What is bureaucracy? We think of bureaucracy or use the word to mean something that can be either in or out of the government. We often use it to refer to rule bound decision making. When someone won’t make a common sense exception to some rule that strikes
us as being meaningless we call them a bureaucrat. Bureaucracy seems to connote rule bound behavior, especially small, seemingly meaningless rules.
But the following of rules without making exceptions for individual cases is both the strength and weakness of bureaucracy. The fact that the rules will be followed no matter what is the thing that gives us confidence in bureaucracy and allows us to delegate tasks to it whether we are republicans or democrats, confident that the bureaucracy will not favor one side or the other. There is a trade-off. The more a bureaucracy is impartial the more it is going to be “mindless” or follow rules even when those rules seem to be meaningless.
So following centrally determined rules is part of what we mean by bureaucracy. Another part is interchangeability. If you want to know how an individual will behave in a bureaucratic role the only thing you have to know about is the role. Think about the army. To know about what an individual soldier will do the important thing to know is the soldier’s orders and role, the centrally issued orders and the ways that the soldier in his position is trained to carry out his routine tasks to know what he will do.
We see this in the great bureaucracies of the past. There is an effort to separate them from local ties. In the Church, perhaps the oldest bureaucracy on the face of the earth (the madarinate of China would have been the oldest by a long shot if the Communists hadn’t destroyed it) is founded on this idea of avoided ties. The priests are (theoretically) celibate and kept free from local ties by constant rotation. The same thing was true of the Roman Army, where the commanders were constantly rotated to keep them from becoming the agents of local powers rather than of the central authority. All of this is to insure that the bureaucrat does what the central authority wants rather than what might enrich him or endear him to the people he is supposed to be enforcing the rules for.
What is the point of this? Solving the principle agent problem. Who is the principle? The elected officials. Who is the agent? The bureaucrat. What is the difference in incentives that makes it a principle agent problem? Bribes, making people like you, getting a job after you leave the bureaucracy, influences from the local culture.
Having a good bureaucracy allows you to have rules that are enforced and goods that are distributed regardless of the people you hire to do the enforcing and distributing and the people that are subject to the enforcement of the are the intended beneficiaries of a policy. In a bureaucracy it doesn’t matter who you are but what you are, whether for bureaucrats of the citizen. The bureaucrat does the job the same way and the citizen gets the same treatment no matter what.
The no matter what has shifted throughout American history. At first the problem was political favoritism and patronage. Before the modern bureaucracy government jobs were a goody to be handed out to help politicians keep their jobs. There was not anything wrong with this in Americans’ eyes in the early part of the century either. The politicians hired the clerks, the clerks helped their friends but if they did a bad job you knew you could fire the bureaucrats by firing the politicians that hired them. That was actually a pretty decent way to get accountability. This worked fairly well when the federal government was mainly a post office and an army.
It started to be seen as inadequate for a couple of reasons. First, the government went into other businesses.
For one thing it started to give out a lot of cash. We are often called a welfare state laggard, but in fact, as a proportion of GNP the US was distributing more than almost any country to its citizens, just that they didn’t call it welfare. It was called aid to disabled veterans. The problem was that it was administered through a political patronage system so that eventually the number of disabled union veterans came close to rivaling the size of the original army. Once people started to retire they came to outnumber it.
The other thing was that the bureaucracy started to make rules as well as to follow them. This started because the government branched out into regulating things that were too complicated for the congress to make rules about itself.
This was a major shift in American thinking and wasn’t really accepted until WWII (if it ever has been fully accepted). The idea that someone you can’t fire can make rules that
you have to follow or go to jail or be fined was hard for the American people to get their heads around. They still haven’t to a large extent. It still seems kind of un-American.
And it is. Historically, one of the things that makes America unique is the absence of thwhat the Europeans call “the state”. Toqueville remarks on it in the early 19 century.
