The Administrative State

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First edition (1948)

The Administrative State is Dwight Waldo's classic public administration text based on a dissertation written at Yale. Here Waldo argues that democratic states are underpinned by professional and political bureaucracies and that scientific management and efficiency is not the core idea of government bureaucracy, but rather it is service to the public. The work has contributed to the structure and theory of government bureaucracies the world over and is one of the defining works of public administration and political science written in the last 75 years.

Published in 1948 and later reissued in a second edition with an extensively revised introduction by Waldo.

History on the concept[edit]

Though the phrase “the Administrative State” was coined by Dwight Waldo in 1948, the concept of administrative powers and responsibilities has been the subject of debate for as long as the structure of democratic government has been implemented. Where the current debate begins is with the United States Constitution, and argues over the powers to govern under the presets of said constitution. Basically, the debate is over whether or not nonelected agencies of the government have the power to legislate as well as enforce. The argument for the power is that all federal agencies/ officials are subject to the President of the United States, who is elected accommodating the new power democratically so that it does not need to be voted on directly by the public; where the counter is that “agencies remain inefficient, ineffective, and undemocratic;” attempting to justify that the public’s inability to vote for the policy that the agency adopts is undemocratic/unconstitutional (Harvard Law Review). [1]

Dr. Michael Greve, a law professor at George Mason University School of Law, defines the current implemented administrative state of the United States as, “a power once known as 'prerogative'—that is, the power to make binding rules without law, outside the law, or against the law, exercised by someone other than an elected legislature” (Greve). He then goes on to say, in his opinion, that this is the opposite intention of the “founders” (Greve). Basically Greve is saying all government entities (agencies) are power hungry and that Americans should stick to the US Constitution that set up safeguards against the despotism that agencies will ultimately strive for if left to their own whims, instead of acting in the best interest of the country. “The presidential control model of the administrative state, perhaps most definitively expounded by now-Justice Elena Kagan, suggests that top-down accountability affords agencies measure of democratic accountability and assures effective administration” (Harvard Law Review). Basically, the Harvard Law Review is summarizing Kagan as saying that agency implemented policy/ law is subject to democracy by the citizens being able to hold the elected official at the head of the relevant chain of government responsible. I.e., the question is whether the trickledown effect of responsibility is efficient enough for democracy, or whether the government agencies will become power hungry, and not act in the best interest of the people. [2]

Ideals of the book[edit]

The book posits that an "administrative state" contains a tension between democracy and bureaucracy that should oblige career public servants to protect democratic principles. The political administration dichotomy is false. Public servants hold political positions that require more than merely implementing policy set by elected officials. Public servants must negotiate efficiencies demanded by the scientific management movement with due process and public access to government. Government cannot be run like a business. Honoring the Constitution and other democratic imperatives makes managing a unit of the government far more challenging than a comparable private-sector organization (Lowery).[3]

Waldo introduces the concept of The Great Society which he argues is based upon the private sector. He (Waldo) also points out that in the U.S., business supports the state, while it should be the other way around. In addition, Waldo states that with the evolution of social trends in the U.S., fundamental laws were eroded by modern ideas thus changing the entire concept of government and public administration. As these transitions occurred, new managerial styles emerged (Art Madsen, M.Ed.).[4]

Significance of The Administrative State[edit]

Dwight Waldo’s book had a long lasting effect on politics, administration, and serving the public. His book had the effect of adding a whole new dimension of insight into the study of public administration. Waldo is a critic of the dichotomy between politics and administration. Ideological elements that Waldo discusses are the tradition of democracy, moral and natural laws that still guide public thinking, progressivism, faith in science, and the “gospel of efficiency.” Waldo’s arguments often deal with what government should do. Public administration is often thought of today as a science. However, Waldo declared it to be a political theory. The field of public administration has been defined by many different kinds of theories. Some theories are defined by tension and others by debate of two different kinds—science and politics. Waldo gives several examples of questions at the center of public administration that have themes in political philosophy and some ancient Greece: the nature of the good life, the bases of decision, who should rule, the separation of powers, and centralization of government versus decentralization of government. These things are all dealt with in the world today. Political theorizing entails constructing a compelling argument that should be strengthened by factual evidence that is relevant to the case and should be logical. The administrative state has made an overall positive and huge impact on the field of public administration. There is no need to abandon the scientific quest to understand the importance of politics and debate in the political arena in public life.[5]


See also[edit]

Link to the full text on Internet Archive