The Inevitable Clash of Politicians and Bureaucrats
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The Inevitable Clash of Politicians and Bureaucrats

Jakob Heidbrink
Jakob Heidbrink
8 min read

Several Western countries have seen a surge in “populist” parties, leaders, and policies in recent years. This surge has elicited a forceful response from traditionally dominant elites. The situation also has led to tensions within governments and their bureaucracies. To cite just two examples: reports of White House officials actively assessing the possibility of ridding themselves of President Donald Trump; and Whitehall officials despairing of the “impossibility” of Brexit.

In short, democratic elections, and democratic decisions, do not always seem to command the respect they deserve. Should we be worried?

The short answer is: yes, we probably should.

The long answer is more nuanced, and it goes far beyond conspiracy theories of “Deep State” or “elite” interest. The fact of the matter is that we were told to expect this a hundred years ago by the German sociologist Max Weber.

Weber’s writings are practically inevitable as a point of reference when discussing modern public administration. (He called this bureaucracy, but I will use the term public administration interchangeably, as well as the terms officials or experts when speaking of bureaucrats.)

Weber regarded bureaucracy as the very embodiment of rationality, and therefore unparalleled as a means of implementing political decisions. Rationality in this context essentially implies economy of means: that is, rationale which attains an end by the most economic, and hence efficient, means possible.

In a bureaucracy, trained experts ensure that stated goals are achieved. Division of labor applies: Every official supervises a small and strictly delimited field, thereby gaining further specialized knowledge and experience. By working together seamlessly with colleagues, and under the supervision of a superior who has the right to instruct the expert and direct the bureaucratic mechanism, the sum of all bureaucrats becomes a machine pretty much like one in a factory. Orders, commands and directions are issued continuously and efficiently. No other mode of organizing conscious collective decision making, and of implementing decisions, is, according to Weber, even remotely as efficient as a well-ordered bureaucracy.

In its ideal Weberian state, a bureaucracy is ordered and organized by laws and other rules, and adheres to a strict hierarchy. The rules rank successive bureaucratic superiors, one over the other, and ultimately empower a single person to direct the bureaucracy. This final chief of the bureaucracy is usually an elected or appointed official such as a Minister of State who is not himself a trained bureaucratic official. This highest chief constitutes the nexus where political power meets the soulless and rule-directed efficiency of the bureaucratic system. In sum, a bureaucracy is the most efficient system of social domination yet devised by man.

But that is a theoretical ideal. In social reality, the elected official is elected precisely because he or she is not a soulless expert. Politics is a game ultimately won and lost by charismatic leadership, not rules. Politicians are elected for their ability to lead, for the respect they command, for the favors they are able to call in. The logic of politics is therefore diametrically opposed to the logic of the bureaucracy: where the latter relies on files, routines and rules, the former relies on strength of personality, favors, and traditional leadership. There is, therefore, a latent clash of interest between the political and the bureaucratic sphere.

In this clash of interest, politics tends to hold the short end of the stick. Weber often points to the inherent advantage held by a trained and experienced expert over the ambitious amateur. He relates historical instances in which the bureaucracy simply ignored orders from its supposed political masters as the crazed ideas of dilettantes. Ultimately, says Weber, the political masters are at the mercy of their supposed subordinates. Confronted with technical lingo, and with the tacit knowledge of experts, the layman will find it difficult to hold his own.

At this point, Weber seems to be slightly self-contradictory. Isn’t bureaucracy, in his own analysis, rule-bound, and don’t the rules point to elected officials as masters of the bureaucratic machine?

The apparent contradiction may be resolved by turning to another German sociologist, Niklas Luhmann. Luhmann, in his analysis of power, notes (as does Weber, if not as clearly) that absolute power cannot be handled by any single individual. The tasks are too many. A prime minister, president, or Minister of the State cannot conceivably take all the decisions that even a limited number of officials, taken together, take every day. There is simply not enough time, nor enough cognitive space, for one person to do the task of many.

So, ironically, the more power becomes concentrated, the more it must be delegated. An absolute monarch must rely more on subalterns for decision making than must the chief of a single small office. Power that, on paper, is concentrated and focused at a single point, will, in reality, be spread across many different people. With the individual official as the real master of most decisions, they will develop their own policy, irrespective of who the formal masters are.

This is borne out in the empirical studies of the American political scientist Micheal Lipsky, who has studied street-level bureaucrats. To a very large extent, individual bureaucrats have a space of individual discretion that cannot be eliminated by rules. This may be experienced by the official as either a blessing or a curse. But the fact remains that the official not only will be able to shape policy, but will, in fact, be required to do so in order to achieve anything at all. To the extent officials wish to contravene the spirit of official policy on the level of rule application, they will usually be able to do so. If they are too blatant about it, superiors (prompted by the public, or by their formal political masters) may intervene, but if the street-level bureaucrat has any skill, organized objections can be prevented.

