In Defense Of Bureaucracy

Whenever I see bureaucracy mentioned in the news, or hear people discuss it, it nearly almost has a strong negative connotation. All of us have had to deal with various bureaucracies to one extent or another. Many of us are a part of one. It is easy to understand why. It conjures images of long lines, grouchy receptionists, and stacks of paperwork. “Sign here. No here. Next window please.”

For all the headaches they cause, these complex organizations deserve recognition as the systems through which our communities function. The people’s business is dry and tedious. Less rally signs, campaign slogans–more emails and forms. And credit to those employees who spend most of their waking hours typing away under fluorescent lights, shuffling documents, and dealing with people who can be rude, obnoxious, and disagreeable.

Administrative organizations have immense power and potential to deliver both good and evil on a vast scale, depending on who is in charge and how effective they are at steering it to their aims. The Social Security system has been delivering checks to retirees every month, allowing seniors to live comfortably for over 80 years. But Adolf Hitler turned Germany’s highly functioning bureaucratic system into an instrument of death and destruction with frightening efficiency.

Bureaucracies are designed to move deliberately. Imagine if the entire DMV system–or god forbid The Pentagon–was upended every time we elected a new governor or president. The entrenched civil service keeps humming along regardless of who is in office or what impractical, silly, or corrupt things their leaders might try to do. The bureaucracy is our best defense against reckless, incompetent political leaders. When elected leaders begin to sabotage the bureaucracy is when we should worry. We are seeing this now on the federal level.

The civil service is like the offensive linemen on a football team. They’re big, strong, and ugly but without them the pretty quarterback would get pummeled every time.

These large institutions seem to operate at a snail’s pace because thoroughness is the main objective. Of course we’ll grumble when they don’t work perfectly. They never will because they’re large, intricate structures comprised of humans who, in my experience, are prone to mistakes, sloth, self-dealing, and incompetence.

Fear not! There’s even a process to weed out people who undermine the process. All things considered, bureaucracies are remarkably efficient; definitely consistent. By and large, they are run by honest professionals trying to do good and earn a living. The mail still gets to the right place, the trains and planes arrive on time, and refund checks are paid in full. Eventually.

Derek Smith is a Frewsburg native.