Old and New: Rational Government

In the February 2018 issue of A&S (vol. 50, no. 2) Beryl Radin leads off by examining the use of cost-benefit analysis in the U.S. Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA). She focuses on how other political actors respond to OIRA’s analyses and actions.

Attention to policy analysis first appeared among A&S research articles in volume 6, in Duncan MacRae, Jr.’s “Policy Analysis as an Applied Social Science Discipline.” In his essay, MacRae made the case for policy analysis as a hybrid discipline connecting science and policymaking. He offered a careful, thorough case for the idea even as he raised concerns in his conclusion that such an applied discipline might impinge on the “freedom, detachment, and generality” of universities, as well as giving policy analysts a considerable measure of political “advantage” over ordinary citizens (MacRae, 1975, p. 386). It seems impossible to deny that MacRae’s idea came to fruition, and that it has posed the very problems he contemplated. That might help explain Radin’s findings that scientists in regulatory agencies have accused OIRA of imposing its own judgment about the nature and validity of scientific evidence supporting a regulatory action. Radin concludes, in essence, that trying to stand astride different value systems – science and politics, for example — in the effort to make government decisions more rational does not make decision making any less political, or less conflictual.

In contrast to the relatively early appearance of policy analysis as a subject of research presented in A&S, Michel Foucault’s concept of “governmentality,” the subject of Anders Esmark’s contribution to this issue, made a relatively recent first appearance. Thomas Catlaw introduced the concept to the pages of A&S in 2005, in his article “Constitution as Executive Order.” As Catlaw noted, governmentality is Foucault’s notion that government generates a rationality of its own “that permeates the whole of the social field” (Catlaw, 2005, p. 469). Fast-forward to 2018, and Esmark presents an alternative history of governmentality that contrasts with the history that dominates the relatively new area of governmentality studies. It is Esmark’s aim to illuminate the current contours of political contestation in liberal democracies and to suggest that liberal democracy is not quite so hegemonic as students of governmentality may have presumed.

As these articles separated by more or less time across the pages of A&S demonstrate, the modernity project’s quest to make government more rational has been a continuing source of social friction and political conflict, at least in the West. It remains so today, and administration is in the thick of it, as both instigator and field of battle. A&S has been an important chronicle of this prominent feature of governance in modern and postmodern society.

Brian J. Cook
Virginia Tech


Catlaw, T. J. (2005). Constitution as executive order: The administrative state and the political ontology of “we the people.” Administration & Society 37, 445-82.

MacRae, Jr., D. (1975). Policy analysis as an applied social science discipline. Administration & Society 6, 363-88.

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