Academic journal article Public Administration Review

Unmasking Administrative Evil: The Book and Its Critics

Academic journal article Public Administration Review

Unmasking Administrative Evil: The Book and Its Critics

Article excerpt

In 1987, in preparation for a paper that was delivered at the International Conference on the Holocaust at Oxford the following year, I mailed a brief questionnaire to a sample of prominent names in the field of public administration and public policy. My mailing list consisted of a random selection of authors of some of the standard introductory texts in the field, several dozen prominent names from the membership of the American Society of Public Administration, a dozen or so authors of essays in the Journal of Public Policy and Management and, for good measure, a few well-known academics who are members of the National Academy of Public Administration. I asked this group whether, in the course of their teaching courses in public administration, they ever had occasion to make reference to the slaughter of the European Jewish populace that occurred under German National Socialism during World War II, whether any of their research or publications focused on this topic and whether, in their opinion, the topic had any relevance for the field of public administration.

I received a gratifying number of responses to my informal inquiry. As I recall, in all but three cases, the respondents indicated they had never

had occasion to refer to the Holocaust [as it is generally termed] in their teaching. No one noted the event as an arena of research interest. A surprisingly large number acknowledged that the Holocaust does likely have relevance for the study of public administration; a few respondents expressed some embarrassment that they had not given attention to the question at some earlier point in their work. One respondent even thanked me for raising the issue. For the sake of those who insist on having something to count before any assertion can have validity, I should underscore the non-empirical nature of my inquiry. It was an unscientific but, as it turned out, quite revealing sample of academic leaders in the field which confirmed my assumption that the issue of the Holocaust--a decade and a half ago--had an insignificant impact, to put the matter charitably, on the field of public administration and policy.

A decade later, Guy Adams and Danny Balfour produced the first American study to take up the question of the Holocaust and the problem of public administration and public policy. The primary focus of their inquiry turns out to be public administration--rather than public policy--although it is virtually impossible to follow their argument without recognizing its equally significant implications for public policy, as well. That argument is clearly and cogently set forth one of the hallmarks of the modern era, the authors assert, is a certain scientific-analytical mind-set and a belief in technological progress that can be termed technical rationality. Technical rationality, in turn, has come to have as one of its by-products what Adams and Balfour call administrative evil--a phenomenon which is both depicted in and masked (hence the title of the book) by the fact that many people in modern organizations lack the capacity to recognize when they are "knowingly and deliberately inflict[ing] pain and suffering on other human beings" (xix). This self-deception, aided and abetted by the fact that modern organizations compartmentalize roles and functions and diffuse individual responsibilities, leads to one of the great moral inversions of our time, of which the Holocaust has been one of the twentieth century's principal manifestations.

Anyone who is in the slightest degree acquainted with the events that transpired in Europe between 1933 and 1945--particularly the fateful years of the war itself (1939-45), will recognize the extent to which the Holocaust is, in fact, a paradigm of the Adams-Balfour thesis. We know enough, and in sufficient detail, regarding the administrative and organizational features of the Nazi State and especially regarding the machinery of annihilation that--after a period of implementation-by-groping about--was finally put in place to assert that the policy of endlosung--the so-called "final solution" of the Jewish question--was nothing if not technical rationality at its most efficient and effective best. …

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