Tony Downs and Heroic Bureaucrats

Tony Downs, a truly original economist, recently passed away at 90. Downs is most renowned for his doctoral thesis, published in 1957 under the rubric An Economic Theory of Democracy, which has a stellar 37,000 citations on Google scholar. Downs pioneered the application of self-interested rational choice to the behavior of voters and politicians, and generations of political scientists have followed his lead. Downs spent most of his career in think tanks (Rand and then Brookings), published prolifically, and always asked to be referred to as Mr. Downs.

Inside Bureaucracy

I didn’t know Downs personally, but his book that most influenced my thinking is Inside Bureaucracy, published in 1967. In it, Downs takes a similar approach to An Economic Theory of Democracy, applying rational choice to the behavior of career public servants. He specifically excludes politicians and the US Government’s thousands of political appointees from his analysis.

Inside Bureaucracy hasn’t received as much attention as An Economic Theory of Democracy, but with a robust Google Scholar count of 7500, it hasn’t exactly been ignored by academics. However, his obituary in The Washington Post didn’t mention it and Sam Roberts’s obituary in The New York Times had the following one-sentence summary: “In [Inside Bureaucracy] he identified five categories of bureaucrats, all of whom, he considered, were governed by self-interest: climbers, conservers, zealots, advocates, and statesmen [sic].”

Types of Bureaucrats

Unfortunately, Roberts’s one-sentence summary is misleading because it ignores the breadth and subtlety of Downs’s thinking. Downs postulated nine possible motives of public servants. Five are pure manifestations of self-interest: power, money income, prestige, convenience, and security. But the other four are altruistic: loyalty beyond the self to a group of people or institution, pride in performance, desire to serve the public interest, and commitment to a specific program or policy.

Downs’s five types of officials combine these motives in different ways. Two types of purely self-interested officials are:

  • Climbers, who are ambitious and strive for more power, income, and prestige.
  • Conservers, who consider convenience and security all-important, and attempt to retain the power, income, and prestige that they already have.

Three types of officials combine self-interest and altruism:

  • Zealots, who are committed to a narrow range of policies or concepts.
  • Advocates, who are loyal to a broader set of policies than zealots and who seek power to advance the interests of their organization.
  • Statesmen [sic], who are loyal to society as a whole and seek power to influence national policies. Downs condescendingly refers to statesmen as most closely resembling “the theoretical bureaucrats of public administration textbooks.”

Why This Matters

I’m not particularly interested in this as intellectual history, namely that a scholar who postulated that voters and politicians were primarily self-interested a decade later had second thoughts when he studied bureaucrats. It is of interest to me that a considerable body of public opinion, particularly in the US and on the political right, sees career public servants as ambitious climbers attempting to enlarge their organizations’ power and budget or risk-averse conservers attempting protect their turf and cover their asses. This is comparable to disdain and scorn for career politicians.

The Trump Presidency

The Trump presidency put public servants to a severe test, as I predicted it would before he took office. Over the course of his presidency, it became clear that Trump was a kleptocrat who surrounded himself with kleptocrats; a demagogue who lied repeatedly, starting with minor matters like the size of the crowd at his inauguration and eventually on critical matters such as the pandemic; and an aspiring dictator, who attempted to steal an election.

What was crucial was how American public servants responded to this assault on the truth, on their organizations, and on democracy. Some climbers enthusiastically supported the Trump Administration’s political appointees to advance their careers. Conservers undoubtedly kept their heads down, hoping “this, too, will pass.” But there were public servants who spoke truth to power, like Anthony Fauci and his colleagues in the FDA. There were public servants who became whistle-blowers – for example, Alexander Vindman, Fiona Hill, and Marie Yovanovitch in the Trump-Ukraine scandal – an act of patriotism for which they were fired. And there were many state-level public servants who, despite political and public pressure including death threats, counted the vote honestly and accurately.

In the last years of his life, I wonder if Downs was thinking about his theoretical bureaucrats as the conflict between Trump and real public servants played out. I searched online but could find no recent publications by Downs on that issue. Certainly, this would be a fruitful topic for public administration researchers.

My conclusion – the armchair empiricism of an emeritus professor of public administration – is that, when facing an existential threat to democratic governance, many American public servants acted altruistically in the public interest, sometimes at considerable personal risk. There is a library of profiles in courage waiting to be written.


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