John Quiggin

Gideon Haigh’s deflation of the pretensions of the imperial CEO is thorough and effective. But CEO imperialism is merely the monarchical version of the managerialist doctrine that has dominated both business thinking and public policy in the Western world for the past two decades.

As with most terms ending in “ism”, and therefore imputing an ideological framework, “managerialism” is more often used pejoratively than approvingly. Where it is dominant, ideology appears as commonsense and requires no name. The standard assumption, backed up by the existence of university departments of management and business schools generating thousands of MBAs every year, is that management is a science on a par with physics, or at least with economics. As Thomas Frank observes in his One Market under God, “the management literature as a whole serves primarily as a PR exercise to legitimate management.”

Given the profitability of the MBA and related products, universities from Harvard to Hobart politely ignore the fact that management theory is dominated by faddish nonsense rather than scientific research. As Micklethwait and Wooldridge observe in their survey of the field, aptly titled The Witchdoctors, although management theorists occasionally draw on the work of academic disciplines like psychology and economics, the favour is rarely returned.

Management theorists do not even perform the basic function of developing their own ideology. As Haigh notes, the most significant theoretical contributions to the cult of the CEO came from economists such as Jensen and Rosen rather than from schools of management.

Where managerialism needs a name, the choice is usually one that conceals or obfuscates the role and interests of managers as a class. The most important examples are “the New Public Administration” in the public sector and “shareholder value” in the private sector. “Shareholder value” is of particular interest in the way it represents managers as the mere agents of the shareholder principals.

The central doctrine of managerialism is that the differences between such organisations as, for example, a university and a motor-vehicle company are less important than the similarities, and that the performance of all organisations can be optimised by the application of generic management skills and theory. It follows that the crucial element of institutional reform is the removal of obstacles to “the right to manage”.

The rise of managerialism has gone hand in hand with that of the radical program of market-oriented reforms variously referred to as Thatcherism, economic rationalism or neo-liberalism. (Despite very different histories, all these terms are now generally used in a pejorative sense.) Managerialism may appear inconsistent with traditional free-market thinking in which the ideal form of organisation is that of competitive markets supplied by small firms in which the manager is also the owner. However, managerialism is entirely consistent with the dominant strand in the neo-liberal approach to public policy, which takes the corporation, rather than the small owner-managed firm, as the model for all forms of economic and social organisation.

In particular, managerialism and neo-liberalism are at one in their rejection of notions of professionalism. Both managerialists and neo-liberals reject as special pleading the idea that there is any fundamental difference between, say, the operations of a hospital and the manufacturing and marketing of soft drinks. In both cases, it is claimed the optimal policy is to design organisations that respond directly to consumer demand, and to operate such institutions using the generic management techniques applicable to corporations of all kind.

The main features of managerialist policy are incessant organisational restructuring, sharpening of incentives, and expansion in the number, power and remuneration of senior managers, with a corresponding downgrading of the role of skilled workers, and particularly of professionals.

From the viewpoint of employees, the most important feature of managerialism has been the sharpening of incentives. The corporation was formerly characterised by implicit contracts between companies and career employees, in which employees committed themselves to the goals of the organisation in return for a high level of job security. Until the 1990s, white-collar employees (the main group of core employees in most corporations) lost their jobs only as a result of serious personal misconduct or when the corporation faced a financial emergency sufficient to threaten its survival.

By contrast, as Haigh notes, the corporations of the 1990s practice both routine dismissal of individuals as a management device (“rank and yank”) and large-scale lay-offs in the pursuit of short-term cost-cutting. More generally, individuals and units within corporations are given sharp incentives to achieve corporate goals. By necessity, since the associated rewards and punishments must be delivered in a short time-frame, the focus is on short-term measures which, it is hoped, correspond to some long-term measure of the extent to which the enterprise is achieving its goals. The paradigm case is the share price of a corporation which, according to the efficient markets hypothesis, represents the best possible estimate of the value of the corporation, taking account of all available information.

Such a sharpening of incentives may be beneficial if the behaviours that are rewarded are exactly aligned with the interests of the enterprise (or in the case of public policy, the society) as a whole. In practice this is rarely the case. Sharp but imperfect incentives give rise to arbitrage opportunities, that is the capacity to buy cheap in one market and sell dear in another. Cost-shifting between state and federal governments in health and education is one instance of this phenomenon. The accounting devices used by “incentivised” managers to manipulate reported profits are another.

