Philosophy, recent

The Inevitable Clash of Politicians and Bureaucrats

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

Feature photo by Gints Ivuskans / Shutterstock.


  1. David of Kirkland says

    “Trump’s democratic mandate”
    You mean that he lost the popular vote (democratic mandate), but won the elitist vote (electoral college).

    • Jairo Melchor says

      @David of Kirkland

      South American here. Would you say the same if Hillary Clinton would have won the electoral college but not the “popular vote”?

      Have you said the same in similar elections in the past? Is it that Trump somehow cheat or that your laws are made that way (for reasons i don’t know, there’s probably good reasons though)?

      You complete dismissed the entire article into “Hillary didn’t won, therefore, Trump must have cheated teehee”.

      Trump is certainly very dumb, but by his temper tantrums every once in a while you could say he’s not a puppet of anyone, and certainly not an extreme populist like Hillary, who has been changing his views on pretty much everything as if she was changing her shoes.

      In the end, the foolish bufoon that does not take order from anyone is better than the manipulative populist. That, in my view at least.

    • Joe says

      The Electoral College was designed precisely to keep raw majorities from too much control. Without it in 1789, there would be no U.S. today. It’s as valid today as then:

      (a) If you were to remove the vote counts of just Los Angeles and NYC in 2016, Trump would’ve won the popular vote. That large municipalities/States could determine the country’s future was something the smaller states wanted assurances wouldn’t happen. Hence the EC was became the mechanism. If there were no EC, most campaigning and money would revolve around a handful of metro areas in the country. Ironic that Elizabeth Warren campaigned for abolishment of the EC in a state like Mississippi.

      (b) In 2016, no candidate won the popular vote. All came in under 50%. Add to that the fact that only 55-60% of the voting population actually voted, AND removing the count of those under 18 and unable to vote by virtue of non-citizenship then both Trump and Clinton received between 18-22% of the population vote.

      (c) The office is President of the United STATES (not people). The design is that States are paramount and elect an executive to run their bidding.

      (d) The only reason Democrats are suggesting this is they lost by the rules. Otherwise this would not be an issue at all.

      You need some game rules to address issues like these. You don’t win the World Series by counting home runs. Home runs win you games. Games (States) win the World Series.

      • Stephanie says

        The difference in popular vote count between Trump and Clinton is about 1/3 the population of NYC. Abolishing the electoral college essentially establishes a political system like the Hunger Games where large cities control everyone’s fate.

        It’s unbecoming of Democrats that they think they’re entitled to change the rules their country was founded on just because they lost. They’ve managed to enforce ideological homogeneity through the school system and media in their centres of power, now they seek to concentrate power in those centres. This naked power grab ought to be fought on all fronts.

        • Access says

          “large cities control everyone’s fate”

          Alternatively “where every person’s vote carries equal weight, as opposed to today, where rural voters control the fates of urban voters”

          • Stephanie says

            Two wolves and a sheep voting on dinner. The people who pack themselves into cities until they are so frustrated they want to control their neighbours ought to be reigned in from enforcing that on everyone. Nothing stopping them from pursuing everything they want policy-wise at the local level.

    • Defenstrator says

      No, that’s not what he meant at all. I get that you may not be aware that the President serves at the behest of the states. Or that this was done so that the less populated states would not have their interests made completely subordinate to the more populated ones. But confusing your ignorance with elitism is not really on.

    • Gera says

      “You mean that he lost the popular vote (democratic mandate), but won the elitist vote (electoral college).”
      Still pouting? The rules of the contest are clear. Democrats have been insanely sore losers. Yet another symptom of the huge lack of respect for the constitution.

  2. E. Olson says

    There are two “populist” segments in recent times who are concerned about corrupt bureaucratic swamps. The first is the small Libertarian segment that believes a large bureaucracy is a threat to personal liberty, and therefore seeks political candidates who vow to drain the swamp. The larger segment are the “anti-elites” who believe the large bureaucracy is designed to protect and support the elite/rich at the expense of the “common man”, and they consequently look for political candidates who vow to stop giving “free stuff” to the elites and instead direct the bureaucracy to give “free stuff” to the “anti-elites”.

