The word ‘Bureaucracy’ means ‘Rule by the office’, and the dull office does indeed rule all. The word started as a jibe and a warning of a tyranny of clerks, and is now accepted as the established form of government.
The complaints of politicians against the intransigence of Whitehall mandarins is justifiably met the retort with ‘Well why have you done nothing about it in the last 13 years?’ Is there anything that can be done though?
John Stuart Mill was not as modern liberals are, ‘too heavenly minded to be any earthly use’ but had his own liberal philosophy grounded on practical reality, which in a way made him more Hobbesian than he would have cared to be thought. He observed sagely of the ways of the bureaucracy:
But where everything is done through the bureaucracy, nothing to which the bureaucracy is really adverse can be done at all.
The constitution of such countries is an organisation of the experience and practical ability of the nation, into a disciplined body for the purpose of governing the rest; and the more perfect that organisation is in itself, the more successful in drawing to itself and educating for itself the persons of greatest capacity from all ranks of the community, the more complete is the bondage of all, the members of the bureaucracy included.
For the governors are as much the slaves of their organisation and discipline, as the governed are of the governors. A Chinese mandarin is as much the tool and creature of a despotism as the humblest cultivator. An individual Jesuit is to the utmost degree of abasement the slave of his order, though the order itself exists for the collective power and importance of its members.
It is not, also, to be forgotten, that the absorption of all the principal ability of the country into the governing body is fatal, sooner or later, to the mental activity and progressiveness of the body itself. Banded together as they are—working a system which, like all systems, necessarily proceeds in a great measure by fixed rules—the official body are under the constant temptation of sinking into indolent routine, or, if they now and then desert that mill-horse round, of rushing into some half-examined crudity which has struck the fancy of some leading member of the corps.
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- On Liberty by John Stuart Mill
- The Subjection of Women by John Stuart Mill
- Reflections on the Revolution in France by Edmund Burke
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