18 July 2013

Bureaucracy and Power

In my previous post discussing the tension between Bureaucracy and Aristocracy, I was not actually describing two forms of government, but three.

The ‘tension’ is between bureaucratic centralism, where a central authority rules through appointed officials, and aristocracy, where offices belong to a noble class who have some guaranteed degree of independence from the central power.

What we actually have today is neither one nor the other, but a self-perpetuating and largely unaccountable bureaucracy. It is not quite yet a true aristocracy, though it is well on the way, but it is nearly immune from “political influence”, to the degree it is sometimes openly demanding such immunity.

So when Spandrell comments that there is no alternative to rule by bureaucracy, I am not quite sure what he means. Certainly we have had no aristocratic rule in a modern country for a couple of centuries; the dominant ideology has been set against it. However, it does not seem impossible to have a bureaucracy under genuine central control. I get the impression that prior to World War II, the governments of Britain and the USA were mostly in control of their bureaucracies: they could fire officials and dictate policy.

Moldbug’s interpretation of US history is that the FDR Government was entirely in sympathy with the bureaucracy, and effectively did not end as later governments were not able to divert the Civil Service from the path that FDR set it on.

In Britain, the Civil Service seems to have gained power over approximately the same period, due to a combination of the destruction of the old ruling class in the Great War, and the arrival of Labour politicians, outsiders to the government system, who the Civil Servants were both willing and able to defy.

My answer, therefore, is that it is possible for a government to rule through a bureaucracy, rather than being ruled by it, and that this was the normal situation prior to 1918, and to a lesser degree even up to 1945. If the government were no longer subject to elections and media opinion, it would be in a much stronger position to impose its will on the bureaucrats.

As for aristocratic rule: if the existing civil servants were to mainly hire their own children, we would be there — it is conceivable that we could have a de facto aristocracy within a decade or two. Replacing the existing bureaucracy with a different aristocracy, such as the old titled families of Britain, is more far-fetched; but given (somehow) the total ideological sea change that it would require, there are no practical obstacles to it functioning.

Democracy affects the tension between the centre and the bureaucracy in two major ways: as above, the precarious position of elected politicians weakens them vis-a-vis their permanent officials (Moldbug’s “rotor/stator” point). Second, the employment of very large numbers of low-ranking officials becomes one of the main forms of vote-buying. The junior officials do not have direct power over policy in the sense that senior civil servants do, but they have democratic power over questions relating to their continued employment and working conditions. In Britain particularly, the Labour party is now overwhelmingly the party of state employees. Without votes, the block power of junior state employees would be vastly diminished.

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7 comments:

spandrell said...

Well I am familiar with the history of China and Japan, which is also a history of bureaucratic rule creeping in every single time, until there's a military coup and things start over. But the civil service always wins in the end.

I am no expert in organization theory, but it seems to me that once the bureaucracy grows beyond a certain size, it becomes impossible to control from above. The independence of government agencies seems to have grown related to their size and power.

Democracies find it hard to control the bureaucracy because the politicians are short-lived, but monarchies or big empires have trouble controlling them too, because the monarch mostly can't be bothered.

Anomaly UK said...

That sounds about right; a bureaucracy can be controlled by a strong ruler, but in the long run that tends to be the exception.

So, back to "Aristocracy works well when they do have most of the wealth of the country. Now the state has it, so bureaucrats do as they please": the idea of a renewed aristocracy is that the meritocratic bureaucracy is replaced with privileged families performing the same functions.

We haven't seen that for a couple of centuries because the prevailing belief has been that it's unjust. But is it unachievable?

spandrell said...

Problem is privileges families tend to prefer to stay home and enjoy life in their estates, delegating work (state administration in this case) to subordinates which they choose on merit. So you have commoners running the country again.

Japan has this comical story of Emperors being supplanted by their officials, the officials become an aristocratic family, hire officials, these officials then take over, and in 200 generations you have 5 layers of leisurely nobles controlled by the real power holders.

20c38902-d3b5-11e2-847b-000bcdcb2996 said...

No, not an aristocratic system.

The problem is rule by consensus. In an aristocratic system, each aristocrat is independent. In a bureaucratic system, to get anything done requires consensus, and consensus is always dominated by the evil and the insane. Consensus leads to the madness of crowds, not the wisdom of crowds.

20c38902-d3b5-11e2-847b-000bcdcb2996 said...

Bureaucracy is not aristocracy even when independent of the government.

Indeed especially when independent of the government.

While each aristocrat was apt to do as he damn well pleased, and getting them all moving in the same direction was like herding cats, bureaucrats work by consensus. Big difference.

ManagingLife said...

As a retired bureaucrat, I have to submit that thge greates virtue of a modern buewacracy is that anyone has a chance of getting into it... never mind whether he is handsome, or right-spoused, or right-casted, for that m,atter. As the middle classes creep up the affluence ladder, their children are going out of the job market (they are into spending their poppa's savings), and the hungry poor are getting in to the vacated positions... better than aristocracy, theocracy, mobocracy.

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