James Q. Wilson, 1931-2012
Published on: March 4, 2012
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  • Jagannathan Sathyamoorthy

    Thanks, a great insight in running of Public organizations. Rewarding to read.

  • Robert

    I hope your classes dealing with bureaucracy make students familiar with Jerry Pournelle’s Iron Law:


  • Robert

    Sorry: this is a better formulation:

    “Pournelle’s Iron Law of Bureaucracy states that in any bureaucratic organization there will be two kinds of people: those who work to further the actual goals of the organization, and those who work for the organization itself. Examples in education would be teachers who work and sacrifice to teach children, vs. union representative who work to protect any teacher including the most incompetent. The Iron Law states that in all cases, the second type of person will always gain control of the organization, and will always write the rules under which the organization functions.”

    Location: http://www.jerrypournelle.com/archives2/archives2mail/mail408.html#Iron

  • Not sure Atlanta’s inner city public schools are such a good example anymore. They had the incentive all right.

    Wonder what’s happening in Texas?

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  • Susan Marquis

    Thank you, Frank for highlighting Jim Wilson’s book, Bureaucracy. A remarkable book that helps explain why government agencies behave the way they do. As offered by Wilson, public servants, “bureaucrats,” do what they do because of organizational, personal, and professional incentives; the culture of the organization; and, the authority or autonomy of the organization itself. They primarily respond to the task at hand (situational imperative), within the constraints placed on them by the people through laws and regulation. The stronger the culture or sense of mission, the clearer the critical task, and the fewer constraints — the more effective public servants can be carrying out the people’s work. Jim brought a thoughtfulness and understanding to the idea of governance that is usually lost in calls for more or less government. Through this insight and scholarship, James Q. Wilson’s legacy will continue through his students and ours. Regarding Robert’s comment and the Iron Law, you may want to follow up with a reading of Phillip Selznick’s, Leadership and Administration – a critical failure of leadership is when “organizational achievement” (survival, growth) is confounded with institutional success (mission fullfillment).

  • Mark Michael

    I checked the comments to see if the example of the Atlantic public schools was challenged. Yep, Luke Lea, #6:

    “Not sure Atlanta’s inner city public schools are such a good example anymore. They had the incentive all right.”

    If you go to the Wikipedia link, it discusses the huge cheating scandal that was there uncovered recently. Before then, people held Atlanta up as having made great progress in improving their educational achievement scores. Sorry. It was fabricated.

    Not to be a broken record, but simply returning education to the control of the customers – parents/students – is the only solution to our too-expensive, poor quality public school system. The sooner we embark on dismantling the government educational bureaucracies the sooner we can restore some reasonable level of cost-effectiveness to our K-12 public school system.

    My first step would be to phase out the federal Dept. of Education in toto over, say, a 4-year period. During that period, first cut the dollars by 20% and use the remaining 80% to set up a voucher program for K-12 parents to use in private and charter schools. Take the dollars away from the bureaucrats and give it to the parent/taxpayer. (You’d have to repeal all of the federal mandates at the same time. Educrats complain that federal laws dictate 40% of their paperwork but give them less than 10% of their funds. This should be a great deal from them. This would call their bluff!)

    I’d reduce the amount of the voucher program to zero over that 4-year period. It is just “priming the pump” of innovation and creativity: helping jump start the needed alternatives to the entrenched public monopoly. But it should not become just another special interest handout, which it undoubtedly would. So the initial law must include its phaseout. (Okay, okay, Congress can change the law after those 4 years. Nothing is perfect.)

    The dollar amount involved is relatively small as federal departments go. Given our persistent $1.3 trillion federal annual budget deficits, if we don’t have the political will to do this we’ll never do it, I’m afraid. (I’m thinking 2013 and after.)

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  • I see other readers have beaten me to Pournelle’s Iron Law and the faux achievements of the Atlanta Public Schools, but the achievements of the SEC in failing to prevent the selling of fraudulent mortgage backed securities seems to me to be a pretty juicy example of bureaucratic failure. And the Federales sure nailed that Martha Stewart, but let Bernie Madoff slide – that means they are batting .500, right?

  • Paul Swartz

    James Q. Wilson provides the answer to the
    ” financial cliff” looming under us.
    In American Government, page 38 he states:
    “Third,the federal government,unlike the states,managed the currency,and thus could print more money whenever it needed it.(Technically,it borrowed this money,and of course it paid interest on what it had borrowed,but it was under no obligation to pay it all back because,as a practical matter,it had borrowed from itself.)”
    And,”…the proposition that when it needed money,it would print it.”
    So since the Federal government is”under no
    obligation to pay it back” simply don’t pay it back.
    Of course if the government had the power and
    right to create money for all of it’s expenditures, why is it in debt?

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