All Commentary
Sunday, July 1, 1962

Idolizing Institutionalization

Mr. Chamberlin is a skilled observer and re­porter of economic and political conditions at home and abroad. He has written a number of books, has lectured widely, and is a contributor to The Wall Street Journal and many nation­ally known magazines.


The most popular modern idol is institutionalism, the belief that the necessary answer to every problem is not reliance on indi­vidual intelligence and initiative, but the creation of some new agency or committee or depart­ment, the inauguration of some new form of bureaucratic overlay on human activity. Professor Parkinson has joked and others have wept about what seems to be an irresistible biological tend­ency of bureaucracy to grow, re­gardless of whether it is fulfilling any function at all.

One of Parkinson’s most telling points was his analysis of what happened in the British Minis­tries of Navy and Colonies after the end of World War II. This was a time when British warships were rapidly being consigned to the mothballs and the British Em­pire was shrinking much faster than it had ever grown. One de­pendency after another was put­ting in its application for UN membership as an independent state. Logic would have seemed to call for a drastic curtailment in the personnel of Ministries which were fulfilling increasingly modest tasks. But just the reverse oc­curred. The number of employees in the two Ministries grew almost in inverse proportion to the di­minution in the number of war­ships and colonies.

One could find similar fulfill­ments of what Parkinson humor­ously christened his “Law”—that every bureaucratic organization must grow by a percentage basis every year—in many countries and in many periods of history. It is a safe guess that as the Byzan­tine Empire shrank during the period of its decline after the eleventh century the number of its officials did not decrease pro­portionately, that skeleton staffs of administrators remained in being for provinces that had long been lost to the onrushing Turks. After the withdrawal of the Bel­gians, the primitive Congolese for a time abolished the grade of private in their ragtag and bob­tail “army,” unconsciously follow­ing the example of more sophisti­cated peoples. The NATO set-up in Europe is short on soldiers, top-heavy with high ranking officers. The example of Switzerland, where the highest peacetime rank in the very efficient Swiss citizen army is that of Colonel, has not proved contagious.

The instinctive reaction of some politicians and commentators and editorial writers to the problems of America‘s growing cities is not to call for more initiative and self-help on the part of the inhabi­tants of these cities, but to de­mand a special agency in Wash­ington, another link in the long chain of federal bureaucracy.

Bureaucracy in Business


Government is by no means the only offender in this matter of proliferating bureaucracy. Private business organizations sometimes become too big and too heavily staffed for their own good, fat un­wieldy organisms that would have horrified the lean, hard-driving, pioneer industrialists who founded them. In universities and colleges, what should be the subsidiary business of administration and management has been gravely en­croaching on the proper function of communicating learning and knowledge and wisdom to the stu­dents. A friend who had attended one of the large eastern universi­ties in the thirties recently re­marked to me: “Don’t you find that academic administration everywhere is vastly more com­plex, requiring more men and more money, than a generation ago?”

There are few, if any universi­ties and colleges in America the administrative staffs of which have not swollen beyond recogni­tion since the end of World War II. A European author of a book on American higher education called one of his chapters “Deans Within Deans.” The Deans of Col­lege and Deans of Faculty and Deans of Men and Deans of Women and Deans of Freshmen and Deans of Admission and Deans of Graduate Students and Deans of Law and Deans of En­gineering and Deans of specialized subjects would make up a very large unit in the academic army.

One wonders what Socrates and Plato and Aristotle, all fairly effective teachers in their day, and the wandering scholars of the Middle Ages who pitched their tents wherever students would come for instruction, would have thought of this huge administra­tive superstructure. Or, what of that famous New England educa­tor, the legendary President of Williams College, whose ideal of teaching through simple personal contact was summed up in the phrase.

 “Mark Hopkins at one end of a log and a student at the other.”

No doubt, the influx of students into colleges and universities does call for enlargement of adminis­trative staff. But when this proc­ess is carried too far, it may de­stroy one of the finest values of higher education, the fruitful con­tact between men of high scholar­ship and character and students eager to enlarge their horizons.

