nicolas Ruiz de Santayana never relinquished his Spanish citizenship. Thus, he maintained the perspective of an outside observer of the American culture that he lived in for so long.

His often contrarian--but not mean-spirited--writings saw no need to impute sinister motives to people, for there was, as he said, a "fund of vigour, goodness, and hope" in America. (6) Such an outlook provides an apt lens to assess the current debates. This critique of radical reform examines how private sector employment techniques are used as part of an effort to corporatize government. The background section below briefly reviews the origins of the merit system and the objectives of the new changes. This is followed by a case study of an initiative in the "megastate" of Florida. The conclusion speculates on the future of civil service reform.


"The word experience is like a shrapnel shell, and bursts into a thousand meanings."

--George Santayana (7)

Modern civil service systems in the United States sprang from the "good government" movement that emerged in the post-Civil War period. Degradation of government, both economic and ethical, by the spoils system was the signal issue of the time. Experience had shown that it was little more than politically-driven "at-will" employment, a doctrine that holds employees can be hired and fired for any or no reason not contrary to law (see Table 1). Given increasing population and industrialization, a large nation could not be effectively governed with such an arbitrary--and scandal-ridden--personnel system. To protect the commonweal from unscrupulous politicians, responsible government administration would have to be businesslike--organized by administrative principles, lead by a strong executive, and staffed with non-partisan employees. "[T]he field of administration is a field of business," said Woodrow Wilson, a prominent reformer and founder of modern public administration. (8) To ensure against partisan manipulation and opportunism, reformers believed that public servants needed job security; clean and efficient public service would result when political partisanship was replaced with merit qualification in personnel decisions. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.