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In Defense of Bureaucracy

In Alex Knapp‘s post yesterday on the topic of the size of government, a commenter opined the following:

the greatest evil mankind has ever imposed upon himself is bureaucracy

Now, apart from the obvious retort that the are any number of other things that come to mind in the great List o’ Evil before we get to bureaucracy (like, oh, I dunno, the Holocaust, ethnic cleansing, murder, rape, child molestation, and the like), I would even go so far as to say that bureaucracy is not only not evil but, in fact, good (even though it can be radically annoying at times).

In this post I want to deal with what a bureaucracy is, why it is a good thing, how it relates to the public sector and the private, and why

1. Basic Definition.

A bureaucracy, in a generic sense, has the following characteristics:

  • It has a specific purpose/mission.
  • It operates under known (and knowable) standard operating procedures (i.e., rules specific to its mission).  These rules apply to behavior of those who work in the organization and the way in which those seeking services from that bureaucracy.
  • It is hierarchical in organizational structure.
  • Personnel is selected based on their expertise relative the job needing to be done.

So, if consider a university by way of example:  its mission is to provide an undergraduate and graduate education (basic mission) and it details that mission in its undergraduate and graduate catalogs (its standard operating procedures).  Further, the university has an array of employees from the groundskeepers to the clerical staff to the faculty and to the administration (which is hierarchical in organization).  In fact, like all complex organizations, a university is made up of several interlocking bureaucracies (e.g., the academic portion, the human resources portion, the physical plant, etc.).  And those people are hired because they have the appropriate expertise (e.g., an assistant professor of Biology needs to have a Ph.D. in Biological Sciences and the head of financial services needs the appropriate training in finance/accounting, etc.).

Certainly it is easy to see how the US Defense Department or the Department of Health and Human Services fits the basic model.

It should be noted that the above definition is true whether we are talking about the public sector or the private sector.  In other words, while we often associate the word “bureaucracy” with government, the fact of the matter is that the definition above applies not just to the DMV or the Department of Defense, but also to your cable company or McDonald’s.

2.  Why This is Good (and Why it is Annoying)

It is important to understand that this basic mode of organization is a hallmark of modernity and it is, on balance, a very good thing.  The alternative is a system of ad hoc rules and one that employs people based on patronage or family ties. We should want dispassionate, properly trained functionaries following established rules doing basic administration work.

To restate:  do you want the rules at the DMV to be arbitrary?  That is to say do you want them just made up the rules on the spot, dependent on whom is working that day and what their mood is?  Do you want driver’s licenses issue on a wholly ad hoc system of qualification?  Do you want people who do safety inspections on airplanes to actually know what they are doing or do you want them getting the job because Uncle Bob got to hire whomever he pleased?

Of course, dispassionate bureaucrats who follow the rules can be massively frustrating when we have a problem, don’t understand the rules, and/or are in a hurry.  When we have a problem with the DMV (or our insurance company) we don’t want the rules, we want “common sense” in a way that solves our problem the way we want it solved.  Of course, depending on the situation, the solution that we want may not comport with the rules (and perhaps for very good reasons) and that can be extremely frustrating (and yes, sometimes the rules are dumb).  What we forget, however, is that complex organizations (even relatively small ones like your doctor’s office) cannot make up the rules on the fly and tailor every experience to the individual (if not idiosyncratic) needs of a given client.

If we all lived in small (very small) towns in a pre-industrial age where we did not need big organizations to provide services (e.g., electricity, water, waste water, garbage collection, phone, internet, cable, insurance, police, fire, and education to name several of both public, private and combined natures) then we wouldn’t need the rules and structures and, theoretically, transactions in life would be less frustrating because we would be interacting one-on-one with people we knew (such as at the local feed store) and not with large, faceless organizations.  Of course, sometimes interacting with the same person all the time can be a pain as well (what if the owner of the feed store is an ass?).

And yes, bureaucracies have a host of pathologies, some of which are endemic to public sector bureaucracies while others are more common in the private sector.   A basic explanation for this fact can be found by looking under “human nature” in the “inherent imperfections thereof” section.

