The New Civil-Service Reform
Urban America’s government-reform movement is now a conservative cause.

Political cartoon from Harper's Weekly, 1885 (Image: Library of Congress)


To those well versed in modern urban American government, the resistance of New York City mayor Bill de Blasio to Success Academy must have felt familiar. Here was a charter-school network that had improved the outcomes of poor minority students, in some cases by 75 percent over similarly situated public schools, and the mayor nearly stopped its expansion before New York governor Andrew Cuomo intervened.

De Blasio’s move would have affected only several hundred children in one city, but it symbolized why government fails in big cities generally. In New York City, government unions protect inefficiencies in practically every service, not just education, and the problem is mirrored in cities nationwide.

Of course, this is nothing new. The greed and incompetence of big-city governments today are in fact reminiscent of New York City’s Tammany Hall and other industrial-era political machines.

What has changed is the face of reform. At the turn of the 20th century, urban machines were challenged by Progressives, elites who aimed to professionalize government. Ever since, like-minded “progressives” have achieved their goal only to create new machines themselves, transforming government into a white-collar enterprise polluted by complex legal protections and career bureaucrats like de Blasio.

The true urban reformers who combat them today are, ironically, a constituency that is still largely suburban: small-government conservatives. Their efforts mark a profound shift in the reform movement and should be welcomed by urbanites who have watched progressivism bankrupt and otherwise harm their cities. For the prototypical civil-service reformer of 100 years ago, look no further than the young Robert Moses. As his biographer Robert Caro described in The Power Broker, the Oxford-educated Moses had moved to New York City to join a growing national movement. Its figurehead was Teddy Roosevelt, who had devoted his presidency to fighting federal cronyism and waste. He inspired reformers to do likewise in America’s cities, ushering in the Progressive Era. The movement’s ambitions were wide-ranging and included the reform of haphazard municipal governments. =0394720245

“Civil service was chaos,” wrote Caro. “Scientific accounting techniques, only recently incorporated into American business, had never been adapted to government.”

This meant that cities didn’t even have budgets for allocating money, which was instead handled by ward bosses under politically based spoils systems. For example, Tammany Hall, the Irish Democratic machine that had enjoyed decades-long rule in New York City, employed 50,000 people when Moses arrived in 1914. “Offices were filled with so many clerks and secretaries that supervisors couldn’t possibly provide work for all of them,” Caro writes, while salaries varied depending on one’s connections.

Progressives considered themselves the appropriate reformers for such machines, which were run by corrupt, street-level plebeians. They believed that governments could improve mankind’s condition, but only if managed scientifically.

The Progressive movement faded under the cloud of World War I, but many of its assumptions have persisted. Its notion of government as a tool for good has influenced self-styled liberals and progressives for a century, particularly those administering cities. Following the early reforms, cities expelled their machines, and sometimes their ward-based formats altogether, and established management-based systems. Over the next half century, this transformed city governments from mere patronage rackets into professionalized apparatuses capable of studying and expanding services, generating an era of grand civic ambition.

Moses personified that ambition. He rose from the ranks as a low-level reformer to become New York City’s most powerful man as an executive of several agencies that transformed the city through large-scale public works. In many cities, this “urban renewal” backfired, sowing discord among the ethnic communities most affected, and by the 1960s it had helped spark riots.


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