    The Tea Party movement was primarily Libertarian, and the Occupy Wall Street and Yellow Jacket movements were primarily “anti-elite”, while the Trump and Brexit wins were a combination of the two segments. The bureaucratic swamp’s only fear is of the Libertarian segment ever getting enough power to roll back the bureaucratic state, but fortunately for those “public servants” there are almost always more people who don’t want a smaller state, but instead merely want a large state that gives them more “free stuff” paid for by those evil, greedy billionaires. Thus the anti-elite populists are always self-defeating because there are never enough gullible billionaires who allow themselves to be fleeced by hungry bureaucracies intent on “spreading the wealth around” and the state quickly run out of money. With bankruptcy imminent, some like Sweden ratchet back the State slightly (bureaucracies are loath to shrink), but many others such as Venezuela double-down with ever more restrictions on economic and political freedom to feed the ever growing state until the whole thing blows up (see former USSR, Cuba and N. Korea in-progress as further examples).

  3. thsnark says

    As the article noted, bureaucrats are necessary, but politician need to control and manage them.

    Left to their own devices, bureaucrats will happily push their papers, defend their turf, and grow their little empires, The best explanation of this can be found in “Parkinson’s Law”, a wonderful little book written back in the 1950’s.

    But they are still needed to keep the government running, and they do have deep knowledge in their areas of expertise. While they don’t like to be overruled and pushed to do something new, the one thing they really hate is to be ignored. And for good reason. While the Mandarins in Whitehall oppose Brexit, their real objection is that the Brexiteers simply ignored their warnings. If the Brexiteers had argued that the benefits of “taking back control” outweighed the very real costs of leaving, the Mandarins would not be anywhere near as appalled. Instead the Brexit supporters continue to insist that it will be cost-free.

    Similarly in the US with Trump. If he made policy decisions based on facts and knowledge, even if it contradicts the bureaucrats recommendation, they might be unhappy with it, but they would go along…that’s their job. But he has no knowledge of any of the key issues, is uninterested in learning anything, and simply makes it up as he goes along. For anyone who has spent their lives mastering a subject, that is appalling and worth opposing.

    • E. Olson says

      Snark – You give way too much credit to the “expertise” of the bureaucracy. Remember the expert consensus was that the world was heading for another ice-age (1970s), the world would run out of oil in 10 years (1979), we only have 12 years to stop global warming (1988), carbs are good and fat is bad (1992), China is a good trading partner (2001), Iraq has stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction (2001), the surge in Iraq would never work (2006-07), housing prices would always go up (2007-08), high priced electricity and gasoline helps the poor (Obama administration), racism and sexism is rampant among university faculty, staff, and students (Obama administration), Russia colluded with Trump (2016-19), and Trump is an idiot who doesn’t know anything (current).

      You also give way too much credit to the willingness of civil servants to do their job even if they disagree with their orders. First of all, they will disagree with any Republican president because 90% are committed Leftists, they can’t be fired because of civil service rules and public employee unions, they will leak dirt to the sympathetic media to stop things they dislike, and they weaponize the bureaucracy to stop anyone or anything they dislike (see IRS scandal in 2012, see DOJ/FBI/CIA spying on Trump campaign). Even Democrat presidents can have trouble, Truman felt sorry for Eisenhower because as a general he expect orders to be carried out, and Truman know the bureaucracy doesn’t work that way.

      • Ray Andrews says

        @E. Olson

        “You give way too much credit to the “expertise” of the bureaucracy. ”

        I like your list, but were those beliefs those of the bureaucracy or rather of the MSM and the chattering liberal elite?

        • E. Olson says

          Happy Easter/Passover Ray – the common expression among the few Right leaning commentators is the “press are Democrat operatives with bylines”, which I think is very accurate. Clearly there is virtually zero investigative journalism these days, so any media coverage of the issues above are almost certainly the result of collaboration/leaks from bureaucracy insiders.

          • Ray Andrews says

            @E. Olson

            You too sir.