3.  Conclusion

No doubt someone is going to tell me that they have had experiences with unqualified person in a bureaucratic job.  I am sure that this is true.  I am also sure that sometimes people get preferential treatment because of personal relationships and that rules sometimes get bent or ignored.  None of that undercuts the fact that those are the exceptions to the way the over system works, rather than the rule.   We need these structures because the alternative is ad hocery and patronage politics, which is a far less desirable method governing both public and private organizations.

Really, the main problem that most people have with bureaucracies is rooted in the fact that managing the needs of large numbers of persons is always complicated and it is, like all of human existence, an imperfect affair.

To get back to Alex’s point in the post that inspired this one:  since bureaucracy is an integral part of modern governance, the question before us is not whether we should have them or not but, rather, how to make them function as well as is possible.

All of this is important because unless we understand the basic facts we get well off course in our discussions of reality.  The simplistic notion that bureaucracies are “evil” or that if we just had less of them our lives would be better is a problematic one.  The focus should be more on getting things to work properly–which sometimes means adding, sometimes means subtracting, and very often means fine-tuning.  And, above all else, recognizing that ideological visions of perfection are fantasies.

Related Posts:

About Steven L. Taylor
Steven L. Taylor is Professor and Chair of Political Science at Troy University. His main areas of expertise include parties, elections, and the institutional design of democracies. He is the author of Voting Amid Violence: Electoral Democracy in Colombia and is currently working on a comparative study of the US to 29 other democracies. He earned his Ph.D. from the University of Texas and his BA from the University of California, Irvine. He has been blogging at PoliBlog since 2003. Follow Steven on Twitter

Comments

  1. Vast Variety says:

    In the game Civilization, one of the quotes that is spoken when you develop a particular technology is…

    “The bureaucracy is expanding to support the expanding bureaucracy.”

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  2. Neil Hudelson says:

    V V,

    Ha! Everytime I hear/read something about bureaucracy, I immediately think of that game and that quote.

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  3. matt b says:

    As I’m rereading this section of Weber right now, I’m digging this conversation.

    One thing that I’d note on the plus side is that that bureaucracies provide stable, coherent structures over time. The key thing about it being the “position” versus the “person,” is to ensure that the system, like the Dude, “abides.”

    I am also sure that sometimes people get preferential treatment because of personal relationships and that rules sometimes get bent or ignored. None of that undercuts the fact that those are the exceptions to the way the over system works, rather than the rule.

    The only extension I’d make Steven, is that rather than disproving the system, these examples prove that despite many claims, bureaucracies cannot/did-not eliminate fealty systems (btw, I don’t think you are making that claim).

    This typically happen the closer one gets to a center of consolidated power within the structure. The more distributed the power, the less chance of this happening — though, ironically, the more distributed the power within the bureaucracy, often the less efficient it becomes.

    Oh and:

    “The bureaucracy is expanding to support the expanding bureaucracy.”

    This is Oscar Wilde (though the idea is also noted in the works of Max Weber as well). Which reminder me of a favorite poem:

    If, with the literate, I am
    Impelled to try an epigram,
    I never seek to take the credit;
    We all assume that Oscar said it.

    - Dorothy Parker

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  4. JKB says:

    I’m sorry but whom do you think conducted the Holocaust ? The bureaucrats. They also performed the Pogroms, Purges, Great Leap Forward and numerous other atrocities. They have an element in most ethnic cleansing and let’s not forget the facilitation of murder and child abuse by the bureaucracy of many religions and the social service agencies.

    That being said, if you had bothered to read the rest of my comment, you would have noticed I acknowledged that bureaucracy was a necessary evil to get things done but that we should not let our elected representatives shirk their duty to keep it in check. That we must not rail against some agency while our representative are given a free pass. Any power a bureaucracy has comes from the Congress or Legislature and it they who should be held to account for the abuse by said bureaucracy.

    Bureaucracy is a great evil and must not be allowed to operate unchecked or fall into the hands of the malevolent. Just as nuclear reactions are a horror and must not be allowed to proceed unchecked nor fall into the hands of the malevolent. But both, controlled, contained, monitored, can produce great value.

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  5. wr says:

    JKB — Bureaucracy didn’t conduct the Holocaust, the German people did. Bureaucracy is nothing more than a tool, and calling it “evil” is as stupid as calling an axe evil because some madman cut off his mother’s head with it.

