Review- Lewis, “Public Entrepreneurship”

Eugene Lewis, “Public Entrepreneurship: Toward a Theory of Bureaucratic Political Power” (1980) – I have a feeling the Citizenry (become a Citizen of my newsletter, it is rad) voted for me to read this book out of two motivations: a minority are genuinely interested in how bureaucracy works, and a majority who thought it would be funny to make me read and review something with a title that sounds this boring. Joke’s on them! I love this shit. I tracked down this book and bought the cheapest but still rather dear copy I could find with some stimmy money. I had known about it for at least a decade, after seeing it in some “works cited” of interesting books.

I probably would not have noticed this in “works cited” were it not for the second subtitle (I basically refuse to have second subtitles in the headlines of my reviews, nonfiction authors should count themselves lucky to have subtitles, let alone fiction writers getting subtitles!): “The Organizational Lives of Hyman Rickover, J. Edgar Hoover, and Robert Moses.” What a trio! Hard charging bureaucrats who gave precisely no fucks and ran important parts of American state power at roughly the same time, Rickover was the “father of the nuclear navy,” Hoover ran the closest thing to a nationwide secret police force America ever saw, and Moses was “master builder” of New York, basically in charge of the city and state’s public infrastructure for decades. They weren’t the gray, colorless figures we associate with master bureaucrats. They weren’t exactly flamboyant like the politicians they coexisted with, like Roosevelt or Johnson, either. They were their own thing- the titular public entrepreneur.

This book belongs to what you’d call “historical sociology,” that odd by-blow of two fields you’d figure would maybe have more in common but reached a real nadir of mutual misunderstanding not long after this work was published. I’ve read some good historical sociology (like this book) but it’s not a good way to rocket up the field in either history or sociology, specializing in it. Essentially, what Eugene Lewis (a political scientist, according to his short, eccentric, one suspects self-written Wikipedia page) tries to do here is use historical examples to prove a social scientific point. He doesn’t do primary research (a big history no-no) and he doesn’t do anything quantitative or any fieldwork (a substantial social sciences no-no). Mostly, he talks about the careers of the three men, based on secondary sources (including Robert Caro’s legendary biography of Moses, “The Power Broker”), and fits them into a definition of public entrepreneurship. Public entrepreneurs both fit (uncomfortably) into their organizational molds and break them wide open, they expand their domains, they present a face of apolitical technical competence, they get old and stumble on new political realities, etc etc.

I shouldn’t give such short shrift to Lewis’s theory here, but A. it’s not why I read the book and B. it didn’t go anywhere. My understanding is that “Public Entrepreneurship” is respected in its field but that field isn’t huge and this didn’t spark a big, long-lasting conversation. It also came at an interesting time- 1980, just as neoliberalism was coming down the pike and bureaucracy went from being seen as a necessary evil to… well, here the story is funny. Neoliberalism is a famously slippery term, and people tend to associate it with a rebellion against bureaucracy and rules-bound organizations in favor for “thriving on chaos” in the marketplace, but recent research and arguments have gotten across the point that neoliberalism in fact thrives on, proliferates, rules and bureaucracy. But in any event, those bureaucracies wouldn’t look that much like those of the heyday of the mid-twentieth century. A “theory of bureaucratic power” that made a Weber-inflected take on those bureaucracies in 1980… that’s just bad timing.

But really, I mostly just found the descriptions and comparisons of how the three principals worked interesting and written in quite lively style, remarkable for social science. All three were tough- interestingly, the one from the actual military, Rickover, while a hardass when it came to his agenda, was probably the least of a son of a bitch of the three (then again, he probably wouldn’t have hesitated to flip that nuclear switch if the order came down, so…). Moses routinely destroyed neighborhoods to build highways, and Hoover, arguably, would be the one man to erase from American history if you only got one (I’m aware other people did worse stuff- but most of them would have been replaced by equally bad, roughly equally competent people, not the case with Hoover in my opinion). While Lewis makes notes of things like the lives destroyed during the red scare, he is ultimately more interested in bureaucratic form, how the three men managed new technologies and techniques and played politics, all while appearing apolitical. In many ways, that is the most appropriate portrait of these three men and others of their type, and I’d argue the type is worth understanding. The siren call of “just getting shit done”… not always enough to get an elected politician over the line, but it can provide a basis for power that slips the bonds of what is usually associated with bureaucracy (i.e. the notional source of the apolitical nature of the bureaucratic entrepreneur). Lewis admits his book is more of a jumping off point than a set of definitive answers- alas, I don’t know what jumped off from it.

One thing I found myself wondering- is this sort of power exclusive to liberal capitalist states? Would other bureaucratic setups nurture similar people under similar dynamics? It would seem they could- surely clever people played communist and fascist bureaucracies pretty well. I guess I’m wondering A. would such power dynamics inevitably exist in any system with bureaucracy, and could (should?) they be prevented and B. could you have, if not socialist, then social democratic public entrepreneurs within a capitalist system? Frankly, I have my doubts, though I have fewer doubts about the technical feasibility — some AOC devotee landing in charge of Head Start or something and cancelling their opponents on Twitter until they ran all of the country’s pre-K or some such — then whether it’d actually be helpful to socialism. I don’t hate bureaucracy but it’s not my preferred way to play the game. In this case, I very much am asking for some friends who I could see seizing upon such an arrangement were it possible… people love some sewer socialism… maybe my navy-man alter-ego in a work of fiction (who would no doubt greatly admire Rickover!)… anyway. An interesting and evocative book. ****’

Review- Lewis, “Public Entrepreneurship”

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