            That’s a credible view. But some of the above would have to have originated with scientists or are purely political statements. Mind, the pathway from the lab to my screen would likely involve some bureaucrats along the way even if the bureaucrats didn’t actually come up with the data themselves.

          • E. Olson says

            Ray – too many scientists are trying to please their bureaucratic paymasters rather than find the truth, which is one reason the “predictions” are so often wrong.

      • tarstarkas says

        Pournelle’s Iron Law of Bureaucracy states that in any bureaucratic organization there will be two kinds of people”:

        First, there will be those who are devoted to the goals of the organization. Examples are dedicated classroom teachers in an educational bureaucracy, many of the engineers and launch technicians and scientists at NASA, even some agricultural scientists and advisors in the former Soviet Union collective farming administration.

        Secondly, there will be those dedicated to the organization itself. Examples are many of the administrators in the education system, many professors of education, many teachers union officials, much of the NASA headquarters staff, etc.

        The Iron Law states that in every case the second group will gain and keep control of the organization. It will write the rules, and control promotions within the organization.

        The Peter Principle is also involved here (incompetence rising to its proper level) plus good old-fashioned cronyism and CYA going on.

        • Ray Andrews says


          What about the third kind, the slackers and time-clockers, most of whom will pretend to be the 1st above, and the forth kind, the sociopathic climbers, who mostly pretend to be the 2nd above, but who are not really thinking about the organization, but about their own advancement?

    • Paul Ellis says

      “If the Brexiteers had argued that the benefits of “taking back control” outweighed the very real costs of leaving, the Mandarins would not be anywhere near as appalled. Instead the Brexit supporters continue to insist that it will be cost-free.”

      Must object here. Notwithstanding the blandishments of ‘leaders’ hoping to profit from the situation, intelligent people with a modicum of life experience know that any kind of change always has associated costs.

      This is why politicians such as Philip Hammond, insisting that “no-one voted to be poorer”, are outright lying. Intelligent and informed people who voted leave did vote to be poorer, at least in the short term, because that was inevitably going to be the cost of the change required to restore British sovereignty over its laws. Sovereignty has a price. The Scottish National Party, for example, still appears to be very keen to pay it.

      As for the mandarins, let’s not forget that mandarins themselves need something to rule. Bureaucracies tend towards expansion and mission-creep, and there is nothing an ambitious bureaucrat likes better than yet another tier of hierarchy to ascend. Robert Conquest understood this very well. These tendencies perfectly explain the small-c conservatism of the ‘deep state’ and the bureaucratic antipathy towards Trump and Brexit. The ‘expertise’ of individual bureaucrats is largely irrelevant: anyone who has had any experience of the way civil servants generate their ‘impact assessments’, based as they invariably are on policy-based evidence, is well within their rights to dismiss much bureaucratic ‘expertise’.

      Bureaucrats are experts at running existing systems. They are very poorly equipped to institute change, and their groupthink, notions of institutional infallibility, and vested interest, cause them to be an impediment whenever genuine, systemic social change is necessary.

    • Closed Range says

      You are misleading in your claims brexiteers claim it is cost free and are ignoring anything. In reality, the people have decided that the economic cost is worth it, as people put a higher price on their democracy. In fact, imo the strongest argument for Brexit is to bring back democractic oversight to the bureaucrats who run our lives. In an ideal world the EU would have been democratic to start with, but sadly there is no alternative.

      When it comes to the costs, there are two points. First is that many of the claimed costs coming from remainers (inside the bureaucracy and the press) are downright lies trying to scare us, such as the idea that supermarkets will run out of food, when the food mix in the UK is largely home grown for staples and imported from outside the EU for out of season fruit and veg, and we will have no problem importing after brexit. The second point is that, among those costs which are most likely real, such as the issues Airbus will face with its production, it is clear that this is an acceptable cost.

      The only part where I think the article is slightly off target is that when it comes to brexit, it is not only the unelected bureaucracy that has screwed the population over, it is also the elected MPs, many of whom from Leave dominant constituencies. Democracy truly has been betrayed by the whole political system. I think right now the UK is no longer a democracy, but a remainer autocracy.