    The fear and loathing of bureaucracy is nothing less than the fear and loathing of the rest of humanity. Which pretty well defines libertarianism.

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  6. @JKB:

    By your logic all things are evil, because at one time or another they have been used to evil ends.

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  7. wr says:

    Steven Taylor — Except puppies. And tax cuts.

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  8. matt b says:

    Anyone willing to take bets over whether JKB thinks guns are as bad as bureaucracies?

    “Guns don’t kill people, bureaucracies do.”

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  9. mannning says:

    It is certainly true that we need an efficient, mission-oriented and dedicated bureaucracy that treats their clients with fairness and courtesy.

    That is, so long as the chunk of bureaucracy we are dealing with still has a real current purpose, mission, and congressional support. I know that Reagan tried to shut down some of the 1700 or so bureaucratic organizations in our government, and only succeeded in doing away with about a hundred. I believe that Obama and congress have managed to add many more than that to date through O-Care, etc. Will we get to the point where 100,000 clerks will run the nation? Or, are we already there?

    I understood from Alex in his response to my post that the CBO has issued a review of the government bureaucracy as I had suggested ought to be done, but I have not seen any information on the results, although by 2014 such a report will be far out of date. Nor have I seen any more recent movement in this administration or congress to conduct a BRAC-like exercise on the lot. In my opinion, such an act should stand alone as a piece of legislation, and not be cluttered with other factors.

    That said, your defense of bureaucracy per se is well put.

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  10. [...] From me at OTB:  In Defense of Bureaucracy. [...]

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  11. One thought from yesterday, any talk about efficiency is pointless unless you have some concrete, discrete metrics with which to measure said efficiency. IMHO, those are sorely lacking in most private bureacracies but are easier to find than unicorns when you talk about public bureacracies.

    Bureacracies are just an instantiation of process using people to acheive some level of economy of scale. There is no right answer and there are costs associated with too much and too little reliance on process, but as a rule, progressives have a lot more faith in rulemaking to govern more aspects of our behavior than conservatives or libertarians. Take that for what its worth.

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  12. Wiley Stoner says:

    WR, you need to hire an editor. He could help you in your rantings. Bureaucrats are nothing but tools of government. Since they cannot be, by normal means, be held accountable because they are the government. I guess it is no way surprising Steve Taylor defends bureaucracy. He loves government. People who love liberty see govenment as a necessary evil, which it always becomes. Those who would supress freedoms, Steve, love government. People like Taylor were educated by the same folks who educated Obama. They were told lies so long they believed them. Mao was no hero Steve. Name one job government does best Steve, one? Maybe the answer to that is support your family.

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  13. @WS:

    Wow, who knew I was a Maoist?

    And, love government? No, I just understand its rather obvious necessity (as did like, well, Aristotle, John Locke, John Stuart Mill, Adam Smith, Montesquieu, Madison, Hamilton, Jefferson, Washington and host of others-indeed, most of humanity over time).

    And

    Name one job government does best Steve, one?

    National defense
    Interstate highway system (and roads in general)
    Maintenance of the monetary system

    Those would be three rather large ones.

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  14. Redistributing wealth. I’m not saying they should be doing it, only that they are good at it.

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  15. Steven Plunk says:

    Most complaints regarding modern American Bureaucracies are based upon more than a few incompetent workers.

    Bureaucracies over time tend to expand their original mandates and seek to make their own. They more often than not seek to serve themselves rather than wait for directions from citizen legislatures. They become the biggest lobbying force in capitals as they lobby for their own agency ahead of others and their own goals ahead of the citizens.

    Bureaucracies tend to misinform the public on a regular basis in order to advance their own interests. They tend to fail on policing corruption within their rank preferring to ignore problems rather than create waves. Usually you have to see outside investigators before corruption is rooted out.

    Bureaucracies tend to narrow their focus and create unintended consequences with actions. Bureaucracies are quick to deny responsibility or be accountable for their actions if adverse outcomes occur. Not my job, above my pay grade, and that’s a different department all owe their origins to bureaucracies.

    As JKB says bureaucracies are necessary evils that should be kept on a short leash and monitored consistently. They are not benevolent in nature and tend to grow malevolent over time. Defending bureaucracies is fair enough but there are two sides of them to be examined.

