The Men of Government


By WAYNE COY, Director of the Office of Emergency Management

At Student Convocation, Indiana University, Bloomington, Indiana, October 30, 1941

Vital Speeches of the Day, Vol. VIII, pp. 114-117.

"THE whole tide of opinion is against public administration as a career for talent. The enormous rewardswhich industry offers to able young lawyers, engineers, economists, serve as a powerful attraction to ambitious youth. As against that, there are some, and more than we suspect, who find real satisfaction in work whose aim is the public good. But they have to contend against the whole mental and moral climate of our times."

Eleven years ago, when Felix Frankfurter said what I have just read you, it was the truth. Today matters are so vastly different that men are seriously debating the prediction of a tinhorn Spengler that government employees are a master class riding the wave of the future, heading a "Managerial Revolution."

I doubt that the men of government are destined to be the ruthless Caesars of the future. That has been true in Germany and in Russia, where those who formerly ruled through wealth or inheritance have been replaced by an omnipotent bureaucracy. But in those countries government officials are freed from the restraint of that criticism and opposition which we sometimes experience so keenly, and their decisions are upheld, not by the due process of law which our constitution guarantees to every man, but by the force of ruthless arms and the inquisitorial powers of a secret police. In those countries officials are not motivated by our traditions of freedom and democracy.

It is clear, in any event, that the influence and the prestige of public administration has enormously increased even inour country during the past decade. Ten years ago the graduate of a university who chose government as a career was looked upon with amusement and pity, if not suspicion or disfavor. Today, however, there are but few to rejoice as Roger Babson recently rejoiced in the willingness of young men to abandon the public service for the more substantial rewards of big business.

Babson's remark is now but a caricature of a frame of mind that is fast becoming as extinct as the dodo. It represents a stubborn, unshakeable affection for a past that never existed, and a steadfast refusal to comprehend a present and future that demand adult judgment rather than persiflage.

Roughly, I think it is true to say that we are beginning to move in the direction of a new conception of the public service. We are leaving behind us the minimization of the importance of capable government administrators and the distaste for public service that were products of the period of surging industrial growth. We live in a time when the nature of American life will be pervasively affected by the quality of men in public service, when the citizens of our country must have an understanding of the tremendous tasks performed through public administration.

The years that lie ahead pose problems of the greatest complication. The onrush of modern industrialism has made us highly interdependent at home and has made the nations of the world equally interdependent. We have learned at home that if some of our people are denied the means of defeating poverty then the whole community must suffer. We arelearning that if a nation is deprived of the means of providing its citizens with a bearable existence then the whole community of nations of the world must wrestle with the resulting barbarism and bitterness.

In our times great, shaking developments are rushing past. Our failure to have enough aluminum or oil or steel or food does not now mean merely that we shall live a little less fully but means that we may cease to live at all. Public administration has the job of turning the enormous facilities of our peacetime nation overnight to the tasks of war; and then the job of somehow somersaulting this great machinery back to the channels of peace without destroying the good things which the centuries have given us. And, above all, public administrators have the duty of never forgetting that these tremendous tasks are all subordinate to the essential job of preserving the respect for the individual, the zeal of justice and freedom, and all the ultimately important qualities of the life of free men.

With these intricately complex responsibilities ahead of us, we cannot longer afford to gauge the capabilities of our government by journalistic cliches. It was to this end that Walter Lippmann quite properly cracked the knuckles of some of his contemporaries the other morning. "We are not being very serious," he wrote, "when we talk as if the future of the American economic order and the American social system depended on whether the mobilization of industry is conducted by a board with four New Dealers and three business men or vice versa." Indeed, that is not "being very serious." In meeting the burdensome problems of the present day that sort of meaningless nosecounting can only serve to becloud and befog.

If our public administrators are to help the United States through the tangles that lie ahead, it will not matter a whit whether they are "New Dealers" or "business men," as those spongy labels are commonly used. What will matter is that they constantly possess a freshness of view, a lift of imagination, and a comprehension of fundamentals which will furnish them some adequate perspective of the problems of today.