  4. Stephanie says

    “Democracy, too, will need to rely on bureaucrats because no other system of conscious intervention in the course of social affairs is as efficient.”

    Perhaps we should not see the role of government as such? The point about the judicial system being essentially a bureaucratic mechanism is well-taken, but that bureaucracy is structured such that checks and balances are not only in place, but in public view.

    The unelected bureaucracies that make up the vast majority of governments are a whole different beast. That they are undemocratic, and tend not to be responsive to democratic mandates, is a problem because unlike the justice system they are ideologically homogeneous and no real deliberations occur or are subject to public scrutiny.

    If we must have bureaucracy, we ought to structure it like the justice system: have all policies debated publically, to be deliberated on by a jury of citizens. Efficiency should not be the primary concern, as the author’s German example should typify, but for the sake of efficiency before undertaking this rigorous evaluation of policy, an expert should be charged with a reviewed aimed at cutting 1/3 of regulations. (This was Jason Kenney’s platform for the recent Alberta election.) Let the rest be justified in the face of vigorous opposition.

  5. Those interested in the voting system might remember that President Clinton got only 43% of the popular vote in 1992.

    As for this interesting article, it reminds me of the old but excellent British TV comedy series ‘YES MINISTER’, which brilliantly lampooned the struggles between politicians and bureaucrats.

    • Jake Dee says

      My thoughts exactly.
      In “Yes Minister” and “Yes Prime Minister” the Minister’s fights to get anything done, not with the people or the opposition but with the entrenched bureaucracy of the civil service and the old boys network.
      A personal favorite was “the Whiskey Priest” where the minister learns of a terrorist group obtaining British military technology. The Prime Minister knows but doesn’t want to be officially told, the Minister knows but can’t officially not tell the PM. The solution is to deploy “The Rhodesia Solution” where by the bureaucrats write a letter that says everything technically correctly but in such a way that nobody will understand.

      So the skill of not telling the leaders what is actually going on is as essential as knowing what going on.
      What happened to the terrorists ? We don’t know the episode ends with the Minister getting totally drunk

  6. “conspiracy theories of “Deep State” or “elite” interest.”

    Conspiracy theory is not the right term. They are attempts to understand socio-political reality which is clearly not as we are taught it is at school & university, or as politicians want us to believe it is.

    That society’s elites, which includes academics (who, one should remember, are modern heirs of the medieval clergy), would seek to preserve or change society in ways which serve their own personal self-interests should not surprise us. The primary purpose of the state has always been to facilitate society’s self-exploitation to the personal advantage of it ruling elites & favoured clients, which includes the wealthy, of course, and academics, the very people we look to as authorities on understanding society & the state.

    I’m not suggesting that social & political scientists consciously deceive us, but that they do deceive us, along with themselves. So, yes, there is a conspiracy – of self-exploitation, which will ultimately lead to society’s self-destruction. Only, it is not consciously organised. It is just the way that the Matrix of state & capital work. Have always worked, ever since the first states & civilisations emerged from a tribal society.

    If you know the film, The Matrix, it does provide a very good analogy for society & how we are all, rich and poor alike, enslaved to it. The rich & anyone who is well served by it, like Cypher in the film, wants to remain enslaved (because it feels like freedom, even though it’s not) and are prepared to betray their own in order to remain so.

    I elaborate on this idea here:

  7. E. Olson says

    Is it purely coincidence that all the countries that Leftists point to as ideal “socialist” or “generous welfare state” models have small homogeneous populations (i.e. virtually all white Nordics/Scandinavians with populations ranging from 400K in Iceland to 10 million in Sweden)? Perhaps small homogeneous countries can get by with small bureaucracies that are relatively efficient and responsive because they are less corrupted by huge resources and bribes/pressures from competing tribes? Could Bernie possibly be wrong in suggesting that the Danish model (population 5.7 million – 94% white European/Christian heritage) would work equally well in the USA (328 million, 58% white non-Hispanic)?

