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Blupete's Weekly Commentary


November 10, 1997.

"Bureaucracy."

Let me first deal with my subject by quoting Bagehot, always a good thing to do.

"It is an inevitable defect, that bureaucrats will care more for routine than for results; or, as Burke put it, 'that they will think the substance of business not to be much more important than the forms of it'. Their whole education and all the habit of their lives make them do so. They are brought young into the particular part of the public service to which they are attached; they are occupied for years in learning its forms - afterwards, for years too, in applying these forms to trifling matters. They are, to use the phrase of an old writer, 'but the tailors of business; they cut the clothes, but they do not find the body'. Men so trained must come to think the routine of business not as a means, but an end - to imagine the elaborate machinery of which they form a part, and from which they derive their dignity, to be a grand and achieved result, not a working a changeable instrument. But in a miscellaneous world, there is now one evil and now another. The very means which best helped you yesterday, may very likely be those which most impede you to-morrow - you may want to do a different thing to-morrow, and all your accumulation of means for yesterday's work is but an obstacle to the new work.
Not only does a bureaucracy thus tend to under-government, in point of quality; it tends to over-government, in point of quantity. The trained official hates the rude, untrained public. He thinks that they are stupid, ignorant, reckless - that they cannot tell their own interest - that they should have the leave of the office before they do anything. Protection is the natural inborn creed of every official ...." (Bagehot's The English Constitution at pp. 171-172.)
Pity the men and women who go about, - conscientiously, or unconscientiously: creating, organizing, directing, legislating, and controlling society; they have a great responsibility, but not so great as the terrible responsibility we all have for setting them, - conscientiously, or unconscientiously - to such a task. Bureaucracy is the rule of no one.
"If the chief party, whether it be the people, or the army, or the nobility [in these days one might consider the chief party to be the government bureaucracy], which you think most useful and of most consequence to you for the conservation of your dignity, be corrupt, you must follow their humor and indulge them, and in that case honesty and virtue are pernicious." (Machiavelli.)

"The history of each learned society, or society for other purpose, shows how the staff, permanent or partially permanent, sways the proceedings and determines the actions of the society with but little resistance, even when most members of the society disapprove ..."

This is the case, not just only in government bureaurocy, but also in others, for example, in mercantile companies and in labour unions. Herbert Spencer continued:
"Their members, even when they dissent from the policy pursed, habitually yield to the authorities they have set up. As they cannot secede without making enemies of their fellow workman, and often losing all chance of employment, they succumb."

"He who is firmly seated in authority soon learns to think security, and not progress, the highest lesson of statecraft." (James Russell Lowell, Among My Books, 1870.)

I should not leave my topic leaving the impression that bureaucrats are powerful, and, to be critical, we should say they are not; the worst that can be said is that bureaucrats impede progress; which, of course, can bring on mental anguish, and, indeed, cause spiritual and financial ruin. True power is when one has autonomy and freedom of action. It comes only to the individual who needs no one else, one who is independent. Given the definition of power there are rather few people in any bureaucratic organization who one can truly describe as powerful. It is inherent in an organization, especially large ones, that there should be limits placed on everyone's freedom of action; thus, in the bureaucracy of government, equally so in big business, power is something which most people feel they lack. As people advance upwards in an organization they become more powerful corresponding to their increased freedom, viz., fewer people to whom they need answer. Ultimate power comes when one has no one to whom they need answer.

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Peter Landry

November, 1997 (2012)