Aaron Wildavsky influenced several areas in the fields of political science and public administration. Among his many areas of concern were Presidential decision-making, budgeting, fiscal policy and deficits, safety risks and innovation, energy policy, the growth of affirmative action policies, urban governance, state-federal relations, the role of liberal elites in political consensus-making, Australian politics, communism and the Cold War, and Biblical exegesis and its relation to present political leadership.

One concept that recurs in Wildavsky’s work is that much of what is known by society and learned by individuals can only be confirmed through failure. Wildavsky made this point in arguing for limits on government regulation when he wrote about issues of safety risks. The point also recurs in his assessment of the political leadership of figures as diverse as Moses and Abraham Lincoln.

Wildavsky was also a believer in incrementalism, the idea that pursuing change through gradual shifts tends to produce fewer gross errors in policy and less conflict in the political process than radical experimentation and wholesale reconstruction. Wildavsky was also critical of the so-called “precautionary principle.” This concept, which Wildavsky repeatedly challenged, holds that government regulation must “protect” the public from actions or policies that are not yet proven to be safe.

Safety Risks

Arguably, Wildavsky’s most novel and important writing dealt with the subject of risk. Observing the rapid expansion in governmental regulations dealing with health and safety and the environment during the 1970s, and the growth in the number of agencies tasked with dealing with these issues, Wildavsky led the way in arguing that this oversight often reduced public health and safety.

Wildavsky began his critique of extreme environmentalism by noting that advanced capitalist nations had the highest life expectancy and the lowest rates of mortality and morbidity of any countries in history. He also pointed out that reductions in the amount of personal liberty were likely to result from public alarm—whether real or manufactured—about health and safety. Wildavsky then highlighted the contradiction between these facts: Western prosperity and good health was a consequence of great personal liberty, but government regulations circumscribe and limit this.

Wildavsky then went on to argue that banning chemicals and drugs with extremely low but appreciable levels of toxicity and long records of use might lead to their replacement by chemicals and drugs about which much less was known. In this way, policies meant marginally to improve public health and safety could markedly worsen both.

Wildavsky further observed that most improvements in medicine, public health and in design and manufacture of products resulted from the application of trial and error. Government regulations mandating what are accepted as the “safest” practices prevent trial and error, thereby eliminating the possibility of further improvements. Paradoxically, “there can be no safety without risk.”

Thus, Wildavsky argued, it is not only impossible but foolhardy to try to eliminate all risks. Further, comprehensive attempts to limit dangers may diminish health and safety by reducing the wealth of the society and through this its ability to provide for advanced medical treatments and sophisticated care.

Read More: Risk and Safety

Budget Policy

Wildavsky’s textbooks on budget policy were for many years considered among the most important in the field and went through multiple editions. His research compared budgetary practices in a range of cities, states, and foreign countries.

Wildavsky presented an important critique of zero-based budgeting schemes. These had first been attempted in industry and by the state of Georgia under Governor Jimmy Carter, the future president. Wildavsky contrasted zero-based budgeting with other methods such as multi-year budgeting and program-based budgeting.

In a system of zero-based budgeting, a state or company makes up its annual budget without reference to the amounts spent on the prior year’s individual items. All costs and expenditures are to be re-examined and expenses re-allocated following a line-by-line study that does not assume that any program from the previous year should be continued. Wildavsky foresaw that although this method might appear to be zealous in controlling costs, it would lead to greater conflicts among political factions and parties.

Wildavsky was likewise critical of Keynesian deficit spending. Familiar with politics as it is actually practiced, he recognized early on that acceptance of the principle of deficit spending would lead to growth in government that would exceed the rate of increase in the larger economy. An additional irony, he noted, was that as poverty rates declined, spending on social programs to ameliorate these problems vastly increased.

Wildavsky was also prescient in seeing that revenue-sharing programs in which the federal government provided funds to states and localities might prove to be a mixed blessing. As early as 1984, he warned that “cities are now beginning to understand that they are getting a little money and a lot of trouble.” The difficulties would arise, he noted, as involvement and support from the federal government demanded much greater state and local spending on programs such as public housing and Medicaid—along with intensification of burgeoning divisions over these matters.

Wildavsky spent much of his career trying to understand the phenomenon of recurrent government budget deficits. Wildavsky began his analysis with the insight that most politicians understand that borrowing money and paying it back with principal and interest is extremely costly. Why then, he asked, is deficit spending so pervasive? He concluded that, in the absence of prohibitions on deficits, deficits are in the interest of politicians and the various lobbying groups that surround them, because the consequences are mostly passed on to others.

