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Title: Bureaucratic  
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For other uses, see Bureaucracy (disambiguation).

A bureaucracy is "a body of nonelective government officials" and/or "an administrative policy-making group."[1] Historically, bureaucracy referred to government administration managed by departments staffed with nonelected officials.[2] In modern parlance, bureaucracy refers to the administrative system governing any large institution.[3][4][5][6][7][8]

Since being coined, the word "bureaucracy" has developed negative connotations for some.[9] Bureaucracies are criticized for their complexity, their inefficiency, and their inflexibility.[10] The dehumanizing effects of excessive bureaucracy were a major theme in the work of Franz Kafka, and were central to his masterpiece The Trial.[11] The elimination of unnecessary bureaucracy is a key concept in modern managerial theory,[12] and has been a central issue in numerous political campaigns.[13]

Others have defended the existence of bureaucracies. The German sociologist Max Weber argued that bureaucracy constitutes the most efficient and rational way in which human activity can be organized, and that systematic processes and organized hierarchies were necessary to maintain order, maximize efficiency and eliminate favoritism.[14] But even Weber saw bureaucracy as a threat to individual freedom, in which the increasing bureaucratization of human life traps individuals in an "iron cage" of rule-based, rational control.[15][16]

Word origin and usage

The term "bureaucracy" is French in origin, and combines the French word bureau – desk or office – with the Greek word κράτος kratos – rule or political power.[17] It was coined sometime in the mid-1700s by the French economist Jacques Claude Marie Vincent de Gournay, and was a satirical pejorative from the outset.Template:Or Gournay never wrote the term down, but was later quoted at length in a letter from a contemporary:

The late M. de Gournay...sometimes used to say: "We have an illness in France which bids fair to play havoc with us; this illness is called bureaumania." Sometimes he used to invent a fourth or fifth form of government under the heading of "bureaucracy."

Baron von Grimm[9]

The first known English-language use was in 1818.[17] The 19th-century definition referred to a system of governance in which offices were held by unelected career officials, and in this sense "bureaucracy" was seen as a distinct form of government, often subservient to a monarchy.[18] In the 1920s, the definition was expanded by the German sociologist Max Weber to include any system of administration conducted by trained professionals according to fixed rules.[18] Weber saw the bureaucracy as a relatively positive development; however by 1944, the Austrian economist Ludwig von Mises noted that the term bureaucracy was "always applied with an opprobrious connotation,"[19] and by 1957 the American sociologist Robert Merton noted that the term "bureaucrat" had become an epithet.[20]


Although the term "bureaucracy" was not coined until the mid-1700s, the idea of rule-bound administrative systems is much older. The development of writing (ca. 3500 BCE) and the use of documents was critical to the administration of this system, and the first definitive emergence of bureaucracy is in ancient Sumer, where an emergent class of scribes administered the harvest and allocated its spoils. Ancient Egypt also had a hereditary class of scribes that administered the civil service bureaucracy. Much of what is known today of these cultures comes from the writing of the scribes.

Ancient Rome was administered by a hierarchy of regional proconsuls and their deputies. The reforms of Diocletian doubled the number of administrative districts and led to a large-scale expansion in Roman bureaucracy.[21] In one of the earliest-recorded criticisms of bureaucracy, the early Christian author Lactantius claimed that Diocletian's actions had led to widespread economic stagnation, and that there were now more men using tax money than paying it.[22] After the Empire split, the Byzantine Empire became notorious for its inscrutable bureaucracy, and the term "byzantine" came to refer to highly-complicated bureaucratic structures.[23]

In Ancient China, the scholar Confucius established a complex system of rigorous procedures governing relationships in family, religion and politics. Confucius sought to construct an organized state free from corruption.[24] In Imperial China, the bureaucracy was headed by a Chief Counselor.[25] Within the bureaucracy, the positions were of a "graded civil service" and competitive exams were held to determine who held positions.[26] The upper levels of the system held nine grades, and the officials wore distinctive clothing.[26] The Confucian Classics codified a set of values held by the officials.[26]

Under Louis XIV, the old nobility had neither power nor political influence, the sum of their privileges being confined to their exemption from taxes. Their spokesmen complained about this "unnatural" state of affairs, but as they were forbidden to express their criticism in France, their writings were published in Holland. These aristocrats discovered similarities between absolute monarchy and the bureaucratic despotism of despotic monarchy.[27] In 18th-century France, the role and function of government expanded dramatically. The rise of the French civil service led to "bureaumania," and the development of the complex systems of bureaucracy which de Gournay criticized. In the early 19th century, Napoleon attempted to reform the bureaucracies of France and other territories under his control by the imposition of the standardized Napoleonic Code. But paradoxically, this led to even further growth of the bureaucracy.[28]

By the early 19th century, bureaucratic forms of administration were firmly in place across continental Europe, North America and much of Asia. Thinkers like John Stuart Mill and Karl Marx began to theorize about the economic functions and power-structures of bureaucracy in contemporary life. Max Weber was the first to endorse bureaucracy as a necessary feature of modernity, and by the late 19th century bureaucratic forms had begun their spread from government to other large-scale institutions.[18]

The trend toward increased bureaucratization continued in the 20th century, and, in the modern era, practically all organized institutions rely on bureaucracy to organize tasks. They do this by processing and controlling records and information ("the files"), and administer a systems of rules.