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  16. @Steve P:

    My basic response would be: how is much of that any different that any other human endeavor, and is it really any different for private sector bureaucracies?

    One of the grand ironies of our constant complaints about public sector bureaucracies, btw, is that they have lousy customer service (too much waiting, crappy building to wait in, etc) but of course the main reason this is case is that we, the taxpayers, want our services to be provided as cheaply as possible.

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  17. Dave Schuler says:

    Of course bureaucracies are necessary. Bureaucracy is the only technology we have for administering large institutions. Whether it’s a government, private corporation, institution of higher learning, religious denomination, or social organization once it reaches a certain size, it will require a bureaucracy.

    That having been said I think there are good reasons for favoring smaller bureaucracies and for having bureaucracies that function under clear, understood, and enforced principles of operation.

    Bureaucracies do not scale linearly; they scale at n log n. When an institution is growing rapidly and prospering that kind of overhead is tolerable; as the prosperity wanes it becomes progressively less so. And remember Parkinson’s Laws—not just the first law that everybody remembers but particularly the fourth: the number of people in any working group tends to increase regardless of the amount of work to be done.

    Many kinds of institutions experience economies of scale. That doesn’t mean, however, that there are increasing economies as size increases. More commonly there is some sweet spot at which economies are realized but beyond that no further economies are seen.

    That’s why IMO we should prefer smaller institutions over larger ones and smaller bureaucracies over the larger.

    The argument for clear, understood, and enforced principles of operation is even simpler. Without them bureaucracies are merely another word for the opinions of those in the bureaucracy. Not only is that arbitrary and tyrannical, it’s inefficient. People will always make decisions above their pay grade when allowed to do so.

    The Federal Register is now upwards of 80,000 pages. Nothing of that size is clear, understood, and enforced.

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  18. Dave Schuler says:

    One of the grand ironies of our constant complaints about public sector bureaucracies, btw, is that they have lousy customer service (too much waiting, crappy building to wait in, etc) but of course the main reason this is case is that we, the taxpayers, want our services to be provided as cheaply as possible.

    Those are only in conflict as long as we adhere to a mid-20th or, as has been suggested to me, an early 20th century model of providing service.

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  19. @Dave,

    In general, I do not disagree (although I would not count the federal government as one big bureaucracy, but rather a complex–perhaps too complex–set of interlocking bureaucracies).

    My main point is that too many people seem to think of bureaucracy as inherently bad, which makes good governance (or discussions about such) rather problematic.

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  20. Dave Schuler says:

    My main point is that too many people seem to think of bureaucracy as inherently bad, which makes good governance (or discussions about such) rather problematic.

    Bureaucracies are neither good nor evil any more than an amoeba is good or evil. They take in nutrients, grow, and reproduce.

    However, as anybody who has seen The Blob must realize, the bigger they are the more we should be concerned about them.

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  21. matt b says:

    @Steven T ftw:

    One of the grand ironies of our constant complaints about public sector bureaucracies, btw, is that they have lousy customer service (too much waiting, crappy building to wait in, etc) but of course the main reason this is case is that we, the taxpayers, want our services to be provided as cheaply as possible.

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  22. wr says:

    Wiley — I have an editor. She works at Penguin Books. And she would undoubtedly flee her job in horror if she had to try to decipher prose like yours.

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  23. george says:

    “The bureaucracy is expanding to support the expanding bureaucracy.”

    And curiously enough, Civ IV seemed to have gotten the balance right. Too many cities (ie too much bureaucracy) and its a drag on your finances and development, but no bureaucracy (ie remain in anarchy mode) and you have the huge waste that comes from lack of organisation.

    Even an operating system spends a fair amount of time marshalling its resources – at least if you want it to do something. DOS is an example of an operating system with almost no ‘bureaucracy’ – too limited for most of what we need to do today. Windows Vista one with too much ‘bureaucracy’. And Unix one which maintains a fair balance.