There doesn’t seem to be anything called the American government. Everyone calls themselves Americans but there is on one that represents the government, the permanent government, the way there is in the typical European country. In Europe the “state” is a powerful force, a man in uniform that will ask you for you papers. In the US even today there is very little of a unified group of people part of the same organization called the government.
Even as the proportion of people in the government has increased to near European levels, the US government has remained very spread out and diffuse, doing much of its work through state and local officials. Comparing European union to the American constitutional formation period the difference really is striking. In Europe the process of union has been gradual and bureaucratic. The bureaucracy wrote the treaty and implemented it largely without votes from the member states, let alone the people. In the US it was all written by professional politicians (there were no bureaucrats and no one
would have listened to them if there had been) and voted on by the states and often their people directly.
The other reason is that there are social cleavages that undermine the respect for rules among local populations. The most obvious example is race. You write these rules centrally that everyone is allowed to vote and then local officials or federal officials overly influenced by local attitudes and hierarchies undermine them and don’t give black people the benefit of the rules.
Historically, this has meant federalization by bureaucrats as a way to get around this. Interestingly, in the early anti-poverty programs of the 1960s one of the things the government would do to get around local hierarchies was to make use of one of the oldest bureaucracies: the Catholic Church. Its officials are great bureaucrats as far as doing paper work—want to be baptized? You need form 23-b….and they are famously non-
racist. The Church is founded on this idea of being universal so it is easy (comparatively) for it get beyond such hierarchies.
The great strength of bureaucracy is impartially administering rules. That is also its great curse. It doesn’t care who you are for better or worse. It is for better when it means getting you a social security check in spite of local prejudice against your race or religion, it is a curse in two ways.
The first is that the local variation might be what you want. The bureaucrats in the Katrina disaster followed the rules too well. Most of the complaints about bureaucrats you heard were of them NOT breaking the rules.
Bureaucracies as creatures of routine. Why are bureaucrats so hung up on routine? To protect themselves. The one defense a bureaucracy always has is that it followed the rules. Even if the bureaucracy as a whole gets into trouble the individuals can always keep their jobs if they can point to the rules that they followed.
The cop and the Nebbish.
You can understand a bureaucracy as a living thing, a thing that modifies its procedural DNA in response to threats to its survival and learning from and adapting to its environment. The result is that learning the histories and lives for bureaucracies can tell you more about what the bureaucracy will do than the policies of politicians and senior decision makers.
Russians in Cuban missile crisis, KGB vs. strategic air command, different environments;different SOPs
SAC in Europe—Pearl harbor in the DNA
CIA and Bin Laden, Church commission in its DNA, no human intelligence and no assassination, who cares if the “boss” wants him dead or alive.
The other thing that is bad about bureaucrats following rules is that they may do anything. thThe 20 century thought that bureaucracy would be the tool to liberate mankind from its oldest curses. Bureaucracy would rationally distribute goods like education and medicine, inoculation for infectious diseases and roadways. Things would be distributed according to a rational plan, not some personalized, willy-nilly set of improvisations. Equality and prosperity could be brought about by organizations that treated people according to what they were rather then who they were according to some rational centralized plan.
But what if what you are is a Jew and the plan is to exterminate them? This is the horror of the holocaust. Europe had seen pogroms, temporary frenzies of witch burnings or rampages against some ethnic group, but the frenzy always died away eventually.
But what if the ultimate rational tool were placed in service of the ultimate insanity. Germany was one of the least anti-Semitic countries. It was the last place you would expect the holocaust. That was why there were so many Jews there. Many Jews returned from Palestine to fight for Germany in the first world war. But a superbly rational bureaucracy can be the ultimate nightmare when placed in service of a deranged principle. The bureaucracy did what it was told. Thousands of German officials that had nothing personal against the Jews calmly and methodically worked together to murder them. The dream tool, the thing that made Westerners think that government could perhaps solve the perennial miseries of mankind, had been the genesis of a new one: genocide.