Because they reward those who can “game” the system most effectively, rather than those who try to achieve the long-term goals of the enterprise, sharp incentives corrode organisational culture. The effect is heightened when managers combine reliance on sharp incentives with appeals to residual stocks of loyalty and commitment to the goals of the enterprise, thereby debasing both coinages. Managerialism systematically erodes both altruism and professionalism.

From the viewpoint of managers themselves, the most salient feature of managerialism is the growth it has produced in their incomes, power, prestige and numbers. Australian universities provide an excellent example. In a sample of seventeen universities studied by Marginson and Considine, the total number of deputy vice-chancellors and pro-vice-chancellors more than tripled, from 19 in 1987 to 69 in 1998, a period in which student numbers increased 70 per cent and academic staff numbers were static. Allowing for the new full-time position of executive dean and the proliferation of highly paid senior managers outside the academic hierarchy (marketing directors, promoters of research commercialisation, public relations promoters and so on) with their associated personal support staff, the new managerialism has consumed resources sufficient to staff a large new university. All of this, taking place at a time when the university system is in a state of financial crisis, is typical of the operations of managerialism.

The growth of the managerial class has reached the point where it has a significant impact on macro-economic aggregates. Measurements of the share of corporate profits in the economy, for example, vary substantially depending on whether returns to senior managers are treated as wages, as profits or, as in the case of stock options, disregarded altogether.

Similarly, phenomena such as the “branch office economy” arising from decisions to relocate corporate headquarters to “global cities” like New York and London are motivated more by managerial self-interest than by any net benefits to shareholders. The cost savings from less centralised locations outweigh any benefits from the clustering of corporate power. But the opportunities for managers, both in career terms and with respect to high-status consumption, are far greater in these locations than in, say, Omaha, Nebraska, where Warren Buffett’s phenomenally successful investment firm, Berkshire Hathaway, maintains its headquarters. The rise of the global cities reflects the fact that managerialism produces a form of “crony capitalism” based on personal connections.

All of these criticisms would be beside the point if managerialism actually delivered the goods in the form of a general improvement in living standards. American critics like Thomas Frank were marginal figures during the boom of the 1990s, when it seemed as if stock market gains would make everyone rich. Similarly, Australian criticism has been muted by the durability of the current economic expansion which has continued for more than a decade since the end of “the recession we had to have”.

Viewed over the course of a complete economic cycle, however, the failure of managerialism to produce good outcomes for society as a whole is evident. Economic growth has been only marginally better than that of the 1970s and 1980s, and well below that of the social-democratic golden age of the 1950s and 1960s. Meanwhile, growing inequality in market incomes has meant that hardly any of the benefits of growth have gone to households in the bottom 60 per cent of the income distribution.

On the other hand, as would be expected from a class-based ideology, managerialism has been immensely beneficial to managers. Substantial income gains have accrued to the top quintile (20 per cent) of income-earners. Within this group, managers have gained relative to professionals, small-business owners and skilled tradespeople. In addition, the growing inequality of the income distribution as a whole is mirrored within the top quintile. The top 5 per cent has gained more than the next 15 per cent, the top 1 per cent more than the next 4 per cent, and so on up to the 200 members of the BRW rich list.

The spectacle of departing CEOs drawing million-dollar bonuses for their incompetence has rightly been criticised by Haigh and many others. But the managerial class as a whole has been richly rewarded for very ordinary performance.


Professor John Quiggin is a Federation Fellow in Economics and Political Science at the University of Queensland. His books include Great Expectations: Microeconomic Reform and Australia and Taxing Times: A Guide to the Tax Debate in Australia.


This correspondence discusses Quarterly Essay 10, Bad Company. To read the full essay, subscribe or buy the book.

This correspondence featured in Quarterly Essay 11, Whitefella Jump Up.


Katharine Murphy
Scott Morrison and Pandemic Politics
Judith Brett
Resources, Climate and Australia’s Future
Margaret Simons
The Tragedy of the Murray–Darling Basin
Peter Hartcher
Waking Up to China’s Challenge
Annabel Crabb
Australia’s Parenthood Trap
Erik Jensen
How Scott Morrison won and Bill Shorten lost