Read More: Budgeting

The Two Presidencies and the Prophylactic Presidency

Wildavsky wrote his doctoral dissertation on the Dixon-Yates power controversy. This revolved around a highly partisan conflict between the Eisenhower administration and Senate Democrats over a contract to supply power for an Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) plant in Tennessee.

From his study of this question, Wildavsky came to see how fraught even small domestic policy conflicts could become. Perhaps not surprisingly, over the next few years he developed his theory of the “two presidencies,” the work that made him a significant national figure in political science. Wildavsky postulated that presidential administrations prefer to focus upon foreign rather than domestic policy because the principle of bipartisan foreign policy gives them greater freedom and independence in formulating and executing it. Wildavsky believed that this impulse would be augmented by the fact that conflicts among competing interest groups on foreign affairs tend to be less rancorous than those on domestic issues.

Later, Wildavsky included critiques of this theory in his writings. In this way he implicitly—and sometimes explicitly—acknowledged that the broad support for a bipartisan foreign policy characteristic of the 1950s and early 1960s reflected the situation of the early Cold War and that his theory might have limited applicability in a post-Cold War world.

Shortly before his death, Wildavsky presented a new paradigm for presidential administration: the prophylactic presidency. This is a type of presidency that is focused upon environmentalism and stopping public threats, such as epidemics or natural disasters. Wildavsky suggested that such a presidency might prove popular with the intelligentsia and among some segments of the electorate. It would, however, slow economic growth because a focus on risk prevention and environmental protection is costly. A presidency of this kind would also undermine the principle of federalism and weaken the degree of responsiveness in government.

Read More: Presidential Politics

Critique of Radical Egalitarianism

Among Wildavsky’s last book was The Rise of Radical Egalitarianism, published in 1991.

In this work Wildavsky argued that there are three types of modern social structures: hierarchical collectivism (most often communist autocracy), competitive individualism, and radical egalitarianism. Wildavsky’s work is a critique of the last, and a study of its gradual displacement of a political economy based on competitive individualism.

Supporters of radical egalitarianism, Wildavsky observed, claim that they are working for diversity, not leveling. However, Wildavsky argued that the thinking underlying radical egalitarianism is contradictory. On the one hand its advocates are often opposed to big government because it is “hierarchical.” At the same time, their desire to promote radical egalitarianism leads them to support judicial and governmental efforts to promote equality. Moreover, although they tend to oppose the military and the use of force overseas, they often support foreign regimes that are far less egalitarian than ours.

Wildavsky associated the movement for radical egalitarianism in contemporary society with the nascent phenomena of speech codes and the rise of affirmative action, the latter a policy that he thought could more properly be called positive discrimination.

Wildavsky believed that these policies are best explained by the concern among radical egalitarians to support the status of minority group membership. Commenting on this, he noted that the term minority as used today is misleading since those who are perceived as minorities—including women, blacks and Hispanics—make up an overwhelming majority of the population. The accuracy of the term is further called into question by the fact that certain historically oppressed groups such as Jews are excluded from the category. The ideas of radical egalitarianism, he argued, have a special currency among the media, a group intent on justifying its existence through a frequent “search for the oppressed.”

Read More: Radicalism

After-Effects of Communism and Nuclear Weapons Proliferation

As Communism ended, Wildavsky co-authored a number of writings interpreting its after-effects. Wildavsky argued that the failures of command economies went far beyond the inability to provide material benefits for the populace. Rather, Wildavsky saw the post-Communist republics as ones forced to struggle with a moral decline arising from an extended period of Communist rule.

Wildavsky also argued that the growth in the number of nuclear nations and the future likelihood of nuclear-armed Islamic states with antipathy towards the United States called for an active plan of developing a proper national missile defense system.

Read More: Missile Defense

Examination of the Biblical Patriarchs

Wildavsky wrote a series of unconventional books and articles that examined the Biblical patriarchs Joseph and Moses and their leadership qualities. These writings represented a rekindling of interest in his own Jewish ancestry.

The aim of his studies was to see what we can learn about contemporary leadership by studying these patriarchs.

Wildavsky regarded Moses and Joseph as imperfect leaders, but he believed that they had learned from their mistakes as much as from their successes. Moses in particular had the ability to teach people to lead themselves, something displayed in his capacity to “find judges” from amongst the nation of the Israelites.

Read More: Biblical Exegesis 

–Essays by Jonathan Leaf