Martha A. Derthick, a political scientist whose trenchant analyses of typically impenetrable subjects like Social Security, federalism, deregulation and tobacco litigation were praised as “masterful” and “definitive,” died on Jan. 12 at a hospital in Charlottesville, Va. She was 81.
Her death followed a series of strokes, said her niece, Kit Stoner, her closest survivor.
Dr. Derthick’s prizewinning 1979 book “Policymaking for Social Security” was hailed by Prof. Paul Pierson, then of Harvard, as “one of the best studies of the politics of public policy ever produced.”
Dr. Derthick concluded that Social Security, the world’s largest social welfare program, had evolved without substantial controversy because it had been insulated from outside control and bureaucratic rivalries, and because the payroll tax provided an independent revenue source. But she warned that the financial burden being placed on the system by an aging population might undermine the political consensus that created it.
“Her writings on federalism and Social Security are unsurpassed: analytically deep, sprightly, bringing potentially arid, abstruse subject matter vividly to life,” Gareth Davies, a history professor at the University of Oxford, said on Wednesday. “She deprecated the erosion of federalism since the Great Society, the growing size and complexity of government, and, like her mentor Edward Banfield and her friend Daniel Patrick Moynihan, was skeptical about government’s capacity to engineer beneficent social change.”
That skepticism was influential in Washington, even though Dr. Derthick never held a policy-making government job. (In 1970, President Richard M. Nixon named her to a presidential commission on campus unrest.)
She was unceasingly curious, passionate about basketball and gardening (one of her last articles was on azaleas), and she punctuated her speeches and writing with sports metaphors and quotes from Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals.
“By family background and childhood experience, I have always been more journalist than social scientist,” Dr. Derthick once said.
Martha Ann Derthick was born in Chagrin Falls, Ohio, on June 20, 1933, to Everest and Mabel Derthick. Her father was a reporter and editor for The Plain Dealer of Cleveland. Her mother was a homemaker.
She graduated from Hiram College in Ohio in 1954, earned a doctorate from Radcliffe College and taught at Harvard University, the Joint Center for Urban Studies of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and Boston College before joining the Brookings Institution in Washington, where she was director of the government studies program from 1978 to 1983. From 1983 to 1999, she was a professor of government and foreign affairs at the University of Virginia.
Among her other books were “Agency Under Stress: The Social Security Administration in American Government,” “The Politics of Deregulation,” with Paul J. Quirk, and “Uncontrollable Spending for Social Services Grants.”
Her works explored the unintended consequences of federal mandates for state welfare programs. She expressed concern that the very structure of American government, including frequent elections and separation of powers, hindered effective public administration. And she worried that Congress “does not value rationality and consistency as presidential policy makers do.”
In a 2001 collection of essays published by Brookings Institution Press, Dr. Derthick explained her fervor for federalism and her distrust of centralization. Her “strong personal preference,” she wrote, was for “a form of government that divides and disperses official power, ideally with the goal of making it representative and grounding its exercise in practicality, as opposed to political rhetoric that is all too often the demagogic style of mass democracy.”