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Bureaucracy (//) refers to both a body of non-elective government officials and an administrative policy-making group. Historically, a bureaucracy was a government administration managed by departments staffed with non-elected officials. Today, bureaucracy is the administrative system governing any large institution, whether publicly owned or privately owned. The public administration in many countries is an example of a bureaucracy, but so is the centralized hierarchical structure of a business firm.
Since being coined, the word bureaucracy has developed negative connotations. Bureaucracies have been criticized as being inefficient, convoluted, or too inflexible to individuals. The dehumanizing effects of excessive bureaucracy became a major theme in the work of German-language writer Franz Kafka and are central to his novels The Trial and The Castle. The elimination of unnecessary bureaucracy is a key concept in modern managerial theory and has been an issue in some political campaigns.
Others have noted the necessity of bureaucracies in modern life. The German sociologist Max Weber argued that bureaucracy constitutes the most efficient and rational way in which one can organize the human activity and that systematic processes and organized hierarchies are necessary to maintain order, maximize efficiency, and eliminate favoritism. On the other hand, Weber also saw unfettered bureaucracy as a threat to individual freedom, with the potential of trapping individuals in an impersonal "iron cage" of rule-based, rational control.
Etymology 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. It was coined in the mid-18th century by the French economist Jacques Claude Marie Vincent de Gournay and was a satirical pejorative from the outset. 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."
The first known English-language use dates to 1818. Here, too, the sense was pejorative, with Irish novelist Lady Morgan referring to "the Bureaucratie, or office tyranny, by which Ireland has so long been governed." By the mid-19th century, the word was being used in a more neutral sense, referring to a system of public administration in which offices were held by unelected career officials. In this sense "bureaucracy" was seen as a distinct form of management, often subservient to a monarchy. 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. 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," and by 1957 the American sociologist Robert Merton noted that the term "bureaucrat" had become an epithet.
Although the term "bureaucracy" was not coined until the mid 18th century, organized and consistent administrative systems are much older. The development of writing (ca. 3500 BC) 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 used clay tablets to administer the harvest and allocate its spoils. Ancient Egypt also had a hereditary class of scribes that administered the civil service bureaucracy.
The Roman Empire 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 of Roman bureaucracy. The early Christian author Lactantius claimed that Diocletian's reforms led to widespread economic stagnation, since "the provinces were divided into minute portions, and many presidents and a multitude of inferior officers lay heavy on each territory." After the Empire split, the Byzantine Empire developed a notoriously complicated administrative hierarchy, and in time the term "Byzantine" came to refer to any complex bureaucratic structure.
In Ancient China, the Han dynasty established a complicated bureaucracy based on the teachings of Confucius, who emphasized the importance of ritual in a family, relationships, and politics. With each subsequent Dynasty, the bureaucracy evolved. During the Song dynasty, the bureaucracy became meritocratic. Following the Song reforms, competitive exams were held to determine who was qualified to hold a given position. The imperial examination system lasted until 1905, six years before the collapse of the Qing dynasty, marking the end of China's traditional bureaucratic system.
The United Kingdom
A modern form of bureaucracy evolved in the expanding Department of Excise in the United Kingdom during the 18th century.[original research?] The relative efficiency and professionalism in this state-run authority allowed the government to impose a very large tax burden on the population and raise great sums of money for war expenditure. According to Niall Ferguson, the bureaucracy was based on "recruitment by examination, training, promotion on merit, regular salaries and pensions, and standardized procedures". The system was subject to a strict hierarchy and emphasis was placed on technical and efficient methods for tax collection.
Instead of the inefficient and often corrupt system of tax farming that prevailed in absolutist states such as France, the Exchequer was able to exert control over the entire system of tax revenue and government expenditure. By the late 18th century, the ratio of fiscal bureaucracy to population in Britain was approximately 1 in 1300, almost four times larger than the second most heavily bureaucratized nation, France. Thomas Taylor Meadows, Britain's consul in Guangzhou, argued in his Desultory Notes on the Government and People of China (1847) that "the long duration of the Chinese empire is solely and altogether owing to the good government which consists in the advancement of men of talent and merit only," and that the British must reform their civil service by making the institution meritocratic. Influenced by the ancient Chinese imperial examination, the Northcote–Trevelyan Report of 1854 recommended that recruitment should be on the basis of merit determined through competitive examination, candidates should have a solid general education to enable inter-departmental transfers, and promotion should be through achievement rather than "preferment, patronage, or purchase". This led to implementation of Her Majesty's Civil Service as a systematic, meritocratic civil service bureaucracy.
Like the British, the development of French bureaucracy was influenced by the Chinese system. Under Louis XIV of France, the old nobility had neither power nor political influence, their only privilege being exemption from taxes. The dissatisfied noblemen complained about this "unnatural" state of affairs, and discovered similarities between absolute monarchy and bureaucratic despotism. With the translation of Confucian texts during the Enlightenment, the concept of a meritocracy reached intellectuals in the West, who saw it as an alternative to the traditional ancien regime of Europe. Voltaire claimed that the Chinese had "perfected moral science" and François Quesnay advocated an economic and political system modeled after that of the Chinese.
Napoleonic France adopted this meritocracy system  and soon saw a rapid and dramatic expansion of government, accompanied by the rise of the French civil service and its complex systems of bureaucracy. This phenomenon became known as "bureaumania". 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.
Other industrialized nations
By the mid-19th century, bureaucratic forms of administration were firmly in place across the industrialized world. 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.
