Monday, July 18, 2011

On Robert Moses, James Hacker, and Sir Humphrey Appleby

I continue to totally enjoy the series that Erik Loomis has been writing about the most important US politicians by state. His New York edition is, as one would expect, lots of fun, but of particular interest to me is his question at the end:
Also–on second thought, Robert Moses probably should be on this list. Was he more of a bureaucrat or a politicians? Or does the distinction really matter with him? Anyway, an interesting person to think about.
Indeed, one of the times that I taught my course on politicians we spent a good deal of time arguing about exactly that question. I always assign Robert Caro's terrific biography, with excerpts intended to focus on specific skills politicians use to Get Things Done. But how should we classify Moses, and people like him?

My general answer to all of this is mainly to point out that it's yet another feature of the US system -- the lines between politicians and bureaucrats are far more blurred here than in many other systems. That's easiest to see if you have the good sense to be watching the classic sit-com Yes, Minister, in which the (British) lines between politicians and bureaucrats are very clearly drawn.

Of course, the other half that is that Yes, Minister makes it clear (and, yes, there are academic studies, but they're not nearly as funny and only somewhat more helpful) that any assumptions that a strong independent bureaucracy will necessarily make sound, unbiased technocratic solutions to policy problems is deeply mistaken. This is, perhaps, harder to see in the US, since the American system has produced so many hybrid politician/bureaucrats, just as it produces the even goofier politician/judges. At any rate, where one comes down on how things should be arranged -- at what level it's best for politicians to be involved, at what level it's best to have bureaucrats involved, and how one feels about hybrids -- the main point is that no one should confuse bureaucratic control with unbiased technocratic solutions. And that, I think, is why Robert Moses remains a terribly important figure to think about if one is interested in democracy, however one chooses to classify him.

1 comment:

  1. Being a life long New Yorker, for me Moses classifies as a super bureaucrat. I don't think we've seen anyone with as much influence within city government and probably never will again.


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