Is bureaucracy good or bad?

A viewer asked this question on 8/25/2000:

What is bureaucracies?

Bureaucracy just means that government is run by rules which are enforced by bureaus (offices or agencies) dedicated to just those rules. The original idea was to establish rules of law instead of arbitrary enforcement, which tended to be corrupt.

A viewer asked this question on 7/28/2000:

Dear Jesse Gordon,
Not anticipated by the Framers, the bureaucracy now is a fact of modern political life in the United States.
Is its existence a threat to democratic political values such as minority rights and majority rule?

JesseGordon gave this response on 7/31/2000:

You're right, bureaucracies were not anticipated by the framers. But that doesn't mean it's a threat to democracy.

Bureaucracy used to be a positive word, in the early 1900s during the Progressive movement (led by Pres. Teddy Roosevelt and Supreme Court chief Louis Brandeis). The Progressives thought that bureaucrats would be rule-driven to replace corruption; appointed by things like civil service rules to replace political patronage; and dedicated to their bureaucratic mission instead of partisan goals. To some extent, it worked.

I think that as long as the rules are set up well -- such as at least stating that minorities receive equal treatment -- then bureaucracies can avoid threats to minority rights. A true bureaucracy means that, if they don't follow the rules, you can sue them or otherwise take them to task for not upholding their stated mission. It's on that basis that the federal government has been the first to install handicapped access under the ADA; that the army led the way to racial equality; and that government hiring practices established affirmative action.

The legislature is still responsible for establishing the rules that the bureaucrats follow. So elected officials define what bureaucracies do, and hence there's still democracy at work.

What you're getting at, I think, is the idea that the bureaucrats override elected officials because they've been there longer and can't get fired. That's true, more or less, but I don't think that's a threat to democracy in any real sense, because bureaucrats are people too -- some are bad, some are good, but most at least try to do the job given to them.

Anonymous asked this question on 8/23/2000:

Why was bureaucracy rare in the world in 1750 (250 years ago) and yet it is everywhere today in 2000,except in the family and the small business?

budgetanalyst gave this response on 8/23/2000:

Because the world is more complicated, richer, and communications much easier. Only rich countries can afford large organizations and governments, and the level of education that requires and warrants large enterprises. When human affairs become more complicated there is a greater demand for governmental actions (be they defense, social welfare, or public works), and private enterprises will also become larger to respond to more complex demands.

And large private and governmental operations are facilitated by modern communications systems. The advent of the telegraph made it possible to tie together large organizations located in many places. Large organizations made little sense before this time because they could not be very effective and could not be used for much useful governmental activity. Modern communications systems also helped commercial activity, which in turn made countries richer and more complicated.

Another way to look at it is that the changes of the Industrial Revolution made for more wealth, complications, and sophistication, which both demanded and made possible large organizations.

But rarity of bureaucracy in 1750 is only a relative thing, generally applicable to what we today call Western Civilization. The Chinese Empires had well developed bureaucracies, as did the Romans and many pre-Columbian Indian civilizations. So there are other factors at play.

Hope this short answer helps with a complicated topic, and remember that experts like to be rated.

Anonymous asked this question on 8/23/2000:

Why was bureaucracy rare in the world in 1750 (250 years ago) and yet it is everywhere today in 2000,except in the family and the small business?

stevehaddock gave this response on 8/23/2000:

Well, I don't know if I agree with your premise. The word "bureaucracy" comes from the French word for desk, where someone would keep the important papers of state. The "bureaucrats", or those who ruled from their desks, were well known in France well before the revolution.

In fact, the Bourbons could not have run their country without the guys at the desk, and that goes for every other empire too.

Contrary to popular belief, when you go through ancient papers, you are unlikely to come upon something written by Plato or Moses. The vast majority of paper, stone and clay tablets that survive are public records of transactions. Every church in England contains a register of births, deaths and marriages going back to its founding. The Domesday Book compiled by the Normans was just a census of all the wealth of 11th century England. Most of what we know about history doesn't come from historians like the famous Thucydides of Athens, but from going back through the various papers stored in archives throughout the world. For example, here in Toronto, the location of the city's first post office was discovered by someone going through city archives and finding an order for post office boxes. Amazingly, the building described still existed 150 years later, and has now been restored.

We only think we have to file more paper and keep more records than we used to. In truth, we used to have to remember most of this stuff as people with writing skills were much in demand. During early British history, matters such as property rights, contracts, birth dates and the like were all determined by examining the memories of the inhabitants.

