The Case FOR Bureaucracy

“The successes of modern democratic government have to be considered the successes of government bureaucracies as well.”

Most criticisms of government bureaucracy are based more on myth than reality. These agencies actually play a valuable and indispensable role in making our society a better place to live.

We all know the case against bureaucracy. Just say the word to yourself and consider the images it evokes. Massive waste. Inefficiency. Poor service. Ever-growing organizations. Mindless rules. Reams of useless forms. The term “bureaucrat” also comes loaded with a whole host of negative connotations: lazy, hostile, overpaid, imperious, and inflexible. In short, bureaucracy and bureaucrats are unmitigated bad things – with absolutely no redeeming qualities.

Conservatives like to play on this popular prejudice by constantly equating government with bureaucracy. The comments of Charlton Heston are typical: “Of course, government is the problem. The armies of bureaucrats proliferating like gerbils, scurrying like lemmings in pursuit of the ever-expanding federal agenda testify to that amply.”1 Once government is thought of as “bureaucracy,” the case for reducing it becomes obvious. Who could complain if Republicans want to reduce these “armies of bureaucrats”? Everyone knows that we would all be better off with less bureaucracy and fewer bureaucrats in our lives. So when conservatives want to make shrinking government sound attractive, they say they are cutting “bureaucracy” – not “programs.” Most people value government programs – especially in the areas of education, health and the environment – and do not want to see them reduced; but everyone hates bureaucracy. Using the term “bureaucracy” in this way is a rhetorical sleight-of-hand that obscures the real costs of cutting back on government programs.

But while disparaging and attacking government bureaucracy has become a very effective tactic for anti-government activists, it is based more on mythology than reality. Much of what we think is wrong with bureaucracy – and what conservatives keep telling us – is highly exaggerated and often simply mistaken. This article takes a careful look at bureaucracy and finds that there is little evidence to support most of the common criticisms of these administrative agencies. Studies show that bureaucracy and bureaucrats are not nearly as bad as we usually think they are. We will also consider the case for bureaucracy – that these much-maligned organizations and the public servants that work in them are actually playing many valuable and indispensable roles in our society. Many of the significant achievements of modern democratic government would in fact not be possible without the large bureaucracies that oversee and implement them. It turns out that government bureaucracies are actually good.

Myth No. 1: Bureaucracies Are Immensely Wasteful

A few years ago, local officials in my town were holding a public meeting to promote a referendum that would raise taxes to pay for vital city services. A man in the audience rose to object to the tax increase, arguing that instead the city should first get rid of all the waste in the city bureaucracy. The mayor explained that after years of cutbacks in city government, there really was no “fat” left to cut from the budget, and then asked the man what specific cuts he was suggesting. The man said that he didn’t know much about the city budget, but that he “knew” that there “had to be” some waste that could be cut out instead of raising taxes.

Such is the strength of the notion that government bureaucracies are inherently wasteful. Even if we don’t know much about government, we are absolutely certain that government agencies are wasteful. In fact, waste is the number one citizen complaint about government – and bureaucracy usually takes most of the blame for this. Seventy percent of Americans agree that when something is run by government, it is usually wasteful and inefficient.2 And conservatives never tire of taking advantage of this view to lambaste the government. As two conservative economists have explained: “As every taxpayer knows, government is wasteful and inefficient; it always has been and always will be.” Cutting bureaucratic waste has become a constant theme of conservatives, and it has become a major rationale for cutting taxes. They argue that we can have the best of both worlds: we can reduce taxes and also not cut back on needed government programs. How? By simply cutting out all the “fat” in government.

In the public’s view, government agencies are not only wasteful, they are enormously wasteful. Surveys reveal that Americans believe that 48 cents of every tax dollar going to bureaucracies like the Social Security Administration are wasted.3 Yet investigations by the Government Accounting Office and various blue-ribbon commissions have found that waste amounts to only a small fraction of that figure. Al Gore’s National Performance Review, conducted when he was vice-president, examined the federal bureaucracy in great detail and discovered that waste consisted of less than two cents of every tax dollar.4 Of course we should be ever vigilant about waste and try to eliminate it wherever we can find it, but it seems clear that the extent of this problem is being highly exaggerated by conservative critics of government. As one set of scholars who examined a wide variety of the studies on government waste concluded: “There is … little evidence to support the widespread impression that government inefficiency squanders huge amounts of money.”5