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Bureaucracy as a Force for Change

by James Hitchcock
April 29, 2002

Obviously democracy is the characteristic political system of the modern world, although other systems -- Communism, Fascism -- are equally modern yet inimical to democracy. But there are other ways in which modern life also goes against democracy, if democracy means that the citizens have the ultimate voice in the state.

A century ago the sociologist Max Weber noticed the "bureaucratization" of modern life. Bureaucracy is found on all levels, including the Church, and it has to be, since modern organizations, from the national state to the smallest business or civic groups, have tasks which must be performed by competent people. Thus when we deal with government, we usually deal with career civil servants rather than with elected officials.

There is an image of bureaucracy as stodgy, rule-obsessed, resistant to change. Everyone has tales of dealing with bureaucrats who seemed utterly unsympathetic to real problems and kept explaining why the rules would not allow a solution.

But there is another side to bureaucracy which makes it a powerful force for change. That is inherent in the very idea of the bureaucrat as someone with specialized knowledge, someone who thus understands problems much better than either elected politicians or the citizens at large. Such bureaucrats are implicitly anti-democratic. They do not think ordinary people can be trusted to make the right decisions, and the politicians have to pander to the people to get elected.

Thus in all governments there is a corps of officials who remain in power no matter what the outcome of the elections. They issue countless regulations, guidelines, etc., most of which represent not what the legislature intended but what the bureaucrats think it should have intended.

There is a school of thought, dating to about Weber's time, which argues openly that good government has to be by experts, something sometimes called "social engineering". The assumption, once again, is that most people are not enlightened enough to support good policies, thus must put themselves into the hands of those wiser than themselves.

One of the characteristics of bureaucratic thinking is its inevitable conformity. While there may at first be disagreements among bureaucrats about how to deal with poverty or family breakdown, sooner or later a consensus emerges. That is because bureaucrats always defer to those deemed to be experts and because bureaucrats are conscious of belonging to a profession and do not want to be out of step with that profession.

The bureaucratic mind tends not to be sympathetic to traditional moral and religious beliefs, which are seen as further examples of the people's lack of enlightenment. While the bureaucrat may be personally religious, he does not see his faith as having anything to do with his profession.

A prime example is sexual behavior. Bureaucrats in schools, or with jurisdiction over government programs, seem mostly to think that adolescent sex is inevitable, that moral beliefs merely get in the way of a solution, that their task is to inhibit disease and pregnancy. The bureaucratic outlook is one of "scientific" pragmatism, and parents are a major problem if their ideas differ from those of the bureaucrats. One of the running battles in American politics is over such activities.

But the phenomenon is now international, as the Western world moves toward ceding national sovereignties to international bodies such as the United Nations. Those bodies are even more bureaucratized than are national governments, even less answerable to the popular will.

This has grave implications for people with traditional beliefs, who will find it harder and harder to live those beliefs in a world where everything "from on high" is hostile. Recently a committee the European Parliament in effect condemned all forms of traditional religion, and demanded the curtailment of the freedom of groups which get in the way of "progress".

James Hitchcock
6l58 Kingsbury Ave.
St. Louis, Mo. 63ll2
E-Mail: Dr. James Hitchcock

James Hitchcock, professor of history at St. Louis University, writes and lectures on contemporary Church matters. His column appears in the diocesan press. His two-volume book on religion and the Supreme Court has just been published by Princeton University Press. E-Mail: Dr. James Hitchcock

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