WHAT IS BUREAUCRACY?
Almost everyone deals with bureaucracy every day in one way or another – and even if you do not personally deal with a bureaucratic official today your activities are being monitored by a bureaucratic system somewhere, but despite that fact most people have very little understanding of how it works and its implications. There are not even many books to provide a few simple definitions of this type of officialdom. Hardly any in fact. Max Weber is one the of the few that wrote about it a lot and that was almost a hundred years ago.
It’s difficult for people in universities to dig into this topic, because they are essentially living inside a bureaucracy. They have risen up in their field by being conformists to a certain extent and accepting the logic of organizational power. It’s hard for people to be but so introspective about their own lives.
So people have almost no understanding of the types of bureaucracy despite the fact that it is perhaps the most important structure of power in our lives. The political philosopher Hannah Arendt examined how administrative bureaucrats carried out the Nazi extermination of the Jews in her famous work Eichmann in Jerusalem. They simply followed orders and seemed to have not an ounce of empathy for the people eliminated in what she termed “administrative massacres.”
Bureaucracy is a system in which the individual people that work in it do not feel like they have any individual responsibility for the decisions made by the collective. They simply follow orders.
An individual in this system is in fact a participate in collective power. Most people in it are simply trying to keep their head down and make a living, but there are personality types that are attracted to such a thing for the feeling of importance it can give them and the power they get as they rise up in the group to yield inside the organization on those below them; and some like the idea of molding the rest of society to their liking through the instruments that they believe they can control.
The system can grow so large though that no one has any control over it. It then becomes something of a demonic beast that forces all to obey its own logic.
THE PROBLEMS OF OFFICIALDOM
Hannah Arendt argued that “perhaps the nature of every bureaucracy, is to make functionaries and mere cogs in the administrative machinery out of men, and thus to dehumanize them. And one can debate long and profitable on the rule of Nobody, which is what the political form known as bureaucracy truly is.”
Arendt claimed that a form of total bureaucratic rule is the logical end point for a nation state whose power is ever expanding. It is where true power rests in a militarized national security state.
We are probably already at that point in the United States. As the sociologist C. Wright Mills noted after World War II decisions of national importance are never decided by American voters in elections. They do not decide on whether to go to war or not, whether to lower or raise interest rates, whether to bail out Wall Street banks, or whether to expand NSA spy programs. These decisions are all made inside the government bureaucracy by what Mills called a power elite.
Yes we all make jokes about red tape and laugh at the problems of bureaucracy, but almost no one has examined it as a system in itself. You can only find a tiny handful of works on the subject.
If no limits are placed on it such structures continue to grow by creating new rules, regulations, and powers for itself. That is its nature.
As Doug Casey explains in this video you can see that in the evolution of police work in the past thirty years.
Strange events have happened in American history and it is easy to wonder if conspiracies are involved, but more likely they are simply things that are the result of bureaucratic decision making – made by people who themselves do not always know fully what they are doing and in structures that seek to maintain and grow their power – and occasionally strike at those that oppose them.
Here is one professor who studied how it operates in the American legislative system.
THE ORIGINS OF THE WORD BUREAUCRACY
In fact the term itself did not appear in the English language until the 1820’s. It’s origins came from the French economist Jacques Claude Maria Vincent de Gournay who combined with French word bureau, which means “desk”, with the Greek word kratos, which means rule or political power. So the word itself means desk power.
These officials have power by organizing data and then making decisions based upon them. They claim those decisions are based on an objective appraisal of the facts. The sociologist Max Weber who wrote treatises on bureaucracy claimed that “bureaucratic administration means fundamentally domination through knowledge.”
Although Gournay used the term as a disparagement, many people have portrayed bureaucrats as experts who are in a position to decide the good for all. President Woodrow Wilson said, “administrative questions are not political questions. Although politics sets the tasks for administration, it should not be suffered to manipulate its offices.”
If one trend has marked the history of the United States it is the centralization of both economic and political power. At its founding the nation was dominated by small farmers and tiny factories. Now its economy is marked by giant corporations overseen in giant offices. At the same time the size of government and its importance in the economy has grown.
CIVIL SOCIETY AND BIG GOVERNMENT
Along with the growth of the Federal government has come bureaucratic systems of power to oversee it.