Going back to Weber, this mechanism of diffused and fragmented absolute power can, then, be put into context with democracy as such. Democracy strives towards two goals that cannot easily be reconciled. On the one hand, democracy insists on levelling social differences: all citizens ought to be treated alike. This promotes bureaucracy; the rule-based nature of bureaucracy, and the abstract nature of the rules, will tend to soften social differences. On the other hand, democracy abhors the unelected official and his power, and therefore deeply distrusts bureaucratic experts. This tends to leave democracy opposing bureaucratic rule.

At the end of the day, however, democracy, too, will need to rely on bureaucrats because no other system of conscious intervention in the course of social affairs is as efficient. Democracy will, therefore, tend to lose. The trained expert will win over the layman who cannot administer public affairs as efficiently. Nor will the layman be able to supervise all the decisions taken by officials.

The interests of the bureaucracy and of democracy will, therefore, tend to diverge. The cadre of expert officials that constitutes the bureaucracy will administer local policies and will have some sort of esprit de corps. The officials will tend to regard their own opinions as based on expertise, and those of the rest of the population as potentially benighted. Political masters who try to go against bureaucratic policy will often be told that their ideas are impossible or ill advised. If the politician insists, and the stakes are high enough, the bureaucracy will simply not implement political orders as intended, or will at least actively impede the implementation of undesirable political orders.

Weber identifies two ways in which the power of the bureaucracy can be somewhat alleviated. One is actively fostering an esprit de corps that induces bureaucrats to take pride in their ability to follow any order and to implement it with technical perfection. If that is the culture of the bureaucratic corps, its members will tend to ignore the content of any order. Orders will be implemented to perfection, whatever the consequences; consequences for which the bureaucracy does not deem itself responsible. Such attempts were still routinely being made in Weber’s day, but since the moral collapse that was the Third Reich, bureaucrats in many Western countries have been expected to think for themselves, to question political orders, and to be the guardians of essential values (whatever these values in an individual case may be). Therefore, this way is, at least at the moment, barred.

The other way to check the power of the bureaucracy is charismatic leadership; that is, politicians who are able to mobilize a following that is overwhelming even for bureaucrats. This, however, will provoke a clash, and the final outcome of this clash is not certain. The price of forcing a bureaucracy to accept what it rejects will also always be disruption, to some extent.

That brings me back to the bureaucratic obstruction with which I started.

Donald Trump, in his inauguration speech, openly declared war on the established bureaucracy. It appears still to be an open question who will win this war. It is, however, not surprising that the bureaucracy should be looking for ways to fight back. Trump’s democratic mandate is, in this context, neither here nor there.

In the case of the U.K., the problem goes deeper. Since the referendum, there is a widely held public opinion that the decision to leave must be respected. Brexit was a genuinely political decision, and had little to nothing to with what experts thought was feasible. The conflict might be summed up in Michael Gove’s (in)famous dictum that the public has had enough of experts. It is, therefore, in no way surprising that there is a clash between political and bureaucratic opinion. The fact that political opinion is deeply divided about the point of Brexit is and about how it should be brought about, does little to promote bureaucratic enthusiasm for the decision. From a Weberian point of view, it is not surprising that the bureaucracy should question the wisdom (or lack thereof) of Brexit.

So here we are.

Western States have, over the past 150 years, created bureaucracies without which much of what we all tend to take for granted would not work—or at least during a transitional period of uncertain length, would not work as smoothly and efficiently as we are used to. Bureaucracy ensures that there is at least some modicum of equality before the law. (In fact, it may be argued that the rule of law and bureaucracy are largely, if not entirely, the same). Bureaucracy thus provides the levelling of social status on which democracy depends and will be difficult indeed to do without it.

But bureaucracy also means that unelected officials are in positions of political power. If and when these officials decide they don’t like the direction of political policy, they have the means and the expertise to seem to follow the letter of the law without adhering to its spirit. As Weber predicted, the large-scale bureaucracies that democracy created have become a fetter on democratic maneuvers.

So, yes, we should be worried either way. We should be worried about democracy being undermined by unelected power. But we should also be worried about how States might be run, should the power of bureaucracies be broken.

Will there be bureaucracy to keep things running the way many people with little ability to adapt to changed circumstances are used to? How long will it take for market forces to achieve a level of co-ordination similar to that achieved by bureaucracies? How should we deal with democratically based demands that the State solve certain problems, or take care of certain sections of the population? Do we risk public administration once again ending up in private hands, and citizens being dependent on inherited interest, on notables or nobles running local affairs?

Whichever optimistic view one has of democracy, of markets, and of small States, there is a reason bureaucracies were created in the first place, and there is a reason why bureaucracies tend to grow and proliferate.

And it has little to do with grand conspiracies.


Jakob Heidbrink

Jakob Heidbrink is an associate professor in law at the University of Gothenburg.