For Whom the Bureaucracy Toils

BUREAUCRACY: WHAT GOVERNMENT AGENCIES DO AND WHY THEY DO IT by James Q. Wilson, New York: Basic Books, 378 pp,. $24.95.

SIX weeks after leaving Germany on May 10, 1940, Army Group A under the command of Gen. Gerd von Rundstedt had roared through Belgium and on to Dunkirk, France, pushing the British into the sea and the French into surrender. Why did the blitzkrieg succeed? According to James Q. Wilson, the venerable political scientist, the German military bureaucracy was superior to that of the French.

Observing war from the bureaucratic perspective is only one of the unique views Wilson brings to his study of bureaucracies and why they do what they do. Or more importantly, why they fail to do what they are supposed to do.

Bureaucracies fail because their ``operators'' (the bureaucrats) often work toward ill-defined, confusing, or even nonexistent goals.

The goal of the State Department, for example, is to ``promote the long-range security and well-being of the United States,'' which Wilson says is ``unclear because reasonable people will differ as to the meaning of such words as `well-being.'''

What is foreign policy? he asks. What are the ``legitimate interests'' of the United States? Such vague terms are wide open to interpretations ranging from the radical left to the hard right. Bureaucrats try to walk the thin line in between.

Successful bureaucracies, on the other hand, know exactly what task they must perform. The Social Security Administration has a well-defined goal its operators pursue with singular devotion: ``to pay benefits on time and accurately.'' For what it's worth, the Social Security Administration is a highly successful bureaucracy.

After defining the limits of bureaucracy, Wilson sub-categorizes agencies, fleshing out distinctions and differences that are in some ways contrived and in others constructive.

He distinguishes between ``entrepreneurial'' and ``interest-group'' agencies, the former being ``born out of an attack on the interest it is now supposed to regulate,'' the latter out of a clash between interest groups.

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is supposed to symbolize an entrepreneurial agency that might be ``captured'' by the drug companies. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) is supposed to be an interest-group agency, choosing and defining tasks easily because ``somebody [business or labor] out there is likely to be [its] ally.''

But this classification obscures rather than illuminates their principal objective: to regulate private-sector companies. OSHA is just as susceptible to ``capture'' by the businesses it is supposed to regulate as the FDA, and the FDA will surely have an ally somewhere in the political or economic milieu that applauds its decrees. The important point, and Wilson is nonjudgmental on this matter, is that both agencies are regulatory bureaucracies whose targets were politically defined by people hostile to the free market.

Wilson successfully defines agencies in terms of what and how they produce. He calls them production organizations, in which the output of the workers and the outcome of their work can be measured; procedural organizations, in which managers can observe what the workers are doing but not the outcome of their efforts; craft organizations, whose workers are hard to observe but whose outcomes are easily measured; and coping organizations, which measure neither. Representing them are the Social Security Administration (production), OSHA (procedural), the Army Corps of Engineers (craft), and police departments (coping).

A keen observer of government, Wilson has long been producing scintillating works on crime and punishment, and government regulation. But this latest undertaking not only falls short of drawing some rather obvious conclusions about bureaucracy, but also draws others that are simply flawed. Knowledgeable readers will take issue with his proclamation that pork-barreling on Capitol Hill has declined, as shown by the savings and loan scandal brewing there, and his affirmation of the myth that nonprofit hospitals are more efficient and less costly than proprietary hospitals has been exploded by a recent book (``Unfair Competition: the Profits of Nonprofits'').

He concludes that individual bureaucracies are not ``imperialistic,'' which may be true even if it defies the conventional (and conservative) wisdom. But he fails to acknowledge that government itself is imperial, as evidenced by its exponential growth since Congress passed the 16th Amendment, which established the federal income tax and was officialdom's first opportunity to reach directly into the pockets of American citizens.

MORE troubling, Wilson omits the logical conclusion of his work: The United States government has wandered far from its traditionally perceived and constitutionally limited role of defending life, liberty, and property, and when it fails in this mission, it fails because of the extra-constitutional bureaucracies occupying the attention of America's leaders.

Faults aside, ``Bureaucracy'' is a gold mine of interesting, even unique observations about bureaucratic government on all levels.

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