Academic journal article Public Administration Quarterly

Latin American Ancient Civilizations and Their Administrative Legacies

Academic journal article Public Administration Quarterly

Latin American Ancient Civilizations and Their Administrative Legacies

Article excerpt


This article reviews the legacies of the civilizations of the Aztecs, Mayas, and Incas. It specifically deals with five administrative problems faced by these civilizations, which include: an unorganized and inefficient bureaucracy, an inadequate and unfair tax collection system, nugatory agricultural practices, a warped judicial order, and a poor educational system. The article further discusses the relevance to contemporary administration of these civilizations' solutions to the aforementioned five administrative problems.


This article reviews some aspects of the administrative systems of Latin America's three most ancient civilizations: the Aztecs, the Mayas, and the Incas, and discusses their lasting legacies to present-day public administration. It would be impractical to look at the policies and practices of the ancient civilizations discussed in this article as current applicable models, but some modern national administrations, especially in Latin America, could be inspired by them. They were very rational and their bureaucratic tasks were meticulously designed and efficiently enforced. Their efficiency consisted not only of technical competence but also of attitudes and behavioral approaches that were humane for their time and place.

Although the civilizations of the Aztecs, Incas, and Mayas were not preoccupied with the process of development as a vital instrument for their survival, their own notions of "nation-building" and "institution-building" were not very different from those of present day developing nations.

They were able to develop some monumental projects without the assistance of the outside world. Although the three civilizations considered here extended to several centuries and therefore had different priority policies and activities at different stages of their respective development, sufficient evidence of extended administrative practices is available to make them highly relevant to contemporary public administration.

The article reviews specifically the following five major administrative problems that the ancient civilizations faced and discusses how the solutions that were found for them could serve as a model for contemporary public administration: 1) unorganized and inefficient bureaucracy; 2) inadequate and unfair tax collection system; 3) nugatory agricultural practices; 4) warped judicial order; and 5) poor educational system.

Unorganized and Inefficient Bureaucracy

Good administration is a term that should be defined differently for each country and for each time period. Any definition of good and efficient administration should include the achievement of specific objectives through the management of a bureaucracy. Although the objectives of the rulers of the ancient civilizations were sometimes different from those of contemporary governments, these rulers managed their bureaucracies effectively often using democratic and despotic methods no longer acceptable. A brief review of their administrative machineries follows.

The Aztecs

The main objective of Aztec public policy was to make alliances, form, and administer an empire. The Aztecs excelled in administration. Their growing empire was governed more efficiently than many contemporary nations. The social system made each person feel that he or she played a vital part. Most questions of life or death were answered for the commoner by a combination of priests, warriors, statesmen, scientists, and teachers who could handle any eventuality (Peterson, 1979:104).

The task of service delivery of the Aztec bureaucracy was simplified by grouping families within the tribes to form "divisions" for the purposes of land distribution and exploitation. No one was permitted to own land. In addition to deciding when the land should be cultivated and on which days the crops were to be reaped, these "divisions" had higher administrative and military duties. …

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