John Brandl is a serious liberal honestly confronting the question of why so many government programs do not work.
For twelve years he was a Democratic legislator in Minnesota. He was deputy assistant secretary of the Department of Health, Education and Welfare in the Johnson Administration, and is currently dean of the Hubert H. Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs at the University of Minnesota.
And he has now written a book for the Brookings Institution challenging the fundamental assumptions of progressivism dating to Woodrow Wilson and Herbert Croly. His book is intended more for academics than for legislators, policy-makers, or the general public. It is above all a challenge to the assumptions of public administration and public finance that have dominated public policy schools in universities such as his own.
“For a good part of the 20th century,” writes Brandl, “the prevailing theories of public finance and bureaucracy in the United States discounted the importance of self-interested behavior on the part of politicians and civil servants.” Academic students of public policy assumed that public administrators and legislators would make “scientific” and “public-spirited” decisions about allocating resources and managing programs. Public administration schools emphasized the vast literature on the “market failures” of private enterprise, but paid little attention to the literature on “government failures” coming from the economics of organization and public choice.
Focusing on state government, but making arguments that could apply equally to the federal government, Brandl challenges five “implicit theories” that underpin most current public policy:
“that increasing government expenditures will tend to yield correspondingly improved outcomes;
that civil servants are spontaneously public-spirited;
that providing public employees with better information will ipso facto lead to their using it;
that legislatures carefully oversee state services;
that recipients of services from state bureaus have the information and power to oversee those bureaus and make desired changes.”
Brandl demolishes these assumptions by looking at the crisis in K-12 education. Spending per student for elementary and secondary education tripled (in inflation-adjusted dollars) between 1960 and 1990, without yielding a corresponding increase in academic achievement. Brandl’s conclusion: “State-funded bureaus show little relation between dollars spent on them and results achieved.”
Perhaps even more damaging to the worldview of progressivism and scientific management, Brandl points to the rich literature on effective schools that accumulated in the 1970s and 1980s. Researchers “set out to determine what was different about the more successful schools and found in them strong leadership, an orderly environment, the teaching of basic skills, high expectations of students, homework regularly assigned and accomplished, a substantial part of the students’ day spent on academic work, systematic monitoring of students’ progress, and a sense on the part of students, teachers, and parents that their school is a community.” Amazingly, virtually no one in the public education establishment—from state education departments to legislatures to local school boards—paid any attention to this systematic study of what works. Public education became, in effect, a learning-free zone.
Brandl attributes “the inadequacy of the public schools” primarily to two causes. They are monopolies undisciplined by competition and untouched by the innovative and creative spirit of competitive markets. And they are bureaucracies unaccountable to the parents and students they are supposed to serve. “Government is inefficient and uninnovative not so much because it is corrupted by wicked people but because we let ordinary people watch out for themselves, sometimes harming others in the process.” The problem with schools, in his view, is a faulty incentive structure that discourages educational achievement and service to parents and children. By contrast, Brandl looks to charter schools and religious schools as institutions with incentive systems that reward performance and service.
“Like James Madison,” Brandl writes, “I hold that society needs simultaneously to harness self-interest and to depend on public- spiritedness.” He seeks to harness self-interest by subjecting government to competition. And he seeks to encourage public- spiritedness by devolving responsibility to communities that inspire altruistic behavior, especially families, religious groups, and community-based schools. His reform agenda has four key elements, many of them consistent with the proposals of the Progressive Policy Institute, and other liberals and Democrats who still believe in an activist government but are rethinking the means by which government achieves its ends:
He wants more state money to flow from government to individuals, through mechanisms such as vouchers and tax credits, with less to school boards, colleges, and cities.
He wants state government to meet many of its responsibilities not through government-owned bureaus but by subsidizing families, religious schools, and other communities.
He wants to submit government producers to competition.
And he wants to constitute government as “arranger, funder, and monitor, but not necessarily as producer, of services.”
When Brandl speaks about community, he is talking about real communities—families, churches, schools with active parental involvement. He sharply criticizes the progressivist notion, voiced by Herbert Croly and more recently by Lyndon Johnson, Walter Mondale, and Hillary Clinton, of the nation as a community, America as a family.
“The metaphor is fundamentally flawed. The United States is not a family. No individual state is a family. In large measure, we need government because our relationships with others in the polity differ from our ties to family members. We normally cherish and accept responsibilities for family members, but only infrequently treat strangers in that fashion.” Brandl later cites Friedrich Hayek’s description of socialism’s flaw as “the hope that altruism could inspire consistent cooperation among large groups of people.”
One of the surprises of Brandl’s book is his inattention to federal policies that divert accountability from state and local officials. Federal expenditures account for only 7 percent of spending on K-12 education; but that 7 percent, and the rhetoric of diffused responsibility that accompanies it, enables mayors, school superintendents, school board chiefs, and governors to blame Washington for their own educational failures.
Brandl is also surprisingly silent on the extraordinary public policy breakthroughs now occurring in state and local government under conservative reform mayors and governors. New York City cut crime almost in half in just a few years. Beginning with Wisconsin under Governor Tommy Thompson, state after state has cut welfare rolls by 50-60 percent or more, with former welfare mothers now the proud recipients of twice-monthly paychecks. We are beginning to see education reforms that may soon have as dramatic a payoff as reforms in welfare and policing. Probably the greatest weakness of Brandl’s book is that he offers no theoretical framework for explaining how such spectacular public policy improvements can occur.
But Brandl’s voice is a welcome addition to the growing literature on the failures of the liberal welfare state. Conservative reformers would be well advised to cooperate with honest liberals like Brandl as they seek, in his words, “to replace current arrangements with government that works.”
Adam Meyerson is a vice president of The Heritage Foundation and the editor of its magazine Policy Review.