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Harris's Mirage: The Positive Service State


Alasdair Roberts is the Rappaport Professor of Law and Public Policy at Suffolk University Law School. He is a fellow of the National Academy of Public Administration and an honorary senior research fellow of the School of Public Policy, University College London.


In 1942, Joseph Harris anticipated that the United States would develop a highly centralized and rationalized welfare state. The forecast was largely mistaken. The United States did develop an expansive national security apparatus that was relatively centralized and rationalized. By contrast, domestic policies were unevenly developed, and often highly decentralized in design. Harris’s forecast was unduly influenced by his own observations of trends immediately before World War II. He underestimated the powerful underlying forces that have historically checked centralization in the United States, and regained strength in the postwar period.

Guest editors’ note: In 1942, the University of Chicago Press published a book edited by Leonard D. White titled The Future of Government in the United States. Each chapter in the book presents predictions concerning the future of U.S. public administration. In this article, Alasdair Roberts examines Joseph Harris’s predictions on the future of “administrative management” in that book, comments on whether Harris’ predictions were correct, and then looks to the future to examine public administration in 2020.