The trend toward increased bureaucratization continued in the 20th century, with the public sector employing over 5% of the workforce in many Western countries. Within capitalist systems, informal bureaucratic structures began to appear in the form of corporate power hierarchies, as detailed in mid-century works like The Organization Man and The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit. Meanwhile, in the Soviet Union and Eastern Bloc nations, a powerful class of bureaucratic administrators termed nomenklatura governed nearly all aspects of public life.
The 1980s brought a backlash against perceptions of "big government" and the associated bureaucracy. Politicians like Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan gained power by promising to eliminate government regulatory bureaucracies, which they saw as overbearing, and return economic production to a more purely capitalistic mode, which they saw as more efficient. In the business world, managers like Jack Welch gained fortune and renown by eliminating bureaucratic structures inside corporations. Still, in the modern world, most organized institutions rely on bureaucratic systems to manage information, process records, and administer complex systems, although the decline of paperwork and the widespread use of electronic databases is transforming the way bureaucracies function.
Karl Marx theorized about the role and function of bureaucracy in his Critique of Hegel's Philosophy of Right, published in 1843. In Philosophy of Right, Hegel had supported the role of specialized officials in public administration, although he never used the term "bureaucracy" himself. Marx, by contrast, was opposed to bureaucracy. Marx posited that while corporate and government bureaucracy seem to operate in opposition, in actuality they mutually rely 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."
John Stuart Mill
Writing in the early 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 believed this 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."
The German sociologist Max Weber was the first to formally study bureaucracy and his works led to the popularization of this term.. In his 1922 essay Bureaucracy,, published in his magnum opus Economy and Society, Weber described many ideal-typical forms of public administration, government, and business. His ideal-typical bureaucracy, whether public or private, is characterized by:
- hierarchical organization
- formal lines of authority (chain of command)
- a fixed area of activity
- rigid division of labor
- regular and continuous execution of assigned tasks
- all decisions and powers specified and restricted by regulations
- officials with expert training in their fields
- career advancement dependent on technical qualifications
- qualifications evaluated by organizational rules, not individuals
Weber listed several preconditions for the emergence of bureaucracy, including an increase in the amount of space and population being administered, an increase in the complexity of the administrative tasks being carried out, and the existence of a monetary economy requiring a more efficient administrative system. Development of communication and transportation technologies make more efficient administration possible, and democratization and rationalization of culture results in demands for equal treatment.
Although he was not necessarily an admirer of bureaucracy, Weber saw bureaucratization as the most efficient and rational way of organizing human activity and therefore as the key to rational-legal authority, indispensable to the modern world.. Furthermore, he saw it as the key process in the ongoing rationalization of Western society. Weber also saw bureaucracy, however, 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. Weber's critical study of the bureaucratization of society became one of the most enduring parts of his work. Many aspects of modern public administration are based on his work, and a classic, hierarchically organized civil service of the Continental type is called "Weberian civil service".
Writing as an academic while a professor at Bryn Mawr College, Woodrow Wilson's essay "The Study of Administration" argued for bureaucracy as a professional cadre, devoid of allegiance to fleeting politics. 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 that, "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 compared bureaucratic management to profit management. Profit management, he argued, is the most effective method of organization when the services rendered may be checked by economic calculation of profit and loss. When, however, the service in question can not be subjected to economic calculation, bureaucratic management is necessary. He did not oppose universally bureaucratic management; on the contrary, he argued that bureaucracy is an indispensable method for social organization, for it is the only method by which the law can be made supreme, and is the protector of the individual against despotic arbitrariness. Using the example of the Catholic Church, he pointed out that bureaucracy is only appropriate for an organization whose code of conduct is not subject to change. He then went on to argue that complaints about bureaucratization usually refer not to the criticism of the bureaucratic methods themselves, but to "the intrusion of bureaucracy into all spheres of human life." 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. According to him, "What must be realized is only that the strait jacket of bureaucratic organization paralyzes the individual's initiative, while within the capitalist market society an innovator still has a chance to succeed. The former makes for stagnation and preservation of inveterate methods, the latter makes for progress and improvement."
Robert K. Merton
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 noted the dysfunctional aspects of bureaucracy, which he attributed to a "trained incapacity" resulting from "over conformity". He believed that bureaucrats are more likely to defend their own entrenched interests than to act to benefit the organization as a whole but that pride in their craft makes them resistant to changes in established routines. Merton stated that bureaucrats emphasize formality over interpersonal relationships, and have been trained to ignore the special circumstances of particular cases, causing them to come across as "arrogant" and "haughty".
- Civil servant
- Cover your ass
- Hierarchical organization
- Michel Crozier
- Power (social and political)
- Public administration
- Red tape
- State (polity)
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- Albrow, Martin. Bureaucracy. London: Macmillan, 1970.
- Kingston, Ralph. Bureaucrats and Bourgeois Society: Office Politics and Individual Credit, 1789–1848. Palgrave Macmillan, 2011.
- 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 Critique of Hegel's Philosophy of Right and Engels discusses the origins of the state in Origins of the Family, marxists.org
- Ernest Mandel, Power and Money: A Marxist Theory of Bureaucracy. London: Verso, 1992.
- On Weber: Watson, Tony J. (1980). Sociology, Work and Industry. Routledge. ISBN 0-415-32165-4.
- Neil Garston (ed.), Bureaucracy: Three Paradigms. Boston: Kluwer, 1993.
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- Ludwig von Mises, Bureaucracy, Yale University Press, 1962. Liberty Fund (2007), ISBN 978-0-86597-663-4
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