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Francis Fukuyama: We Need Better-Educated Bureaucrats

Better bureaucrats–that’s the key to better government. Having an effective bureaucracy may even be more important than having the most ideal political policies. At least, that seems to be the prescription offered up by Francis Fukuyama in his blog post over at the American Interest.

In a preview of his forthcoming book on modern political history, entitled, Political Order and Political Decay: From the French Revolution to the Present, Fukuyama says that implementation and operation of the vast government apparatus has become the defining problem of modern government. There’s so much to manage, and so few who know how to do the nuts and bolts work of government well.

This is true, particularly, he writes, in the developing world, where the economy is often fragile and vulnerable. But it is also true in the developed world, and particularly in the United States, where, he says, trust in government has reached an all time low.

I’m not sure that I agree with Fukuyama’s basic premise, because, it seems to me, that history shows us that bigger government usually means a more cumbersome and less efficient government. Therefore, reigning in the domain of the state’s power may be a better path to good government than simply teaching bureaucrats how to wield that power more effectively.

In other words, have we forgotten how to manage the government, as Fukuyama claims? Or has the government simply become too big for anyone to manage?

That isn’t to say that Fukuyama doesn’t have a point: After all, we do need some government. And, to be fair, the vast global scale of the modern economy requires, well, a fairly vast government to manage all the commerce and transportation and regulation that come along with it. And surely better-educated bureaucrats could make those essential functions of government run a little smoother.

This is where the interesting part of Fukuyama’s proposal comes in. He suggests, intriguingly, that one cause of modern bureaucratic inefficiency is the shift in the academy away from a focus on public administration, to a focus on public policy.

While the US government many decades ago invested in schools of public administration to train professionals for government service, this function has atrophied in recent years. Virtually all public administration programs have evolved into public policy programs, where all the money and prestige is. Public policy analysis is dominated by economists who use sophisticated econometric techniques to design optimal policies. And yet, as most people who have actually served in government understand all too well, the real problem is less often knowing what to do, but rather the difficulty of getting the machinery of government to produce desired outcomes. The world of actual policy practice is a world of constraints that they don’t teach you about in many public policy programs.

Bureaucracy is a sphere defined by limitations. Economics, on the other hand, is a discipline centered on theoretical models, which are, by their nature, limited only by the imagination of the economist. If you’ve spent much time around economists, you know that no one is more sure of his ability to understand and transform the world than the economist, assuming everyone acts rationally.

Big assumption.

People aren’t perfectly rational. Not even close. Plus heavy-handed governments don’t have a great track record in economic efficiency–if you look at the failures of modern socialism. Nevertheless, assuming you have the policy right, there are still many political and social factors that figure into the public’s response to any governmental endeavor. Learning to deal with the limitations of a less-than-perfectly-rational public seems to be the crux of what Fukuyama believes would make a worthwhile education for a budding bureaucrat.

If we mothballed all the nation’s graduate programs in public policy and replaced them with programs in public administration, I’m not sure whether governmental bureaucracy would become more efficient or not. Maybe it would work. But we’d have to start by first reigning in the wide-ranging, world-transformational ambitions of those who run our bloated, over-sized, unmanageable government. In that sense, right-minded public policy–understanding especially the need to limit the size and scope of government–is a prerequisite to better administration.

Want better bureaucrats? Go ahead and train ’em,  but you’ve got to reign ’em in first.

Nathan Harden is editor of The College Fix and author of the book SEX & GOD AT YALE: Porn, Political Correctness, and a Good Education Gone Bad.

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