One cannot understand our society without understanding this system.
Bureaucracy is more than simply a big organization. It’s more than a building with offices and desks in it.
You see there are big organizations outside of government that do not operate as bureaucracies.
It’s easy not to see the difference, because no one thinks about it.
The Austrian school economist Ludwig von Mises penned the best explanation of this topic in his book Bureaucracy. It’s one of the few books you can even find on the subject.
Mises explained how bureaucratic systems operate differently than private enterprise and civil society does.
Most decisions made by a business are the result of two inputs – price and efficiency. A business person is paid for providing a service or manufacturing a product. The consumers in the market determine what price he can get for what he provides them.
His costs are determined by how much he has to pay his workers and his capital costs. He strives to lower costs by making his operations more efficient.
He is concerned with making profits and if his business is a large corporation that goal naturally trickles down to every branch of its operations.
A government bureaucracy does not work this way. It does not generate profits. Administrative decisions there are not based on private market forces or influenced by consumers, but are based on created rules and regulations.
It is rules and principles that determine how a bureaucracy operates and it increases its power not by generating profits, but by growing.
People in such a system are motivated by enjoying the power they have over those below them. They tend to fear losing that position of authority and have ambition to rise to the next higher level. This leads to a monotonic increase in the bureaucracy over time, as the higher ups are unable to trim down the lower levels, as people are unwilling to get rid of people dependent on them.
Those that work inside such a system advance in it by having a sound reputation to be able to effectively work within the rules and to please their superior. This is what makes a man into a bureaucrat.
This is much different than not just a business owner or business manager, but an employee of a business too.
An employee’s pay is determined by market conditions and his own work effort. An employee who does a good job will tend to earn money by proving himself to be of value to his employer. That employee may do this by providing a good service to customers or by producing and creating things of good value that make their way into the free market.
A bureaucrat can make nothing of his own. He cannot create anything new and of value to society. He is not even really rewarded for doing a good job to the “customers” of the government organization he works for. Unlike men in the private workplace he cannot be evaluated in terms of money or efficiency, because he does nothing that helps create profits.
On every day he leaves work he cannot go home and show his family that he created anything. He did not labor to create any new products. He cannot show how he added value to any customers’ lives. A good day for work for him consists simply of doing something that increases the view his superiors have of him.
He can only advance by proving himself to be helpful to his superiors. Then he becomes known as one for having a good reputation. His fate is always in the hands of his superiors and in time he becomes dependent upon them. He learns to conform and keep his head down and in time can come to hold the people of civil society in contempt to mask his feelings of inferiority that he gets from not being a master of his destiny.
Instead of recognizing this fact he often reaches a state of mind where he worships the bureaucracy that he is a part of and the rules around it. He then comes to think of himself as part of an indispensable mechanism – that without which all of the rest of society would collapse.
Because there is zero connection between expenses and revenue in a bureaucracy government leaders tend to pay little attention to efficiency and seek to always find new ways to get more funds either by helping the government grow its revenue or by arguing that what they do is more valuable than some other division of government so they deserve more money at someone else’s expense.
Now Mises does not believe that bureaucracy can be totally done away with. He thinks that there are some things that need to be done for society that cannot be determined simply by the market forces of supply and demand. Simply put there are things that cannot be paid for.
Police work is one simple example. Fire stations are another. As Mises puts it, “what people resent is not bureaucracy as such, but the intrusion of bureaucracy into all spheres of human life and activity.”
And all bureaucracies need to be closely monitored and checked to make sure that they do not grow out of control or become too inefficient in carrying out the purposes they were originally designed for.
The problem is that there are so many problems inherent in government organizations that they often do get out of control and lose their purpose.
THE US DEFENSE ESTABLISHMENT IS THE WORLD’S LARGEST BIG GOVERNMENT IRON TRIANGLE
Take the military. The defense establishment is the largest bureaucracy in the world. Over three million people work for the American defense department – which makes it the biggest employer on the planet.
The men who run any military organization take it as their goal to be as efficient as possible. But history shows that this doesn’t happen. Generals and admirals are always hostile to improvement and are in effect preparing for the war they last fought.