I can best explain by an illustration of the absence of those qualities what I mean by such generalities. Let me quote the remarks uttered by a leading French general only a few months before his country lay crushed in defeat:

"All military force must be appraised with an eye to the financial balance-sheet; for the efforts which a nation can and must devote to its security are necessarily limited. An insurance premium must not ruin him who pays it. . . . A country that ruins itself over its armaments, drains itself of the energy necessary to use its arms. . . . A 75 or 77 shell, costing 150 francs, can destroy a tank worth a million. This particular aspect of the principle of the conservation of energy throws light on the relative value of guns and tanks. Money is the source of all force."

The hollowness of those words cannot better be evaluated than by repeating the comments of Max Werner in his Battle for the World:

"It was a fantastic situation. . . . [The generals] had the outlook of the petit bourgeois. . . . They failed to grasp the fact that defeat is the greatest expense a nation can incur; that while one shell worth 150 francs may destroy a tank worth a million, 5,000 tanks worth five billion francs can conquer a country with a national wealth running to many hundreds of billions of francs, as actually happened in the spring of 1940."

The French general measured the defense of his country and the freedom of his countrymen in the stiff, cramped manner of a bookkeeper. He demonstrated the lack of imagination, the utter absence of bold and courageous foresight,that we cannot today afford. Public administration in this time of great peril cannot be conducted by minds which are prisoners of the balance sheet. In a time when the unknown and the unexpected of today are the headlines of next month, or next week, or tomorrow, the affairs of this nation cannot be entrusted to men whose vision is hobbled by the fragmentary experiences of the immediate past.

It is in this connection, I think, that the benefits of experience in public administration have been demonstrated. Of course there are important exceptions, but many seasoned public administrators have proved especially fit to have the courage to face, and the ability to understand, the tremendous demands of this moment of history.

That of course is as it should be. The job of our public administrators is to solve just those problems; and most administrators are where they are because their prime motivation was to tackle those problems. Their positions enable them to be relatively disinterested. That flexibility of mind enabled public men, for example, to contend that the development of the resources of the Tennessee Valley was essential to strengthening our national defenses and security at a time when other men, who were to grasp the idea years later, sincerely thought the contentions were merely masks for some subversive maneuver.

I do not mean for instance to say that these qualities of imagination, of boldness and of being disinterested are by some immutable natural law confined to government administrators alone. In government we have had our special kinds of narrowness, our special kinds of selfishness to contend with. There are still too many who look upon government as a period of preparation for the easy and lucrative rewards of a professional career in the service of private interests. We are also woefully familiar with certain government executives who suffer from power complexes and jurisdictional avarice.

Finally, we are now learning that the only effect of government experience on some men has been to tie them to the slow rhythms of unimaginative, workaday, bureaucratic chores. These are the men who are careful never to venture on uncharted seas. If they have an imagination they carefully keep it locked up and out of use. We all know experienced men in government like these; we also know similar men new to government. Together they form a great unimaginative army whose banner reads. "You tell me what to do and I'll do it." They seem to aspire to be the slot-machines of government, refusing to perform until someone higher up inserts a coin of specific direction and command. These are the problem-children of public administration today.

This does not mean, however, that there are no general deductions which can be drawn from our experiences in the administration of the defense program. Essentially the national defense job is that of unifying and coordinating all of the manifold activities of our economic life in the service of the nation's need for gigantic armament production. In its essence, this is a government job. It is a job which requires primarily the ability to judge accurately and fairly the place which all of the varied economic interests of the country—business, labor, agriculture, and all of the subdivisions—must play in the defense program.

Primarily and traditionally, it has been the business of government and government officials to exercise this kind of judgment and to perform these tasks. For the most part, I believe that while the necessities of a defense economy have intensified our governmental problems, the character of those problems has not essentially changed. So far as the tasks and technique of public administration are concerned, the requirements of national defense are for the most part just like those of peace time government, only more so.

Of course the technical and engineering problems are somewhat different and they require the services and the advice of hundreds of specialists who have had little if any previous contact with the government. But their presence in government is only an intensification of a process which has been going on for more than a generation. Similarly if decisions are to be made which affect vitally the interests of great economic groups, those groups should be represented in the process of policy-making and administration. This is true of labor, agriculture, small business, big business, and all of our diverse functional groups. Once again, however, we must recognize that this policy of representation has been growing for a good many years and has been increasing gradually in the government during the past decade. Organizations like the Agricultural Adjustment Administration, the Wage and Hour Division and the Bituminous Coal Division, among many others, embody this principle of representation as a part of the process of government policymaking.

