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Love in the Bureaucracy

The Free Market

Tags Political Theory

09/01/1987Bradley Miller

The Free Market 5, no. 9 (September 1987)


As long as bureaucrat-bashing remains sport royal, there is hope. But how much? Even now, confronting bureaucracy's relentless encroachments and entanglements, whoya gonna call?

The Reagan administration phoned Ollie North, a "man of action," a "take-charge guy" who can "cut through red tape" and "get things done." But most of us must call a faceless functionary at the Reports and Publications Division of the Environmental Protection Agency's Water and Waste Management Administration's Emergency Service's Department's Request and Complaint Office's Bureau of Trash, Metal Bulk, and Dead Animal Removal, and get put on hold. In other words, we must call Bureaucratic Man.

As of this writing, it seems unlikely that North will go to jail, but powerful evidence indicates that what he tried to do was neither popular nor legal—and could even doom the very group his efforts were designed to help: the Nicaraguan contras. Yet to many, including the President who fired him from the National Security Council, North is a national hero. Even his detractors grant he's a forceful and attractive personality.

Surveys have found that most Americans don't know which side is which in Nicaragua, but tell pollsters they're against sending their tax money down there. So it's clear that North's popularity either has nothing to do with the goals he was pursuing or emerged despite them. The root of Americans' love of him is their hatred of the bureaucracy he defied.

North comes across as a forthright, patriotic, God-fearing, family-loving, ruggedly handsome, bemedaled man of action. But America is not lacking in such chaps, and North is far from unflawed. What stirred America was seeing him thrown before those perceived as niggling, blood-sucking representatives of the world's biggest and most overpaid bureaucracy. The bureaucracy manufactures the red tape North tried to cut through (never mind toward what ends or in violation of what laws). It stands between the rest of us and the freedom to do what we want, and its spider web of regulations is woven and enforced by gray little men who can't be fired, short of behavior so outrageous it would make most of us candidates for the funny farm.

In Harper's, Leonard Reed has reported that only one tenth of one percent of· federal bureaucrats are fired for incompetence. At the higher bureaucratic levels such unbearable bungling lands you not in the funny farm but—no joke—in a "turkey farm, " where unbearable bunglers are put through training sessions to turn them into bearable bunglers; i. e., bureaucrats competent enough not to inspire excessive public outrage and sensible enough to realize that if they do their jobs too well they'll lose them.

In his great book Bureaucracy, written in 1944, Professor Ludwig von Mises says the distinguishing mark of the bureaucrat is that he is driven not by the profit motive but by the necessity to follow and enforce rules. Mises points out that a bureaucracy, so understood, isn't intended to be profitable, so its worth can't be assessed by profit-and-Ioss statements. Businesses also have bureaucratic aspects, but the free market imposes limits on them. An overload of bureaucrats diminishes profits by diminishing efficiency, innovation, and morale. That's why schemes to bring business methods to government come to grief. As Mises says, business and government are fundamentally different, and the methods appropriate to one are alien to the other.

The picture is even far bleaker than this. Not only is Bureaucratic Man uninterested in doing good work by business standards, doing such work would cost him his job. An anti-poverty warrior so good he eradicated poverty would ' have nothing to do, so such wars aren't intended to be won, but endlessly expanded. This thins the ranks of those who work for a living and swells the ranks of those who vote for a living. In sum, it makes a joke of representative government.

How bad is it? Guess who said the following:

If we do not halt this steady process of building commissions and regulatory bodies and special legislation like huge inverted pyramids over everyone of the simple constitutional provisions, we shall soon be spending many billions of dollars more.

So said Franklin Roosevelt, father of today's welfare state. By today's standards FDR was doubtless an efficiency expert.

But by now the deathly effects of bureaucracy on the commonwealth are too well known to need elaboration. Bureaucracy is at once a monstrous evil and banality and, as its consummation in totalitarianism has shown, it makes the most monstrous evils banal. Banality, indeed, is its highest virtue. Bureaucratic Man wants merely to rust out in ease, security, and respectability, not to wear himself out pursuing greatness. He doesn't love, in any deep sense, his work or spouse, for love entails risk and demands energy. BM asks only for comfort.

It's as hard to picture Nietzsche's superman or Aristotle's large-souled man in this kingdom of clerks as it is to imagine Pascal at a PTL picnic. The ultimate triumph of the bureaucratic state, which has long been realized in such Periclean lands as Bulgaria, Albania, and North Korea, is to obliterate even Mick Jagger's street-fighting man.

Bureaucratic Man is far lower than Winston Smith in Orwell's 1984, who in the end loved Big Brother. Deep love and deep hate are both inconceivable to BM, so no goon squads are needed to keep him in line. Intellectually and emotionally his whole life amounts to an endless standing in line to get the necessities for more standing in line.

As technology progresses, it becomes clear that BM is far lower than a machine. Anything BM can do, machines can do better at a fraction of the cost and irritation.

Unfortunately, BM, freed from drudgery by automation, doesn't devote himself to the art of love or even the love of art, two reasons to live. Instead, automation has exposed—not created—a world in which, as Mises says, "the man who is aware of his inability to stand competition scorns 'this mad competitive system.' He who is unfit to serve his fellow citizens wants to rule them."

BM created this world. If he knows nothing else, BM is at least aware of his limitless inability, which fills him with envy of his superiors, whom he tries, with depressing success, to suffocate through government. Government work is tedious, so it's hard to get superior men to do it, but in today's high-tech age, government by actual robots would be much more efficient and humane than government by BM.


Bradley Miller

Mr. Miller, director of editorial services at the Heritage Foundation, is a Media Associate of the Mises Institute.

Cite This Article

Miller, Bradley. "Love in the Bureaucracy." The Free Market 5, no. 9 (September 1987): 1 and 6.