  8. Philip says

    Going back to the article, the author explains clearly the different power centres represented by politics and bureaucracy, but says nothing about why they face in opposite directions at the moment. The fact is that they don’t always. Sometimes they face the same way but that tends to be when both are lined up towards the cultural left. A left of centre government doesn’t have the same problems as a right of centre government. The question is why is that? And the answer is that bureaucracy is for some reason aligned with the left. This may simply be the result of the long march through the institutions, but whatever the cause there is uncorrected bias on one side. So the real question is not how do you duo without bureaucracy, you can’t, but how do you correct it’s prejudice. One civil servant wrote recently that of the hundreds of people he knew at work only for were in favour off Brexit. That’s the issue that needs addressing.

    • soulstatic says

      Well, the left specializes in bureaucracy. They believe in big government.

  9. “In sum, a bureaucracy is the most efficient system of social domination yet devised by man.”

    The author repeated seems to grant the efficiency of bureaucracies and the wisdom of experts. Both, highly dubious notions.

    There has indeed been a growth of bureaucracies coincidental with the domination of science and its technological advancements. The more nature is transformed into an object to be controlled and managed, the more we humans are transformed into objects to be controlled and managed.

    Long before Max Weber wrote of the rise of bureaucratic rationalism Alexis de Tocqueville warned of the rise in the young American democracy of what he envisioned as a totally new form despotism. What he called the “tutelary State” would emerge in a democratic society as an paternalistic entity which would presume to attend to every need while maintaining its citizens in a state of perpetual dependency.

    I believe Max Weber himself was quite dubious of the rise of hyper rational bureaucracies who were symptomatic of the modern “disenchantment”. Moreover, Weber recognized that bureaucratic interests and citizen interests would not necessarily coincide. What’s rational for the bureaucrat isn’t necessarily rational for me. And this divergence of interests is precisely what millions of people believe to be the case today: Bureaucracies have made an unholy alliance with academia, the media and great corporations pursuing their interests, not our interests.

    Tocqueville understood the only remedy for the seepage of power from citizen to bureaucrat was for individuals to take more responsibility for their own lives. We’ve been lurching from one demagogue to the next, from the right to the left for quite a while. And what they all have in common is the promise to take care of us if we’ll just give them a little more power.

  10. Barney Doran says

    As described above, isn’t bureaucracy ripe for take-over by artificial intelligence?

    • “isn’t bureaucracy ripe for take-over by artificial intelligence?”

      As I mentioned in my post below: Bureaucracy is not staffed by “experts” but by clueless people repeating rigid scripts because there are not enough “experts” willing or able to administer something.

      This is rapidly being automated away by phone trees, web forms, and administrative scripts.

      Our bailouts have allowed diverse market-places to consolidate into companies as massive, sclerotic, and rage-inducingly impersonal as any government bureaucracy, with the predictable result of the removal of personalized service and its replacement with robots.

      Hope everyone enjoys their bar-codes and UBI!

  11. =========================================

    “In a bureaucracy, trained experts ensure that stated goals are achieved. ”

    The absurdity of this phrase undermines every possible assertion of “positive contribution” of bureaucracy to society.

    First, It is self-evident from anyone who interacts with “bureaucracy” that it is not staffed by “trained experts”, but clueless drones following rigid scripts.

    This is because bureaucracy is there to insure CONSISTENCY at the COST of efficiency and individual fit.

    This is because there are either too few “experts” to implement something at scale or because the honest majority of actual “experts” have told ideologues demanding something that their proposed solution is not a proper fit and refused to participate.

    (This dynamic is the fundamental reason why smaller companies are “more nimble” and get better consumer reviews)

    The result is the “end goal” being obstructed by a massive vertical stack of incompetents who KNOW how incompetent and undignified their position is, and as a result are psychologicall motivated to abuse the process to extract undeserved “respect” as “experts” from anyone trying to reach said “end goal”.

    In short: they are mini-tyrants, and there is no surer way to prevent a goal being met than to place “bureaucrats” in charge of it. One only has to mention something heavily bureaucratized to elicit immediate exasperation, dread, and horror stories.