But it is important here to make certain vital distinctions. Since representation of this sort is incorporated as a part of the governmental process, those who represent the various economic groups do so openly, consciously, and with full provision for similar representation of conflicting interests. There still remains the equally vital task of coordinating, composing and compromising the conflicting views of all of these representative agencies in the pubic interest. For this job, we can not afford to choose men who represent primarily any except the public interest. It is in this connection, I think that the work of public administration has been the best teacher and the best preparation for the enormously complex tasks involved in the defense program.

There has been a great deal of nonsense written and said to obscure the inherent complexity of the tasks involved. Only now many people are beginning to understand that we cannot have armaments merely by saying, "Let there be armaments," or even, "Let there be appropriations, or contracts." On both sides of the Atlantic the idea is prevalent that guns and planes and tanks and ships would sprout like weeds if only a one-man director with powers of omniscience were put in charge. Seasoned public administrators have learned, I think—successful public administrators must learn —that it is human beings, limited, faulty men, we are working with. There is an understanding of the fact that large problems require the consultation and cooperation of many organizations and agencies having special understandings and special functions. Old symbols like "red tape," and "bureaucracy" have somewhat spent their force. The simple realization is slowly dawning that no one can overnight become an expert in foreign affairs, military and naval strategy, finance, labor relations, production, and so forth; that if there is to be government with any effectiveness and any continuity there must be a complex system of organization to meet the complicated needs of our times. More apparent every day is the importance of trained public men who understand the functions of that organization, who understand the interrelationship of its agencies, who can utilize the special services for which it exists instead of being confused by the very knowledge that it exists.

But all the special skills of the public administrator in using the machinery of government, and all the ability to foresee and solve physical problems of organization and arrangement and production and strategy, will not suffice if the United States is to endure as a nation of freedom. A friend said to me the other day, "You fellows in governmenttend not to represent anybody, tend to be without roots. You are organizers and manipulators and operators of a great human machine, but you are likely to get lost in the fascination of running the machine, to lose sight of why you are here."

Surely, that poses the greatest danger that faces public administration. There is no surer way of bringing on the distasteful "Managerial Revolution" of that gloomy prophet James Burnham, than for the men of government to forget that it is not just a government they are administering but a government of the people, by the people, for the people. Great power is placed in the hands of public servants, and that power can be abused and tyrannically used if men come to think the power belongs to them and forget they merely use it as trustees of all citizens.

I have already said that, in my opinion, the principles of public administration which will produce a successful defense program are for the most part merely an acceleration of those principles at the root of all good government. There is one essential truth about public administration which we have all learned as a result of centuries of governmental experience. That is that governmental efficiency and governmental justice are made more perfect only when tested in the fire of free criticism.

It is only when our efforts are subjected to the constant hammering of those who disagree or are disgruntled, that the men who administer the affairs of government may attain their maximum effectiveness. I believe that this should be even truer in time of conflict and stress, than in a time of serenity and quiet. Much of the criticism which we shall receive in the coming months and years will seem capricious and spurious, or even subversive. Doubtless some of it will be, but whatever its motivation, none of us can afford to do without it.

The great demands that are now upon us will certainly generate strong urges to get things done at any cost or any sacrifice. There will be pressures to break down the guarantees of the Bill of Rights, to ignore the dignity and sacrifices of individuals. Already there is a substantial tendency to think that workers who strike are clearly subversive, disloyal, un-American—a tendency to forget that strikers can be patriots bearing just grievances, that they can be honest, sincere men not yet comprehending the intricate pattern of events which has created our present emergency. There has been grudging talk about persecuted aliens who have come to this country, when the fullest offers of refuge are obviously called for from a nation built and carried on by refugees from tyranny. There have been contemptible efforts toward creating racial intolerance and murmurings about suppressing opinions, as though we should throw away the freedom and tolerance which are the greatest of man's creations.

