Politics & Policy

The New Civil-Service Reform

Political cartoon from Harper’s Weekly, 1885 (Image: Library of Congress)
Urban America’s government-reform movement is now a conservative cause.

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.

But the experience didn’t leave cities any less enamored of government or less prone to misusing it. The bureaucratic standardization that Progressives thought would improve government led, over time, to abuses not only of private property, through rampant eminent domain, but of public finances. To loot government coffers, officials now used formal legal mandates instead of informal patronage.

For example, the three mayors — Coleman Young, Dennis Archer, and Kwame Kilpatrick — most responsible for bankrupting Detroit all operated under a city charter that, drafted under Progressive Era auspices, encouraged managerial government. The charter granted officials wide discretion for setting public-employee pay and dictating industrial policy. In 1985, Young used the charter to justify demolishing an entire neighborhood for a Chrysler plant, a move that helped triple the city’s debt; the other two mayors grew the bureaucracy (without reforming its onerous retirement system), even amid rapid population decline.

By the late 1980s, some conservatives began, in the spirit of the early Progressives, to call for reform. Representative Jack Kemp, Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, City Journal, and other officials and publications sought to streamline cities’ bureaucracies and improve their business climates. Their reforms have been tested and found to be successful but, more than a quarter century later, few have stuck. Many cities remain progressive even after decades of decline, their political establishments every bit as entrenched as those from a century ago, while the conservative reforms of the late 20th century remain untried in most places. We should revive them.

Progressives generally dislike private monopolies, but out of allegiance to public-employee unions have long defended public monopolies whose workers often demand exorbitant pay and then strike when their demands aren’t met. Conservatives propose the privatization of many services, including education, on which government now has something of a public monopoly, just one example being charter schools.

Conservatives have also advocated for converting public employees’ defined-benefit pensions into 401(k)-style retirement plans. This would reduce the unfunded liabilities that are burdening cities with crippling debt and high borrowing costs.

More broadly, conservatives wish to scrap much of the legalism that grips municipal governance. In his new book The Rule of Nobody, Philip Howard explains how officials are prevented from commonsense governing, needing to comply with Kafkaesque procedures for removing a fallen tree or issuing a simple permit. This is one legacy of the Progressive Era, which redefined public responsibilities through a rigid legalism.

Other conservative urban reforms aim to increase economic growth, which progressives have a track record of discouraging through high taxation and regulation. For example, conservative reformers apply land-use deregulation, or “upzoning,” to stimulate neighborhood redevelopment and relieve housing shortages. Others propose deregulation of ride-share services, welfare-to-work programs, and “economic freedom zones” that would liberalize inner-city economies.

Some liberals have also encouraged reforms, but — ironically, given the historical context — they are usually opposed by progressives. Particularly in Democratic-controlled cities, progressives have established their own mayoral candidates and wings within city councils and reliably squelch moderate reforms that would help businesses or streamline government. The progressives’ reflexive faith in bureaucracy, following decades of counter-evidence, has led many of the cities where they have been strong to spiral into crisis. Detroit and Stockton are bankrupt, and finances are precarious in Chicago, Oakland, Cleveland, and other cities where governance from the left has prevailed.

The best hope for combating urban decline is for conservatives to package their ideas into a broader urban agenda. This is key both to the Republican party’s future in an urbanizing nation and to the future of cities, many of which, after brief spells of moderate government, are reenacting the progressivism that first brought decline. The Nation recently heralded de Blasio’s election as a sign of a shift back toward progressivism in cities generally. If the mayor’s start is any indication, this will mean the city’s further regression into unsustainable governance — already he has, besides opposing charter schools, granted $2.5 billion in retroactive raises for city teachers.

Such decisions will likely lead to urbanites’ begging again for reforms. But they must note who has proposed them: small-government conservatives, not “progressives,” who now mock their name and original mission by embodying the very machine politics that they once fought.

— Scott Beyer is traveling the U.S. to write a book on reviving cities. His work is found at BigCitySparkplug.com.


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