    “He relates historical instances in which the bureaucracy simply ignored orders from its supposed political masters as the crazed ideas of dilettantes.”

    And this is why the most popular and historically right elected officials have started by first purging the bureaucracy by whatever means necessary, be it pink-slip or gallows.

    “One-size fits all” policy imposed from hundreds or thousands of miles away is oppressive by the very fact that its designers know NOTHING of local considerations. That’s why the US constitution was SUPPOSED to prevent all but the minimum in federal apparatus and push the devolution of as many services as possible to the most local levels possible.

    By the letter of article 1 of the constitution, literally EVERY “bureau” of government is an unconstitutional usurpation of congressional authority, which was restricted to congress to INTENTIONALLY limit its reach via limitation of its bandwidth.

  12. martti_s says

    This basically explains the changing role of mainstream media.
    As people become better informed, they start to see through the talk about democracy and realize that they are not getting what they have voted for. Further on, there is a reality that is not visible to anyone except those who are within the elite circles. The decisions are made to match that reality.

    What if it is twisted, what if there are tendencies that are political, and then again some that the majority of the population is not ready to accept.

    What if…Then you’d get Yellow Vests rioting in France, you’d get ‘populist’ (which is a bad thing) movements rising all over in the Western world. You would see the elites hit back with their media, silencing, black-painting and name-calling those who call out the discrepancy of the politics that the elites consider ‘unavoidable’ and the politics that the people are more and more taking as a threat to their way of life.

    I think we are witnessing this very cleavage right now.
    People know too much but still too little.
    And the elites feel that more knowledge would be bad for their position.
    they want a softly moving status quo that would guarantee their reign in the future.
    I think they are up to facing some bad news.

  13. Craig Willms says

    I got a kick out of this definition:
    “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”

    If it were only the case. Has anyone observed the bureaucracy of the DOT when fixing a minor issue with the roads, or the city water dept when a water main breaks? By no means is efficiency a word used to describe these processes.

    In a perfect world the above attributes might be true if there were no ego’s or power plays or other chest-puffing or turf-protecting going on within these bureaucracies. As it is populist politicians are a focal point for the plebes eternal frustration. Sad to sad the bureaucracy almost always wins in the end.

  14. James Burnham, “The Managerial Revolution.” Most of the decisions relating to governance are handled by bureaucrats already, and have been for a long time. I would add that the creation of a “professional” civil service, which prohibits firing based on political views, makes the bureaucracy extremely difficult to change. I can understand the justification for it, but it does create a permanent class of largely self-selected administrators who may be totally at odds with the ruling government.

  15. Geary Johansen says

    A great deal of the burdens of the administrative state, come from the fact that there is often little thought as to how legislative power will be translated into regulatory requirements. Politicians always want something that will work quickly, and passed before their term limits expire or they are sacked, rather than something that will work efficiently.

    Lobbying interests are also very good at inserting the brunt of governmental force and coercion into the fine print of legislation, effectively hoodwinking politicians and the public into accepting new laws, without consideration to the greater implications.

    For example, in the UK, the Communications Act of 2003, the intent was, at least in part, to limit the ability to threaten, stalk and otherwise harass others online, as well as to build upon existing legislation- specifically incitement to racial hatred. In practise, the effect is to prosecute comedians like Count Dankula for transgressive videos and persecute little old ladies for making comments like ‘Have a gay day’. The idea that offence can be adjudicated, especially where the instruction to the judge is to disregard context, is offensive, in itself. Tyranny is the deliberate removal of nuance.

    As a UK citizen, I would happily pay £15 a year, towards an organisation that goes through new legislation with a fine tooth comb, just to prevent the idealogues from further taking over, to streamline future bureaucracies before they spring up and limit the expanding power of special interests. I think the UK government was the only government to protest, when the EU sought to prevent mobile phone companies from extorting roaming fees, which occasionally amounted to £20-30k per customer for a fortnight’s holiday. A news report at the time, claimed that the charges amounted to higher cost per byte than receiving data from the Hubble telescope.

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