America in Decay

The Sources of Political Dysfunction

Man on a mission: a U.S. Forest Service ranger on Mount Silcox, in Montana, 1909. (Corbis / W. J. Lubken)

The creation of the U.S. Forest Service at the turn of the twentieth century was the premier example of American state building during the Progressive Era. Prior to the passage of the Pendleton Act in 1883, public offices in the United States had been allocated by political parties on the basis of patronage. The Forest Service, in contrast, was the prototype of a new model of merit-based bureaucracy. It was staffed with university-educated agronomists and foresters chosen on the basis of competence and technical expertise, and its defining struggle was the successful effort by its initial leader, Gifford Pinchot, to secure bureaucratic autonomy and escape routine interference by Congress. At the time, the idea that forestry professionals, rather than politicians, should manage public lands and handle the department’s staffing was revolutionary, but it was vindicated by the service’s impressive performance. Several major academic studies have treated its early decades as a classic case of successful public administration.

Today, however, many regard the Forest Service as a highly dysfunctional bureaucracy performing an outmoded mission with the wrong tools. It is still staffed by professional foresters, many highly dedicated to the agency’s mission, but it has lost a great deal of the autonomy it won under Pinchot. It operates under multiple and often contradictory mandates from Congress and the courts and costs taxpayers a substantial amount of money while achieving questionable aims. The service’s internal decision-making system is often gridlocked, and the high degree of staff morale and cohesion that Pinchot worked so hard to foster has been lost. These days, books are written arguing that the Forest Service ought to be abolished altogether. If the Forest Service’s creation exemplified the development of the modern American state, its decline exemplifies that state’s decay.

Civil service reform in the late nineteenth century was promoted by academics and activists such as Francis Lieber, Woodrow Wilson, and Frank Goodnow, who believed in the ability of modern natural science to solve human problems. Wilson, like his contemporary Max Weber, distinguished between politics and administration. Politics, he argued, was a domain of final ends, subject to democratic contestation, but administration was a realm of implementation, which could be studied empirically and subjected to scientific analysis.

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