Gettting Down to Details


Bureaucracy, by James Q. Wilson, New York: Basic Books, 378 pages, $24.95

James Q. Wilson describes his book on bureaucracy as "primarily descriptive: it is an effort to depict the essential features of bureaucratic life in the government agencies of the United States." A distinguished political scientist, Wilson seems to have read every study of the performance of individual bureaus. The detail is fascinating. A reader learns that the state prison system in Texas was once very good, that the Tennessee Valley Authority has had a dismal environmental record, that the FBI is a reluctant participant in the drug war, that the behavior of the FTC has depended a great deal on the person selected as chairman, and much more. This material is very well written, and the many referenced case studies are proper grist for the academic mill called public administration.

Wilson's objectives, however, are more ambitious than those of a journalist. The book's subtitle is "What Government Agencies Do and Why They Do It." Wilson addresses the "Why?" question inductively—in his phrase, "from the bottom up"—by trying to form the building blocks of a theory of bureaucratic behavior from the incentives and constraints faced in specific agencies. His primary building blocks are two-by-two typologies describing the outside interests faced by the bureau and the ability of these interests to monitor the bureau. These typologies and Wilson's other building blocks are useful in explaining differences in behavior among bureaus, but only if it is obvious ex ante that a given bureau is in a particular category.

On several issues, Wilson has drawn the wrong inferences. From the observation that the behavior of bureaucrats does not appear to depend much on their political beliefs, Wilson concludes that beliefs do not matter. But bureaucrats are both self-selected and survivors, not a random sample of those with a given political ideology; there is still a strong case for each new administration to screen senior appointees for their beliefs. Wilson attributes the inefficiency of American bureaus to the separation of powers in our political system without any evidence that foreign bureaus reporting to parliamentary or authoritarian governments are any more efficient.

The main problem with Wilson's approach, however, is that it has not yet been subjected to Occam's razor: He offers almost as many explanations as facts. Moreover, this approach does not provide much insight into why governments choose bureaus (rather than contractors) to supply services or how to improve the performance of bureaus.

Wilson is generally skeptical of "economic" theories of bureaucratic behavior, an attitude expressed in a peculiar comment that bureaucrats may have more complex preferences than businessmen. In several asides, he criticizes my own early writing on this subject. My sense is that Wilson has missed the point. Conventional economics attempts to explain the behavior of private markets, not firms. A great deal of firm-specific information is necessary to explain the behavior of particular firms; that is one reason why forecasting stock prices is so difficult. Similarly, the several economic theories of bureaucratic behavior are attempts to explain the unusual "market" relation between governments and bureaus, not the behavior of particular bureaus.

Wilson is correct that a substantial amount of bureau-specific information is necessary to explain the performance of specific bureaus, and this book provides a very valuable guide to the type of information that we should seek for this purpose. Wilson's book merits attention as a complement to, not as a substitute for, the continued development and testing of a "top-down" theory of bureaucracy based on the unique characteristics of bureaus and their government customers.

William A. Niskanen is chairman of the Cato Institute.