Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Cook County Board proceedings and the end of civilization

The research I'm doing for my dissertation requires me to read the proceedings of the Cook County Board from around the mid 1880s through 1940. (Actually, I look through the indexes for subjects that I'm interested in....I don't read the proceedings page by page.) One thing I've noticed is unsurprising is that, as the years go on, the volumes get bigger and bigger so that, by the 1920s, they're about twice the size for the same time span (one year).

A lot of obvious things explain this increase in length, which I take to be rough proxy for an increase in the number of things the Cook County government did (as for the types of things, they were: managing the county court system, managing the county public service institutions, like the county hospital, its "psychopathic ward," etc., and providing for poor relief: all these duties required advertising for innumerable (well, I guess they're numerable, but I'm not going to count them) bids, issuing loads and loads of check letters, and receiving all sorts of "communications" from people in the county). One explanation is that the county population had increased at least twofold and probably threefold, so the board had to oversee more and more people. The demands of World War I required, or at least effected, a significant mobilization of the county's services, and the relief demands of the Great Depression required a significant expansion of the county's poor relief.

But I suspect at least some of the growth of the proceedings' content has to do with something inherent in government, that is, the tendency for most institutions to take on more and more duties and concern themselves with more and more things so that they expand, almost inexorably. One (for example, me) gets the impression that these volumes will just succumb under their own weight some day and implode.

I guess I've been working on my dissertation too long.

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