Bureaucracy is one of those words that has changed in connotation while also describing a major development that is part of “modernization.” As nation-states became ever more centralized and powerful, they tended to take on more and more responsibilities with respect to their citizens. Agencies of government, that is bureaus, were created to administer the various aspects of government: foreign affairs, excise and taxation, the police, social welfare, national education, and so forth. Increasingly these bureaucracies took on a life of their own: Made up of employees—increasingly civil servants— hired by the state to administer policy, the agencies were regarded as expert in a given area of human activity.
Often the employees were entrenched within their departments and at times forgot that they had been placed in positions of trust and authority in order to work to the ends of the state or on behalf of the people. In time the term bureaucracy became one of ill-repute describing a presumably inflated and at times less-than-competent or compassionate arm of government.
There would be periodic populist revolts against enlarged bureaucracies in the twentieth century, and especially so in most countries in the West in the 1980s and 1990s. The phenomenon was first described in relation to the German army and navy by a German sociologist, Max Weber (1864-1920), who discussed the problem of group consciousness and the conservatism that often accompanies it as follows:
The decisive reason for the advance of bureaucratic organization has always been its purely technical superiority over any other form of organization. The fully developed bureaucratic apparatus compares with other organizations exactly as does the machine with the nonmechanical modes of production. Precision, speed, unambiguity, knowledge of the files, continuity, discretion, unity, strict subordination, reduction of friction and of material and personal costs— these are raised to the optimum point in the strictly bureaucratic administration, and especially in its monocratic form. As compared with all collegiate, honorific, and avocational forms of administration, trained bureaucracy is superior on all these points. And as far as complicated tasks are concerned, paid bureaucratic work is not only more precise but, in the last analysis, it is often cheaper than even formally unremunerated honorific service… .
Today, it is primarily the capitalist market economy which demands that the official business of public administration be discharged precisely, unambiguously, continuously, and with as much speed as possible. Normally, the very large modern capitalist enterprises are themselves unequalled models of strict bureaucratic organization. Business management throughout rests on increasing precision, steadiness, and, above all, speed of operations. This, in turn, is determined by the peculiar nature of the modern means of communication, including, among other things, the news service of the press. The extraordinary increase in the speed by which public announcements, as well as economic and political facts, are transmitted exerts a steady and sharp pressure in the direction of speeding up the tempo of administrative reaction toward various situations. The optimum of such reaction time is normally attained only by a strictly bureaucratic organization… .
The more complicated and specialized modern culture becomes, the more its external supporting apparatus demands the personally detached and strictly objective expert, in lieu of the lord of older social structures who was moved by personal sympathy and favor, by grace and gratitude. Bureaucracy offers the attitudes demanded by the external apparatus of modern culture in the most favorable combination. In particular, only bureaucracy has established the foundation for the administration of a rational law conceptually systematized on the basis of “statutes,” such as the later Roman Empire first created with a high degree of technical perfection… .
The bureaucratic structure is everywhere a late product of historical development. The further back we trace our steps, the more typical is the absence of bureaucracy and of officialdom in general. Since bureaucracy has a “rational” character, with rules, means-ends calculus, and matter-of-factness predominating, its rise and expansion has everywhere had “revolutionary” results … , as had the advance of rationalism in general. The march of bureaucracy accordingly destroyed structures of domination which were not rational in the sense of the term.