The Burden of Bureaucracy

M. E. Bradford is a Professor of English at the University of Dallas. His essays have appeared in various scholarly journals, and he is the author of A Better Guide than Reason and Remembering Who We Are.

If anything endures in our political life it is the bureaucracy. Administrations come and go, but the bureaucracy is forever—or so it seems; and it not only endures, it grows and grows in the direction of a total politicization of every aspect of our existence. If we would have once again a free society, it will require of us a heroic effort, not just in electing a President and Congress with whom we can expect to agree but also in waging war “in the trenches of day-to-day definition of public and private policy, separating legitimate and appropriate government action from the usurpations and abuses which must be eliminated,” as George Roche has argued.

The first stage in escaping from the toils of bureaucracy is to learn once and for all that the cost of state action in relieving the announced unhappiness of any component part of society may be, if not authorized by the Constitution as it stood before 1860, a further step toward subservience and degradation for all—including members of the aggrieved group in whose name the action is performed. For the only government that can answer to every claim of injured merit put forward by a component of the population it regulates and thus defines is a government with an absolute authority over every person under its sway. Said another way, the only government that can secure to us all of the “rights” (read “privileges”) we might hope to enjoy is a government which can just as easily leave us with no freedom of any kind. Either way bureaucracy will be involved. For the end result of every new addition to the machinery of the state, each of its new bureaus and investigative or regulatory agencies, whatever the ostensible reason for their creation, is to increase statist regimentation and diminish individual initiative: no more and no less.

Bureaucracy is essentially military in its character, needing an “army” to carry out its collective will. It is the routine (as opposed to the exceptional) power of the state in its coercive mode. It is wholly political in its nature and thus exists primarily to augment the scope of government. And it never surrenders any ground it has gained, never gives up voluntarily any function once assigned to it.

In our time we have learned that it is impossible to exaggerate the tenacity of bureaucracy, once established and in place. Seven years of the Reagan Administration—a regime called into office because it promised an end to repressive regulation—provide additional evidence of the persistence of an established bureaucracy. Even with massive support at the polls and a national consensus that we are overt governed, the first officially conservative, anti-bureaucratic government in fifty years is unable to counter the cause-and-purpose-oriented rhetoric used to defend the edifice it promised to reduce. We have not yet generated the strength of will to be done with the parasite—a curious development in a country born out of a determination to be free from the official benevolence of a remote, arbitrary, unresponsive, and often hostile authority.

George Roche, writing in the tradition of Ludwig von Mises’ Bureaucracy, produces a potent little study called America by the Throat (Devin-Adair, 1983). He tells us that bureaucracy costs our citizens (apart from military spending) about $3,000 apiece each year. Furthermore, he expects worse, and propounds a frost and second law of bureaucracy. The first is: “the supply of human misery will rise to meet demand.” The principle involved has to do with felt need and signifies that the impulse to “correct” society in some particular is ante cedent to the problem on which bureaucracy focuses in the end. The second law is equally simple: “the size of bureaucracy increases in direct proportion to the additional misery it creates.” In other words, bureaucracy grows by feeding on its own failure to be instrumental in any practical sense.

It is a warning to the bureaucrats and their legislating friends that not everyone has been lulled asleep by the idea that, after 1980 and 1984, the day of regimentation is over. Wishing will not make it so. For freedom is always both difficult and expensive. Submission seems more convenient, at least until we know it by experience and are frightened into such resistance as should have been our practice from the beginning.

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