Abstract: Spreading the Gospel of Efficiency in the New Era: Business Expertise and Administrative Reform in U.S. Federal Agencies, 1920-1933

Jesse Tarbert


This paper examines the constructive role played by business in efforts to increase central authority and administrative capacity in the federal government during the years between World War I and the New Deal. Business shaped policy debates in this era in two ways: through ideas about the relationship between business and government, and through the actions and attitudes of business leaders who became policy advocates, policy makers, office holders, and administrators. The result was a policy agenda that combined an aversion to direct intervention in the economy with a quest to bring "business efficiency" to the fragmented institutional structure of the federal government. Scholars have tended to emphasize one half of this agenda while neglecting the other. This paper will explore this agenda through two policy cases: the movement to reorganize the federal executive branch, and the development of federal veterans' welfare agencies. These cases reveal business-inspired attempts to enact the ideal of administrative efficiency in federal governing institutions. This story challenges traditional generalizations about antistatism during this period, and it suggests some revisions to our understanding of the federal policy response to the Great Depression.