International Agencies


This idolization of institutions as supposed carriers of salvation has extended to other fields. That the noncommunist peoples of Europe should achieve closer po­litical, economic, and cultural unity is a noble and desirable ideal. But is the cumbersome bureaucracy at the headquarters of the Euro­pean Economic Community in Brussels necessary to the realiza­tion of this ideal?

It is worth remembering that Europe before World War I gained many of the advantages that are promised from the opera­tion of the Common Market, and without any international bureauc­racy or elaborate treaties run­ning into hundreds of articles. How? Simply by honoring, with negligible exceptions in the shape of low tariff duties, three basic freedoms: the ability of men, goods, and capital to cross fron­tiers without let or hindrance.

America could not have de­veloped the western part of the continent so rapidly after the Civil War except for the strong arms of Scandinavian farmers and Slav steel workers and Irish and Italians who worked in con­struction jobs. The free inflow of capital, mostly from Great Britain, helped appreciably with the build­ing of America‘s railway network. These principles are just as valid and useful today as ever. Had it not been for communism, had Russia remained open to foreign capital, its vast natural resources would have been developed and its industries would have grown—but without such inhuman accompani­ments as famine and forced labor. In short, if nations wish to ob­serve the basic rules of a free economy, there is no reason for them to bind themselves in knots of international bureaucracy. All they have to do is to restore, in their dealings with each other, the freedoms of movement that were generally observed in the nine­teenth century, including the con­vertibility and relative stability of currencies.

The Size of the State Department


It probably comes as something of a shock to many Americans to realize that there were only about 60 employees of the State Depart­ment in Washington in 1900, as against 9,995 at the last count. For some enlargement of staff there may be good reason; the world has grown much smaller in terms of communication and much more complex as regards some fields that are now closely asso­ciated with foreign policy. For the proper protection of United States interests, political and economic, the State Department needs, at home and abroad, men who are familiar with the ins and outs of politics in Europe and Asia and Africa and Latin America, experts in such subjects as balance of payments and the implications of the Common Market, specialists in Soviet strategy and tactics.

But, when one has stretched charitable allowance to the limit, the fact remains that the State De­partment is grossly overstaffed. It is clumsy, inefficient, and less able to assume proper responsibility because so many of its employees busy themselves preparing and editing ambiguous “policy papers” which furnish no effective guid­ance, or participating in endless conferences that seem unlikely to improve the fortunes of the Amer­ican Republic. “Coordination” is carried to ridiculous lengths; the most trivial message sometimes requires the attention not only of half a dozen superfluous bureau­crats in the overgrown building in Foggy Bottom but of represent­atives of other government de­partments and agencies as well.

Lenin, in the last year of his life, took a look at the chaos of a big inspection and audit depart­ment known as Workers’ and Peasants’ Inspection, or Rabkrin (its Russian abbreviation) and uttered a heartfelt cry: “Let’s have less quantity and more qual­ity.” That is a good slogan for a reformer, if one ever arises, who can somehow cut the State De­partment down to manageable and workable size.

Two examples in American his­tory indicate that we did pretty well in foreign relations before the present monstrous bureaucrat­ic overgrowth set in. Benjamin Franklin was largely on his own, without the staff of underlings and secretaries which even a minor department head would consider in­dispensable today, when he brought off the neat diplomatic stroke of persuading France to enter a war against Great Britain, which was of little real concern to France but of life-and-death im­portance to the American colonies that were struggling to become the United States of America.

In another great crisis during the Civil War when it sometimes seemed touch-and-go whether the British government might recog­nize the Confederacy, the United States Minister in London, Charles Francis Adams, made do with such help as he obtained from his later famous son Henry, from a career clerk, and from such accidental visitors from the United States as he could enlist. One man, entrusted with author­ity and responsibility, able quickly to grasp the essential facts of a situation, is likely to be far more useful in conducting a vigorous and successful foreign policy than a host of departmental and inter­departmental committees that kill original ideas by procrastination and dilution and reduce the clear outline of policy to a vague blur of compromise generalities.

Good People Have Good Laws


One of the oldest human delu­sions, and a definite part of the idolization of institutionalism, is the belief that men may be made good by organizational gimmicks, or by writing a certain type of legal code or constitution. The in­verse of this proposition is much nearer to truth. Take a people with the essential prerequisites of self-government: patriotism, education, sense of common na­tional purpose, willing to abide by the rules of the political game, able to win at the polls without persecuting the losers and to lose without succumbing to the im­pulse to upset the result by revolu­tion. Such a people can make al­most any constitution work toler­ably well.