The result are famous histories in which armies fight battles with obsolete tactics that lead to slaughter and waste. You can take World War I trench warfare as an example.
Then you have forces in Poland and France who spread out their tanks in World War II and got crushed by the Germans. And today you have the United States spending hundreds of billions of dollars on fancy airplanes and wonder weapons that have zero use in the wars of insurgency it has been fighting the past decade.
But those planes create profits for the military industrial complex and jobs and a feeling of importance for those in charge of them.
The goal of a private business is to maximize profits by pleasing consumers and driving for efficiency. In government to try to be more efficient means to do something different – which can risk displeasing a superior who is used to doing things old ways that have benefited him.
That makes reform inside a bureaucracy virtually impossible – and can even cause the leaders of officialdom to lose touch with reality.
Bureaucratic leaders justify their rule not by saying that they are wise leaders that can bring greater efficiency to the nation, but by saying they know what is best, because they are experts of rule and they serve the state.
They may even say that they have access to top secret knowledge that you do not have so you must obey them. They say they make all decisions only for your benefit and if you don’t see that than you simply do not understand. It is your duty to obey and not think.
Such a person says in effect, “I serve the state. And the state is our God, and as a high level servant of the state you must obey me.”
And he is correct, because the state is your God. If you disobey it then it will punish you. It is your duty to pledge your absolute loyalty to it.
The worship of the flag and the military is the true national religion in the United States – not Christianity. At least not the type of Christianity practiced a hundred years ago in which the individual was seen as paramount in carrying out God’s work through personal charity and in search of personal redemption. For Americans of today the Federal government does God’s work for them by protecting the nation and bombing enemies as they pray to the flag and pledge it their total devotion. They merely have to obey to be anointed. In turn they receive the salvation of feeling like they belong to the righteous group by being a part of the collective.
If a nation state grows in size and becomes an empire the logical outcome is for the bureaucracy inside of it to get involved in imperial ventures and militarism to grow in power and declare itself indispensable for all. It then becomes a national security state and will in time erode the constitutional laws that first formed the state it now serves in the name of protecting it and its citizens.
A growth in power and importance for the leaders of the national security state will result along with a loss of civil liberty and freedom for everyone else.
Once big government spending mixes in with the private world of corporations such corporations in time also become bureaucratic.
The reason why is if they become dependent on government money to fund their operations and generate revenue they then cease to be influenced by the free market forces of supply and demand.
The United States spends more on military spending than any other nation in the world. Defense contracts are rewarded not on the basis of efficiency, but to companies with the right political connections on a cost+plus basis. This means the government promises to pay the cost of the military weapon being produced and provide a profit on top.
There is no reward for efficiency in such a system – in fact for the defense companies it is best to be inefficient and slowly raise the costs of weapons over time.
Ludwing von Mises explained why in his book- “the contractor spends some money with the intention of reducing costs of production. If he succeeds, the result is – under the cost plus a percentage of cost method – that his profit is curtailed. If he does not succeed, the government does not reimburse the outlays in question and he loses too. Every attempt to change anything in the traditional routine of production has to turn our badly for him. The only way to avoid being penalized is for him not to change anything.”
Of course rampant corruption is the result.
Every sector of the economy that the government gets involved in becomes cartelized as companies linked to the government use the government to create laws that restrict competitors. It then raises costs overtime and as they lose sight of the free market profit motive they themselves become bureaucratic.
So today we have now have skyrocketing healthcare costs, rising costs of college tuition, and a Wall Street banking system dependent on Federal Reserve bailouts that acts as a parasite on the whole country.
If bureaucratic institutions are not watched and monitored then in time they will grow out of control and eventually turn on civil society itself.
The question is how can a man be free in a system in which big government bureaucracy is growing in power?
Americans are the most closely monitored people in the history of man. Is it possible to turn such a system off or turn the tide of bureaucracy?
The bureaucratic man loses his soul and history shows that he will do anything in the name of collective power. The twentieth century was the century of bureaucratic administrative massacres. Perhaps we will learn from it and gain a better understanding of our own individual relationship to these power structures in this century.
My book The War State examines the rise of the national security state that transformed the United States after World War II. This website posts articles and interviews about these topics to keep you informed and have a real understanding of the changes going on in the world today.