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  24. Max Lybbert says:

    When you define bureaucracy as “embodies these good qualities” then, yes, you’ve reduced everything to a tautology: bureaucracy is good because it’s made up of good things. For instance, the article defined bureaucracy to not include nepotism; that seems a little optimistic in my experience. Or were all those organizations that I encountered that practiced nepotism not “true bureaucracies”? What about the organizations that allowed managers to override standard operating procedure on a case-by-case basis? Does the Friends of Angelo program mean that Countrywide wasn’t truly a bureaucracy? Of course my complaints with nepotism or favoritism are completely unrelated to bureaucracy: nepotism is bad even in non-bureaucratic organizations.

    The discussion about bureaucracy misses the point. There may be a philosophical argument about large organizations stamping out independence, but there are more concrete arguments about organizational culture and faulty incentive systems (see also: “I have seen a government park manager do a great job obtaining funds from private sources to add a new facility to their park that pleased guests, only to get criticized for having the slope of an access ramp be 1/4 degree off ADA standards and have a grievance filed by the union that park visitation had gone up. … [Y]ou can bet they are never going to try to actually improve the customer experience again.”).

    For completeness, though:

    Name one job government does best Steve, one?

    National defense

    For projecting military power outside the country’s borders, yes. For simply defending people’s homes, I think there’s an argument that until the Winter War at least, armed citizens could do an adequate job (note: “adequate” does implicitly concede that the armed citizenry defense isn’t as good as the government’s, but it can be good enough; note also that the Finnish forces were officially government draftees, but they looked a lot like you would expect a non-government force to look like).

    Interstate highway system (and roads in general)

    (Conceded, at least as far as historical examples go).

    Maintenance of the monetary system

    The Wildcat bank era shows this is true for fiat money. But I believe that hard currencies existed before governments. Not that I want a gold standard, or a move to unregulated wampum; just that money can exist outside of government action (c.f., Depression-era scrip).

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  25. Max Lybbert says:

    (regarding a comment in moderation that may not show up before this one):

    Of course my previous comment ignores a couple of big elephants in the room regarding national defense. There’s no need to say “Finnish forces in the Winter War suggest that non-governmental defense can put up an adequate fight” when you can say “native, non-government forces put up significant obstacles in the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the US invasion of Afghanistan, the US invasion of Iraq, the two Russian invasions of Grozny, etc.”

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  26. Steven Plunk says:

    Dr. Taylor,

    Many of my statement concerning bureaucracies applies to both public and private sectors. There are differences however. Bureaucracies within the private sector are in competition with other bureaucracies. If one becomes so ineffective, time consuming, and frustrating it will see patrons move to one who does things better. I don’t have to deal with company A because I can move to company B. Except for regulated private utilities that generally how it works.

    I reject the idea that crappy public service is a result of taxpayers underfunding government. Public sector unionization is a cause as well as the lack of competition. There are simply no motivators or incentives to provide good service.

    My personal complaint with public bureaucracies is the lack of responsibility and accountability. Bad decisions or no decisions are a result.

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  27. Vast Variety says:

    If you think dealing with the government bureaucracy is bad, you have never had to do deal with the Engineering or Quality Departments of General Motors, Ford, or Mitsubishi as one of their parts suppliers.

    The paperwork that is involved in the verification that a plastic injection mold that manufactures say the plastic part that covers up the hinges to the seats in your car meets the part drawing is mind boggling.

    And it’s not just automotive, that plastic ice cube tray that came with your Amana refrigerator has nearly 1000 pages of documentation verifying that it is indeed an Ice Cube tray.

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  28. JKB says:

    Look, the bureaucracy facilitates and magnifies the human nature’s basest traits. The same traits our forefathers developed the separation of powers to combat. It is not just government bureaucracy but as Steve Plunk pointed out, private sector bureaucracies are constrained by competition. GM is one that developed a massive bureaucracy and it almost killed them when they were no longer protected from foreign competition. VV, I would wonder how much of that paperwork you mention is not due to internal but rather a response to government bureaucracy impositions.

    However, as the government has grown, those tasked with overseeing it, the executive and legislative, have neglected their duties, firstly as the bureaucracy was doing their desires, then by enacting vague legislation to save themselves from overt responsibility.

    Just as with robots, the government bureaucracy became self-aware (I’d guess in the Thirties) and decided it knew what was best for the People and would save them from their freedom which often caused them to make less than overtly optimal decisions. It is all quite logical.