Over the years, as literacy spread, we realized how important record keeping was. Some of the records we keep are probably useless (for example, the New Jersey DMV threw out all the copies of vehicle leases it had when it found out no-one had ever asked for them). However, the usefulness of others only becomes apparent with time. For example, I bet the bureaucrats who kept the naval stores order for the Spanish Armada probably didn't think much of them. Neither did the drafters of the Constitution, which sat in a drawer in the State department until it was moved to the Smithsonian.

Anonymous asked this question on 7/28/2000:

Explain the roles bureaucrats play as politicians, policy makers, and non-political public services.

stevehaddock gave this response on 7/28/2000:

Elected politicians are smart people, but they lack expertise in many of the areas they are supposed to make decisions about. Government handles matters of economics, social policy, crime, roadways, defence and covert intelligence operations - sometimes all on the same day!

In addition, back in the early days of the United States, politicians performed many simple government functions personally. The decision to grant patents was made by just three people, one of whom was the Secretary of State, Thomas Jefferson. That first year, they granted a handful of patents. Now, the patent office receives and processes dozens of patent applications each day! If the Secretary of State still had to do this, not only would she probably lack the necessary expertise (she's a diplomat by trade) but she would have time for nothing else!

As such, bureaucrats generally fill the functions elected politicians either have no time for or don't have the expertise to deal with. This runs the full spectrum. George Washington led his own militia into battle during the Whiskey Rebellion, but Lincoln rarely even visited the battlefield during the Civil War, and it would be unthinkable now for Bill Clinton to lead troops into battle, even though they were all "commander-in-chief of the armed forces". At the other end, it is unlikely that Madeline Albright should hand out judicial appointments to arraignment court judges in the District of Columbia, even though James Madison's failure to perform this function adequately led to an early Supreme Court case on unconstitutionality (Marbury v. Madison).

Moreover, when elected politicians arrive in Washington (or Albany for that matter), they have to be briefed on what their responsibilities are (there as yet being no book entitled "Being the President of the United States for Dummies"). As bureaucrats generally now survive a change in government (which they didn't in Jefferson's day), they can bring the representatives up to date on what's going on, what has to be done, and so forth. For example, the Undersecretary of State's first job on meeting the President for the first time is to explain that the only necessity in foreign policy is "keep good relations with Canada", something everyone should know, but few presidents know upon coming into office.

At last count, the White House Staff alone numbered over 1700. The president doesn't meet most of these, but their presence is necessary just in case the president needs to be briefed on anything from monetary policy to the ongoings of the U.S.'s foreign relations with Burkina Faso.

Mind you, bureaucrats have their own preferences too. Many departments are in open warfare with each other. Justice wants more laws to punish foreign nations for their misdeeds, while State wants to stop having to explain to other nations why you can sue Canadians who do business in Cuba in the United States but Cuba isn't allowed to let its citizens sue the United States in Cuba.

Sometimes though, bureaucratic preferences are not only totally opposite to public and elected opinion, they often defy the logic of other experts. Many economists blame Alan Greenspan for making conditions bad for the less fortunate in the United States. By keeping interest rates high to bring down inflation, he also drove unemployment rates up. Mind you, rich people who owned a lot of government bonds (Ross Perot anyone?) made out like bandits on perfectly safe and secure investments. This is something another respected economist, John Kenneth Galbraith, has pointed out.

Mind you, its worse in other countries. The U.K. public and politicians are very pro-Israel. On the other hand, the Foreign Office is staffed almost entirely by pro-Arab factions (Israel embarrassed the Foreign Office by starting a war for independence in 1947, and the F.O. has a long memory). As such, England almost always votes against Israel in the U.N. even though politicians either support Israel or want England to take no position either way. (the story is a demand by the P.M. for a vote for Israel becomes a request by the Foreign Secretary, then a suggestion by the Foreign Undersecretary to the Ambassador to the U.N.)

Anonymous rated this answer:

Anonymous asked this follow-up question on 7/29/2000:

This answer is not answering all of my question, all I need is the roles bureaucrats play as politicians, policy makers and non-political servants.

stevehaddock gave this response on 7/29/2000:

While there are many important pieces of legislation before government which are there because of politicians, there is much more that is there because of bureaucrats. Most of these can be termed "housekeeping", but also include important things like copyright law, bankruptcy law, and judicial reform.

Bureaucrats generally work on their own initiative to get legislation before the legislature. Otherwise, only the urgent and public would ever become legislation. Bureaucrats deal with the "forgotten" legislation that causes more and more problems the longer it is ignored. Copyright is a good example. With the introduction of the internet and MP3 technology, the government should probably be taking action. Instead, as long as they continue to leave the matter with the courts, things are likely to get more confused, not less.

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