A people without these prere­quisites would soon make a sham­bles and a mockery of the finest theoretical plan of government in the world. Almost all Americans are rightly proud of their Consti­tution, which the British states­man, William E. Gladstone, de­scribed as “the most wonderful work ever struck off at a given time by the brain and purpose of man.” But the American Constitu­tion was no accidental triumph of pure theory. It was the work of some of the best minds of a so­ciety that possessed a tradition of orderly self-government, that had been cemented by the recent experience of a common struggle for liberty.

Just as the real test of institutions, and their prospect of dura­bility, depend upon the qualities of the people who live under them, so it is a vain illusion to imagine that a people can remake its char­acter by a revolutionary change of institutions. A good example of this point is furnished by the course of the Russian Bolshevik Revolution. At first sight here was a fundamental upheaval that changed everything from top to bottom, that reversed the posi­tions of what had formerly been the upper and lower classes, that wiped out differences of rank and wealth with unprecedented thor­oughness.

And yet, as the new Soviet order took shape, it became in­creasingly evident that in many ways it was merely Old Russia in New Masks. What change had taken place was mainly in the di­rection of making a rather ineffi­cient old tyranny much more thorough, logical, and consistent. Before the Revolution Russia had a Duma, or Parliament, in which there was an opposition, but with rigged election laws to make cer­tain that the position of the gov­ernment could not be seriously threatened. Now there is a Su­preme Soviet, or Soviet Parlia­ment, in which there is no voice of opposition whatever.

Under the Czarist system news­papers might be censored. The Soviet system has gone this meth­od of thought control one better by requiring that every editor of a newspaper be a card-carrying communist. Under the Czars and under the Soviets alike Russia en­joyed the distinction of being, of all European countries, the hard­est for a foreigner to get into or for a Russian to get out of.

Many Russian peasants sup­ported the Soviets, not because they were communists, but be­cause they believed communist promises that they were to get the land of the former estate owners. But in 1929 and succeed­ing years the imposition of collec­tive farming took away from the peasants any individual owner­ship of the land and reduced them to the status of serfs, obliged to work the land under taskmasters appointed by the government. There was no effective habeas corpus in Czarist Russia; there is no effective habeas corpus in the Soviet Union.

Changing Rulers Doesn’t Always Change the Rules


The original communist dreams of equality, of direct self-govern­ment have long been abandoned. The Communist Party has re­placed the Czarist bureaucracy; a new ruling class has taken the place of the old; inequalities of pay and privilege are just as rigid as they were under the old regime. Behind the facade of proletarian rule the methods of fierce old Czars like Ivan the Terrible and Peter the Great are constantly peeping out. One is impressed by the prophetic wisdom of the Polish novelist, Joseph Conrad, who wrote in response to the Bolshevik Revolution:

“The ferocity and imbecility of an autocratic rule rejecting all legality and in fact basing itself upon complete moral anarchism provokes the no less imbecile and atrocious answer of a purely uto­pian revolutionism encompassing destruction by the first means to hand, in the strange conviction that a fundamental change of hearts must follow the downfall of any given human institutions. These people are unable to see that all they can effect is a mere change of names. The oppressors and the oppressed are all Russians to­gether; and the world is brought once more face to face with the truth of the saying that the tiger cannot change his stripes nor the leopard his spots.”

The negative lesson of the Bol­shevik Revolution is the futility of expecting a change of hearts and minds from a change of ex­ternal institutions, no matter how violent and sweeping. The positive lesson (and this applies also to the current fetish of salvation through institutionalism) is that the only true revolution lies in an inner change of hearts and minds. This, incidentally, is the common conviction of all the world’s great religious and moral teachers, whose target is always the indi­vidual, never the institutions un­der which the individual lives.

  • William Henry Chamberlin (1897-1969) was an American historian and journalist. He was the author of several books about the Cold War, Communism, and US foreign policy, including The Russian Revolution 1917-1921 (1935) which was written in Russia between 1922-34 when he was the Moscow correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor.