Thursday, February 18, 2010

Woodrow Wilson and Newton's Laws of Motion

Future President Woodrow Wilson’s 1887 essay The Study of Administration is considered a classic of public administration, elements of which are still key tenets of public administration curriculums across the United States. In some regards, Wilson’s essay echoes previous revolutionary works like Issac Newton’s Principia Mathematica, published exactly 200 years earlier. That landmark tome presented Newton’s views on physics, gravity and scientific research methods that still resonate in today’s scientists. While Einstein, Heisenberg, Hawking and other later physicists tweaked Newton’s theories, Principia is still regarded as an essential starting point for the study of physics. So it is also with The Study of Administration and public administration.

The Study of Administration, like Principia, distilled a number of theories into one cohesive document. Like Principia, The Study of Administration has been studied, refined and had its concepts tweaked by succeeding generations of (political) scientists. And why not?; it is an influential scientific work. One reason is that it gave a clear definition for administrative duties. Wilson notes that “The object of administrative study is to rescue executive methods from the confusion and costliness of empirical experiment and set them upon foundations laid deep in stable principle.” (p. 22). Here, Newton (left) and Wilson (above, right) differ, as Sir Isaac was a firm believer in the scientific method. But just as Newton set the table for later experiments with his theoretical foundation, Wilson — the anti-experimenter — helped establish a firm base from which future public administration experiments jumped off.

With such similarities between the two mens’ manuscripts and their impacts, a compelling comparision can be made between a simplified version of Newton’s three laws of motion (introduced in Principia) with three main Wilsonian concepts introduced in The Study of Administration that still resonate with public administration scholars — and administrators — today.

Newton’s First Law: “A body persists in a state of rest or of uniform motion unless acted upon by an external force (aka the “inertia law”).” Public administration in Wilson’s time was fighting the inertia of the old spoils system that had recently been eliminated with the election of James Garfield and his “Half-Breeds,” whose advocacy of a merit system eventually cost Garfield his life at the hands of a disgruntled office seeker. Wilson recognized that, in order to be effective, politics and administration should be entirely separate fields. This was the framework of what would be expanded by Goodnow and later called the “Politics-Administration Dichotomy.” This separation of the political and operation is a trait of administrative government in the present day and few would argue with its necessity. Indeed, scholars such as Stivers (1990), take the tack that Wilson’s main thrust was that only apolitical administration was legitimate: it should be “taking its orders from the representative legislature and executing them according to dictates of rationality.” The concept of spoils or patronage is distasteful to most Americans now, but in 1887 the debate as to whether professional management would do a more-effective job was still open. Wilson helped send the political inertia in another direction.

Newton’s Second Law: “The net force on an object is equal to the mass of the object multiplied by its acceleration.” Wilson was among the first to promote the idea of public administrators treating government like a business. His call for efficiency and fixed responsibility quickly took over the field. “To be efficient,” Wilson wrote, “[Government] must discover the simplest arrangement by which responsibility can be unmistakably fixed upon officials; the best way of dividing authority without hampering it, and responsibility without obscuring it.” As adoption of the “businesslike” atmosphere accelerated, the substance of the idea eventually helped it gain a critical mass and predominate. Many public administration thinkers (e.g. Rosenbloom [1983] and Moe [1987]) think Wilson’s business idea is his greatest continuing legacy to the field. Indeed, Wilson’s businesslike preferences later saw a revival late in the 20th century with the market-like forces driving the New Public Management philosophy.

Newton’s Third Law: “To every action there is an equal and opposite reaction.” Wilson, like Newton, recognized that different systems will affect each other — if one pushes, one will be pushed back. To avoid this, Wilson recognized, a public administrator needs to cooperate with different levels of government, to embrace a federal system: “Our duty is to supply the best possible life to a federal organization, to systems within systems; to make town, city, county, state and federal governments live with a like strength and an equally assured healthfulness, keeping each unquestionably its own master and yet making all interdependent with mutual happiness.” That holistic approach to federalism, intergovernmental relations in today’s parlance, is a hallmark of local governments, which need far more help from other levels of government than was needed in Wilson’s era.

Who, then, is Einstein to Wilson’s Newton, proving that while the original theory is sufficient in most cases, it runs into difficulties as the pace gets faster and density increases? A good choice might be H. George Fredrickson, whose 1971 essay Toward a New Public Administration claimed that adminstrators need not be the neutral, operative stalwarts Wilson recommended they be. Fredrickson wrote: “[Administrators] should be committed to both good management and social equity as values, things to be achieved, or rationales” (Fredrickson, 1971, p. 297). Just as Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity essentially reaffirmed basic Newtonian concepts but showed there are cases where they simply did not hold true, Fredrickson’s calls for social equity influenced a generation of public administration scholars to be “short-haired radicals,” and stray from the narrow confines of Wilsonian stoicism.

But Wilson is still very much with us. Shafritz and Hyde (2007) note that Wilson attempted to do nothing less than refocus political science into concentrating on how governments are administered. They wrote, “Wilson was concerned with organizational efficiency and economy — that is productivity in its most simplistic function. What could be more current?” (emphasis added).

Two illustrious men, with their flaws: Wilson and Newton. Wilson’s social credit has eroded over the years due to his racism, Newton’s reputation as a scientific genius has had to co-exist with Sir Isaac’s occult beliefs. But both men wrote a great work whose impact continues to be felt centuries later. Newton’s Principia was the starting point of modern physics. As for Wilson, whatever specific organizational techniques the future president laid out, The Study of Administration is notable in and of itself for becoming the founding document of the science now known as “Public Administration.” These giants of science, political in Wilson’s case and physical in Newton’s, continue to have tremendous influence on their respective fields. Their similarities prove that great ideas can come to quickly be adopted and still be respected more than 100 years later.
Fredrickson, H.G. (2007 (1971)). Toward a New Public Administration. In J. Shafritz, & A. Hyde (Eds.), Classics of Public Administration (6th Edition ed., pp. 296-307). Boston: Thomson Wadsworth.

Moe, R. (2007 (1987)). Exploring the Limits of Privatization. In J. Shafritz, & A. Hyde (Eds.), Classics of Public Administration (6th Edition ed., pp. 460-469). Boston: Thomson Wadsworth.

Rosenbloom, D. (2007 (1983)). Public Administration Theory and the Separation of Powers. In J. Shafritz, & A. Hyde (Eds.), Classics of Public Administration (6th Edition ed., pp. 434-444). Boston: Thomson Wadsworth.

Rosenbloom, D., Kravchuck, R., & Clerkin, R. (2009). Public administration: understanding management, politics, and law in the public sector (7th ed.). New York, NY, USA: McGraw-Hill.

Stivers, C. (2007 (1989)). Toward a Feminist Perspective in Public Administration. In J. Shafritz, & A. Hyde (Eds.), Classics of Public Administration (6th Edition ed., pp. 460-469). Boston: Thomson Wadsworth.

Wilson, W. (1887). The Study of Administration. Political Science Quarterly, 2, 197.

No comments: