Woodrow Wilson and Administrative Reform

By Clements, Kendrick A. | Presidential Studies Quarterly, Spring 1998 | Go to article overview

Woodrow Wilson and Administrative Reform


Clements, Kendrick A., Presidential Studies Quarterly


Over a long academic and political career Woodrow Wilson struggled with the question of how to achieve vigorous leadership and effective administration in a democracy. As a theoretician, he proposed a dramatic expansion of administrative powers and responsibilities, yet he constantly worried about the dangers implicit in his own ideas. As president, he presided over an enormous increase in administrative authority during World War I, but at the end of his term he insisted that the wartime structure be dismantled. The paradoxes of his thought and practice define the American dilemma with administrative authority.(1)

Wilson first approached "the Study of Administration" in an 1887 article in which he argued that it would be safe to adopt methods of administration developed in European monarchies to make American democracy more efficient and economical. "If I see a murderous fellow sharpening a knife cleverly, I can borrow his way of sharpening the knife Without borrowing his probable intention to commit murder with it," he wrote.(2)

The problem that preoccupied Wilson in the mid-1880s was the paralysis of American government resulting, in his opinion, from the separation of powers. Administrative reform was only one of several ideas that occurred to him as having promise of making government more responsible and efficient. Believing that a government created for a nation "homogeneous and rural" must be modified to serve a country now "heterogeneous and crowded into cities,"(3) he sought ways to achieve that end quickly and simply. At first, he believed that it might be necessary to convert the federal government into a parliamentary system to foster cooperation between the executive and the legislature, but further thought persuaded him that the "elasticity and adaptability" of the Constitution permitted change without radical amendment of the existing system.(4)

In his second book, The State, published in 1889, Wilson argued that government's sole purpose was "to accomplish the objects of organized society," and to do that "there must be constant adjustment of governmental assistance to the needs of a changing social and industrial organization."(5) Specifically, Wilson believed that industrialization had "so distorted competition as to put it into the power of some to tyrannize over many, as to enable the rich and the strong to combine against the poor and the weak."(6) If government was to "accomplish the objects of organized society," it must be able to correct the conditions that allowed the few to benefit, while the many suffered. He came to believe that administrative reform could give government that power without constitutional changes.

"Ministrant" and "Constituent" Functions of Government

Reforms that would deal with the abuses of industrialization fell into a category that Wilson defined as the "ministrant" functions of government, as opposed to those functions he called "constituent." Constituent functions he defined as the protection of life, liberty, and property. Such functions were essential to survival of the society and were thus common to all governments. Ministrant functions, on the other hand, were "undertaken, not by way of governing, but by way of advancing the general interests of society,--functions which are optional, being necessary only according to standards of convenience or expediency, and not according to standards of existence."(7)

One might assume that the constituent functions of government would be the proper domain for apolitical administrators, while the more controversial ministrant functions would be the realm of political leadership, but Wilson asserted just the opposite. Ministrant functions such as the regulation of labor and industry, maintenance of transportation, communications and public utilities, education, care of the "poor and incapable," and conservation of natural resources, arose, he argued, not out of political whims but out of "altered historical circumstances. …

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