Theories of bureaucracy

Karl Marx

Karl Marx theorized about the role and function of bureaucracy in his Critique of Hegel's Philosophy of Right, published in 1843. In his Philosophy of Right, Hegel had supported the role of specialized officials in the role of public administration, although he never used the term "bureaucracy" himself. Marx by contrast was opposed to the bureaucracy. He saw the development of bureaucracy in government as a natural counterpart to the development of the corporation in private society. Marx posited that while the corporation and government bureaucracy existed in seeming opposition, in actuality they mutually relied on one another to exist. He wrote that "The Corporation is civil society's attempt to become state; but the bureaucracy is the state which has really made itself into civil society."[29]

John Stuart Mill

Writing in the late 1860s, political scientist John Stuart Mill theorized that successful monarchies were essentially bureaucracies, and found evidence of their existence in Imperial China, the Russian Empire, and the regimes of Europe. Mill referred to bureaucracy as a distinct form of government, separate from representative democracy. He believed bureaucracies had certain advantages, most importantly the accumulation of experience in those who actually conduct the affairs. Nevertheless, he thought bureaucracy as a form of governance compared poorly to representative government, as it relied on appointment rather than direct election. Mill wrote that ultimately the bureaucracy stifles the mind, and that "A bureaucracy always tends to become a pedantocracy."[30]

Max Weber

The German sociologist Max Weber described many ideal-typical forms of public administration, government,and business in his 1922 work Economy and Society. His critical study of the bureaucratisation of society became one of the most enduring parts of his work.[15][31] It was Weber who began the studies of bureaucracy and whose works led to the popularization of this term.[32] Many aspects of modern public administration go back to him, and a classic, hierarchically organized civil service of the Continental type is called "Weberian civil service".[33] As the most efficient and rational way of organizing, bureaucratization for Weber was the key part of the rational-legal authority, and furthermore, he saw it as the key process in the ongoing rationalization of the Western society.[15][31] Although he is not necessarily a fan of bureaucracy, Weber does argue that bureaucracy constitutes the most efficient and (formally) rational way in which human activity can be organized, and that thus is indispensable to the modern world.[34]

Bureaucratic administration means fundamentally domination through knowledge

— Max Weber[15]

Weber listed several precondititions for the emergence of bureaucracy.[35] The growth in space and population being administered, the growth in complexity of the administrative tasks being carried out, and the existence of a monetary economy requiring a more efficient administrative system.[35] Development of communication and transportation technologies make more efficient administration possible but also in popular demand, and democratization and rationalization of culture resulted in demands that the new system treats everybody equally.[35]

Weber's ideal-typical bureaucracy is characterized by hierarchical organization, delineated lines of authority in a fixed area of activity, action taken on the basis of and recorded in written rules, bureaucratic officials need expert training, rules are implemented by neutral officials, career advancement depends on technical qualifications judged by organization, not individuals.[15][35]

While recognizing bureaucracy as the most efficient form of organization, and even indispensable for the modern state, Weber also saw it as a threat to individual freedoms, and the ongoing bureaucratization as leading to a "polar night of icy darkness", in which increasing rationalization of human life traps individuals in a soulless "iron cage" of bureaucratic, rule-based, rational control.[15][16]

Woodrow Wilson

Writing as an academic while a professor at Bryn Mawr College, his essay “The Study of Administration[36] argued for a bureaucracy as a professional cadre, devoid of allegiance to fleeting politics of the day. Wilson advocated a bureaucracy that "is a part of political life only as the methods of the counting house are a part of the life of society; only as machinery is part of the manufactured product. But it is, at the same time, raised very far above the dull level of mere technical detail by the fact that through its greater principles it is directly connected with the lasting maxims of political wisdom, the permanent truths of political progress."

Wilson did not advocate a replacement of rule by the governed, he simply advised "Administrative questions are not political questions. Although politics sets the tasks for administration, it should not be suffered to manipulate its offices." This essay became the foundation for the study of public administration in America.

Ludwig von Mises

In his 1944 work Bureaucracy, the Austrian economist Ludwig von Mises was highly critical of all bureaucratic systems. He believed that bureaucracy should be the target of universal opprobrium, and noticed that in the political sphere it had few defenders, even among progressives. Mises saw bureaucratic processes at work in both the private and public spheres; however he believed that bureaucratization in the private sphere could only occur as a consequence of government interference. He wrote that "No private enterprise will ever fall prey to bureaucratic methods of management if it is operated with the sole aim of making profit."[19]

Robert K. Merton

The American sociologist Robert K. Merton expanded on Weber's theories of bureaucracy in his work Social Theory and Social Structure, published in 1957. While Merton agreed with certain aspects of Weber's analysis, he also considered the dysfunctional aspects of bureaucracy, which he attributed to a "trained incapacity" resulting from "overconformity." He saw bureaucrats as more likely to defend their own entrenched interests than to act to benefit the organization as a whole. He also believed bureaucrats took pride in their craft, which led them to resist changes in established routines. Merton also noted that bureaucrats emphasized formality over interpersonal relationships, and had been trained to ignore the special circumstances of particular cases, causing them to come across as "arrogant" and "haughty."[20]

See also


Further reading

  • Albrow, Martin. Bureaucracy. London: Macmillan, 1970.
  • On Karl Marx: Hal Draper, Karl Marx's Theory of Revolution, Volume 1: State and Bureaucracy. New York: Monthly Review Press, 1979.
  • Marx comments on the state bureaucracy in his Origins of the Family.
  • Ernest Mandel, Power and Money: A Marxist Theory of Bureaucracy. London: Verso, 1992.
  • On Weber:
  • Neil Garston (ed.), Bureaucracy: Three Paradigms. Boston: Kluwer, 1993.
  • Chowdhury, Faizul Latif (2006), Corrupt Bureaucracy and Privatization of Tax Enforcement. Dhaka: Pathak Samabesh, ISBN 984-8120-62-9.
  • Ludwig von Mises, ISBN 978-0-86597-663-4
  • Weber, Max. The Theory of Social and Economic Organization. Translated by A.M. Henderson and Talcott Parsons. London: Collier Macmillan Publishers, 1947.

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