The Biophysics of Public Management:
Galbraith's Call for a "New Public Administration"

In a recent article, James K. Galbraith proposes a new framework for the theory and practice of government. Writing in the Real-World Economics Review, Galbraith, Economist and Professor of Government at the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs (University of Texas at Austin), makes an unconventional case for a biophysical systems approach to public administration and the production of public goods.

Public goods are things that governments produce: products, services, standards, and regulations that are essential for daily life and for the functioning of commerce. But how do these things get produced? They are not magically generated by markets or manufactured by corporations. They are the result of a collective system that takes in and uses resources – energy, peoples’ talent, raw materials, IT, money – to create things that we need and want.

The procedure by which these things are produced is normally, but ineptly, called “public administration.” It’s an inept name because it fails to convey the central reality of what government does: governments operate an extremely complex production system.

In “The Need for a New Public Administration,” Professor Galbraith argues that, in order to appreciate the power as well as the limitations of such a complex system, we must adopt a “biophysical perspective.” Rather than relying on theories of “administration,” or economists’ notions of governmental “intervention,” we would do far better to consider the functioning of biophysical systems.

Galbraith opens his case by posing questions that demonstrate how governments are producers of public goods that are essential for everyday functioning:

How well would cars function in cities without streetlights and stop signs? Would passengers fly in commercial aircraft in the absence of air-traffic control? Would homemakers buy and eat fresh raw vegetables if they did not have reasonable confidence of non-contamination by hepatitis and heavy metals? Would appliances and electronic equipment sell so well, if there were no assurance that they would not electrocute their owners? Would banks survive without deposit insurance? Even with insurance, how stable are they when the regulators and the supervisors are taken away?

He then explains that governments produce these public goods – which often take the form of standards and regulations – through a system, and that all systems function in accord with biophysical realities:

[A]ll living systems – whether biological, mechanical or social – function in accord with certain immutable principles, governed by thermodynamic law. All extract resources from their environment. All process those resources, generating useful energy, put to purpose. And all release waste.

Moreover, as Galbraith stresses, all systems require some form of regulation in order to perform effectively:

[A]ll biological, mechanical and social systems must regulate their use of resources. They regulate to keep energy released in the consumption of resources within the tolerances of the materials available for containing and directing that energy to useful effect. Thus mammals regulate their blood pressure… and their body temperatures... Engines [are regulated by] fans, radiators, cooling systems, and metals strong and resilient enough to stay in shape in the face of high-temperature operations.


Regulation is the key institutional and political component of infrastructure. Regulation sets and enforces standards on matters that the consumer cannot easily see: the phyto-sanitary condition of food, the reliability of machines, their efficiency in the use of resources, the safety and environmental soundness of the production process, the level of wages and the quality of working conditions.

These immutable biophysical and systemic realities govern all production, private and public, whether or not business schools or professors of economics acknowledge them. And, as Galbraith shows, generally they do not.

Issuing a clarion call to those who teach “public administration,” Galbraith summons them to join in “the creation of a new discipline of public management and public administration in the modern academy.” This will require “university leaders and administrators to commit an act of will and a dedication of resources” to a new discipline founded on “modern conceptions of evolutionary process.” It would also require “an immunization from the temptations of equilibrium and illusions of self-organized, self-regulating harmonies. These are, after all, classic delusions of an ancien régime.”

These are the same delusions, framed by free-market rhetoric, that have obscured the vital role of public goods.

Read Professor Galbraith’s call for new thinking here.



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The Public Goods Post has been created by June Sekera, 
Founder and Director of the Public Goods Institute; and Research Fellow at the 
Global Development And Environment Institute, Tufts University.

The Public Goods Post is produced by John MacKenize

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