Thoughts on Bureaucracy

Max Weber developed most of the theory on bureaucracy – he viewed it as a rational method to improve efficiency . . . and in many ways, he was correct.   Still, it was Max who described the final evolution of bureaucracy: “It is horrible to think that the world could one day be filled with nothing but those little cogs, little men clinging to little jobs and striving towards bigger ones – a state of affairs which is to be seen once more, as in the Egyptian records, playing an ever-increasing part in the spirit of our present administrative system, and especially of its offspring, the students. This passion for bureaucracy … is enough to drive one to despair. It is as if in politics … we were deliberately to become men who need “order” and nothing but order, become nervous and cowardly if for one moment this order wavers, and helpless if they are torn away from their total incorporation in it. That the world should know no men but these: it is such an evolution that we are already caught up, and the great question is, therefore, not how we can promote and hasten it, but what can we oppose to this machinery in order to keep a portion of mankind free from this parceling-out of the soul, from this supreme mastery of the bureaucratic way of life.

As I started reading social theory, I got hung up on Weber – a conflict theorist who was accused of arguing with the ghost of Karl Marx (and Karl’s is not a bad ghost for the sake of argument) who favored the rationality of the bureaucracy, yet recognized the horror it could inflict.

A half century after Max Weber’s widow put his work into print, Jerry Pournelle produced The Iron Law of Bureaucracy: “In any bureaucracy, the people devoted to the benefit of the bureaucracy itself always get in control and those dedicated to the goals that the bureaucracy is supposed to accomplish have less and less influence, and sometimes are eliminated entirely.”  Unfortunately, my experience with bureaucracy has tended to support Dr. Pournelle’s observation.

Current applications of Weber’s approach to bureaucracies and management can be seen at: and it is probably easier than reading the original Max.  

Still, if we look at the Iron Law of Bureaucracy in terms of local government and services, we can see how it works.  Seventy-five years ago, Lincoln Electric began with people – possibly imperfect people – who believed in bringing electricity to their part of rural America.  It wasn’t just a job, it was a mission.  Just fifteen years later those same believers brought telephones to rural people.  It was a mission.  InterBel developed one more mission – bringing the internet to our rural area, and that cooperative maintains at least some of the mission orientation.  Over at Lincoln Electric, the employee and board focus is more on maintaining the bureaucracy, with the original goals outdated and forgotten – despite the number of neighbors who live off the grid.  It’s a natural bureaucratic tendency – Pournelle’s Iron Law

If we look at the public school system, we see where the local school board has been largely replaced by the professional bureaucrats housed in the Office of Public Instruction.  I have a feeling that there is a sub-species of teacher that lusts after a bureaucratic post.  The old joke, when school boards had more power, went “Be kind to your D students – before you retire, you’ll be working for them.”

It’s not the only joke that suggests the educational bureaucrats – I think it was George Bernard Shaw who wrote “Those who can do.  Those who can’t, teach.”  It didn’t take long for the addition: “Those who can’t teach, teach teachers.”  A while later the harsh phrase came “Those who can’t teach teachers administrate.”  Somewhere in these jests is hidden the Office of Public Instruction.

The Economic Research Service shows that Lincoln County’s economy is government dependent.  I suspect that means we have a lot of bureaucrats.                      

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