To keep our Government channeled in the direction of democracy is the great problem of America today.

In order to meet the difficulties thrown up by modern industrialism government activity has been constantly widening for decades. That growth was accelerated by the problems of the thirties. It is unnaturally great during these days of defense. But there can be little doubt that even when the present threat to our country is over, government will play a larger role in our lives than it has ever played in the peacetime past.

The whys and wherefores of the growth of government are too familiar to you for me to dwell upon. Government has developed in response to needs demonstrated by experience. This was true 143 years ago when the Congress established what may be called "socialized medicine" for our merchant seamen in creating Marine Hospitals in 1798.

Similar pressures led to the establishment of the Inter-state Commerce Commission in the eighties, of the Federal Reserve Board in 1914, of the regulation of the stockyards in the early twenties, and of the agencies that have grown up in recent years.

By now only a few can afford the luxurious ignorance of thinking that somewhere in Washington a furtive little group of men are craftily erecting agency after agency in opposition to popular will. The best one sentence explanation of the growth of government that I know comes from a very unsubversive source. It was while he was helping Governor Landon's campaign in 1936, that Mr. Charles Taft said: "Nothing will ever be simple in a country of 130 million people."

The complexity of our industrialized civilization is the explanation of the expansion of government. That is plain, unmistakable fact and that fact cannot be ignored. But neither can we ignore the problems that it raises.

It is obviously true that a large centralized government may become a threat to the freedom we have nourished. There are terrible examples today of how the controls of government have been turned into instruments of brutal tyranny and oppression. But recognition of this possibility of danger need not carry us into the camp of those defeatists who say that because strong governments in Germany and Italy and Russia have led to tyranny, it is inevitable that the expansion of government here will also lead to tyranny.

There is nothing inevitable about tyranny. Many institutions can be used to create oppression, but whether they are so used depends on the will and courage of a country's people. In many nations the army has been used to bring about military coups, but our history refutes any suggestion that the establishment of an army must inevitably lead to military rule.

The great task of our times is to build a government strong enough to meet the complicated difficulties we face, but to build it so that we do not lose our democratic traditions. There is no ready-made solution. The job will only be done through the persistent attention, the continuous inventiveness of our citizens.

Already we can begin to see some outlines of the approach. We can see an avoidance of the danger of over-centralization in the establishment of regional authorities on the pattern of TVA. An example of how the public can be kept freshly informed of the more important accomplishments of government is to be found in the reports that the Lend-Lease Administration must file with the Congress every 90 days. The Senate Committee investigating the national defense program is another illustration of continuous democratic control over the most intricate problems of government.

We must make constant progress in this direction. We are still groping with the problems of translating to government employees that freedom and security which trade unions have brought about in private industry. There are still a host of difficulties in seeing that the power of government is not used oppressively by over-zealous or malicious officials. We must perfect means for obtaining adequate information of government to ensure intelligent public criticism.

A dictatorship, controlling all channels of information and opinion, undertakes to simplify the problem for the mass of its people by a ruthless process of sifting, distortion and elimination of fact to assure a unified picture conforming to the official political doctrine. We reject in horror a theory of government which holds the human intelligence in such low regard. We are convinced that ultimately any political system which so frankly relies for its strength on contempt for the common man will be destroyed by the explosive force of the human intelligence so repressed.

People who must determine the policies on which their own security depends have a right to information as full and complete as a free press and freedom of speech can secure for them. But people in a democracy deserve more than facts. They deserve intelligent leadership from all the forces in our national life. They deserve an interpretation of events which, while reflecting the legitimate divergence of opinion inherent in a democracy, recognizes the public character of its responsibility.

Those difficulties have to be overcome. The meaning of our existence depends on keeping American government democratic government. I have no doubt that the public men of this country can perform the sheer physical work of analysis, organization, and execution required to meet and conquer the present crisis in our affairs. But that alone will not suffice. The job of government that lies ahead involves more than obtaining for 130 million animals the right to eat and sleep and reproduce. The job of government calls for securing the 130 million free men and women the great democratic traditions—the qualities of freedom and tolerance—of their country. That is the true job that faces us today.