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  29. @Vast Variety:

    Or, for that matter, Verizon, AT&T, Microsoft or Best Buy.

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  30. Far be it from me to defend Government Motors, but how much of the paperwork is to defend against lawsuits or to meet requirements from Congress due to Government Motors defense realted industries?

    Do you really think Government Motors wastes money for no reason at all? Then again, that would explain a lot of other things, if only the Obama Administration would let the invisible hand work its magic.

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  31. @Charles:

    Do you really think Government Motors wastes money for no reason at all?

    What’s striking about this statement, I think, is the assumption that seems to undergird it, i.e., that private sector actors either have reasons or are forced into errors by the government.

    I like markets, think that they can be extremely powerful, and prefer them over government action where practicable, but they are not perfect and do not always create good outcomes. And it is not always as easy as saying that competition will cure all ills.

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  32. jwest says:

    Stephen makes an excellent argument on the benefits of a rigid, unthinking bureaucracy over total chaos and anarchy.

    The only thing I would add would be the possibility of the third alternative, where structure exists, but purpose is placed above procedure. Although the rules at the DMV state that you should walk through the serpentine lanes, take a number and sit down until the number is called, if you’re the only person in the building the world wouldn’t fall apart if one of the clerks simply said “can I help you?”.

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  33. @jwest:

    Stephen makes an excellent argument on the benefits of a rigid, unthinking bureaucracy over total chaos and anarchy.

    That is, of course, not the argument, but so it goes.

    And

    The only thing I would add would be the possibility of the third alternative, where structure exists, but purpose is placed above procedure. Although the rules at the DMV state that you should walk through the serpentine lanes, take a number and sit down until the number is called, if you’re the only person in the building the world wouldn’t fall apart if one of the clerks simply said “can I help you?”.

    And who could argue with that? Of course, I would note that I have had the experience of helpful clerks in government offices and jerks in the private sector. The notion that one is always bad and the other always good is rather cartoonish (as is, come to think of it, the dichotomy you suggest at the start of your post). You are, btw, utterly missing the point if you think I am arguing for putting procedure over purpose.

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  34. jwest says:

    Steven,

    Talk about missing the point…

    Putting procedure over purpose is the very essence of a bureaucracy. Try to name a federal agency that worries more about results than properly checking each designated box and filing the correct forms.

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  35. Dr. Taylor, having worked in the industry and having some familiarity and experience with federal procurement, please be assured that a lot of money is wasted to adhere to mind-numbingly ridiculous federal acquisition guidelines. If you believe that Lockheed just dreamed up $500 for a toilet seat, that would be a mistake.

    I’m not arguing for the elimination of all regulations, but I will definitively lay a decent percentage of waste directly at the feet of federal regulations mandated by Congress or by others who Congress has delegated its authority to. So let me rephrase my question, what motive does Government Motors have to intentionally waste money on the examples you gave?

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  36. @Charles:

    Dr. Taylor, having worked in the industry and having some familiarity and experience with federal procurement, please be assured that a lot of money is wasted to adhere to mind-numbingly ridiculous federal acquisition guidelines.

    I have little doubt that that is the case and I decry such situations.

    But that’s not the point.

    First, I am trying to point out that bureaucracy is necessary and, ultimately, a good thing in the development of human organization.

    Second, I am trying to point out that “bureaucracy” is not synonymous with “government” but that there are private sector bureaucracies as well (and they often suffer from similar pathologies as do public sector ones).

    Third, that like any tool they can be used well and poorly.

    Most importantly: I really don’t think that we, as a society, can have an intelligent conversation about government if we don’t understand these facts and to also stop taking purely ideological position that assume that public sector bureaucracies are always bad, worthless, tyrannical and/or wasteful and that private sector bureaucracies are always wonderful because the market magically fixes all ills.

    So, yes: the dude at the DMV can be rude, the paperwork can be ridiculous and often the rules are stupid. But that’s not really the issue.

    How are you going to run the military or a school system or the DMV or any number of other things without bureaucratic structures?

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  37. anjin-san says:

    > Just as with robots, the government bureaucracy became self-aware

    Wow. There are self-aware robots? Who knew?

    Or possibly, like most modern conservatives, you are drawing a lot of your cues from fiction, movies and reality TV…

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