Max Weber, sociology’s founder and the 20th century’s greatest social thinker, advanced a well-known theory of bureaucracy. As democracies become more complex, they inevitably become bureaucratic.
There are good reasons for this. Bureaucracies are often the most efficient way of accomplishing complex tasks. They develop rules and procedures to handle the kinds of cases arising repeatedly, eliminating the need to think through the same problems again and again. People within bureacracies become experts. The procedures and rules they devise render outcomes calculable — and thus predictable. This makes society as a whole more rational, letting people form reasonable expectations about the effects of their actions.
Democracy promotes bureaucracy for moral reasons too. Citizens of a democracy demand equal treatment before the law, which requires that the same rules are applied to all.
Nevertheless, Weber was no fan of bureaucracy. Its domain grows quantitatively as well as qualitatively. It takes on more and more tasks, extending its reach to every aspect of culture. As it grows, so do its costs — financial and otherwise.
Bureaucrats claim authority over areas of culture — e.g., education and the arts — over which they have no expertise, and over which, perhaps, no one can have expertise. Their decisions increasingly serve their own interests rather than the interests of their society.
Democracy and the bureaucracy it spawns thus come into conflict with one another. Weber wrote, "Democracy as such is opposed to the 'rule' of bureaucracy."
The administrators become a rule-giving class promoting its own power. They keep their procedures secret, keeping to themselves the knowledge that grants them a superior social position. The people find themselves increasingly powerless. They find themselves at the mercy of those they did not elect and cannot influence. Bureaucrats become autocrats. The people become their subjects.
Bureaucracy, Weber concludes, is among the hardest of social structures to destroy. It becomes a powerful weapon in the hands of those who control it. Those really in control, moreover, are not necessarily those nominally in control. Heads of state and other elected officials may come and go. The bureaucracy chugs on, impervious to their policies and goals. Meanwhile, the moral principle that cases should be judged with equal justice for all falls by the wayside. The bureaucracy favors itself and its political allies, who vote in favor of larger budgets and greater spheres of authority.
I’ve called this the paradox of progressivism. In the name of democracy, it creates a bureaucracy threatening democracy.
Weber’s analysis is a portrayal of the deep state. America finds itself struggling against a bureaucracy displaying all the negative features he warned us about. The deep state demands a greater share of the economy. It extends its reach beyond even education and the arts — to bedrooms and bathrooms. It insists on credentials which seem to reflect no real expertise but exclude people of the "wrong" social background.
The moral case for bureaucracy — that cases be decided with equal justice for all — falls away as well. The bureaucrats form an alliance with the Democratic Party, which increasingly defines itself as the party of the deep state and strives to increase its authority over us.
When the people finally get fed up and elect someone who understands the problem and promises to fight for them, the deep state does everything it can to ignore, undermine, and, if possible, destroy them.
We may not yet be experiencing "a polar night of icy darkness," trapped in an "iron cage," as Weber feared, but we are surely ensnared in an overlapping series of "Weberian webs."
We seem unable to escape. What can we do?
Weber’s writings offer little hope. But there are hints at strategies for breaking out of the web. We need to make officials accountable to the people.
The bureaucrats will do their best to keep that from happening. Under the Obama administration we saw serious misbehavior go unpunished again and again. Pursued ad hoc, the strategy is hopeless. Reform needs to be structural to have a chance.
What can we do? First, the civil service should not be independent. Its objectivity is already a sham; one party has captured it. The voters need to be able to make their voices heard. The president should be able to drain the swamp.
Second, bureaucrats should have term limits. All but a few essential agencies should too. A permanent bureaucracy threatens democracy. Reforms have no chance unless they challenge its permanence.
Third, we need educational reform. Bureaucracy promotes specialization. It generates educational institutions — serving it and expressing its interests. We need to restore a broad education, one which cultivates as well as trains; expressing and instilling our civilization’s values. That means taking control of education away from the bureaucracy and returning it to the people.
Daniel Bonevac is Professor of Philosophy at the University of Texas at Austin. Author of five books, most recently, "Ideas of the Twentieth Century," and editor or co-editor of four others, he has published over 60 articles in professional journals. He has also written for The Washington Post, The Critique, and The American Spectator. His massively open online course, "Ideas of the Twentieth Century," has enrolled over 50,000 students. He is co-founder of BriefLogic, a marketing communication firm. He is also a contemporary Christian musician and songwriter; you can hear his music on his daughter’s debut album, "Transfiguration." To read more of his reports — Click Here Now.
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