The Fourth Branch and the Bible: An Odd Couple Part Two: Is Bureaucracy Evil?

Posted on July 15, 2014 by


A few days ago I wrote a blog on bureaucracy and promised to follow it up by addressing the question of the compatibility of this form of organization with Scripture. As Abraham Kuyper once said, there is not one part of the universe that God cannot call His (my paraphrase) and that includes our thinking about and practice of politics and economics. Here we have the example of one particular type of institution that has become immensely popular and both accepted and often hated. In addition, most of the actual work of the Federal government takes place through the mechanism of large agencies established by Congress to implement its myriad statutes. So the discussion is no small matter.
Let us begin with this basic principle: A bureaucratic institution is neutral in itself, since Scripture does not command one particular way of governing as the only way. In fact, one can either see or infer examples of bureaucratic arrangements in Scripture—the Babylonian hierarchy, the Roman government. These are not condemned in themselves. We see various types of government, but especially monarchy, in Scripture—not exactly endorsed in 1 Samuel, but not outright condemned either. Even God is a monarch, and, apparently has established a hierarchical organization of angels to do His bidding. Of course God is perfect, and that fact is a crucial difference between how bureaucratic organizations work here on earth and how they operate in Heaven.
So then, what could be the problem from a Christian viewpoint? The obvious problem is sin to begin with. All humans are born with the predisposition to sin. The sinful predisposition will be different for each person and it will be shaped and either encouraged or discouraged to some degree by one’s environment (family, church, schools, peers, other institutions or cultural influences). In addition, Christian theology teaches that those whom God justifies as His children now have the Holy Spirit in them to operate in reversing the sin nature and producing goodness, though still having to live with the sin nature to a greater or lesser extent. In addition, Christian theology teaches the existence of common grace which acts as a restraining and enhancing factor in the lives of non-Christians and in culture. Therefore, we do not have to despair about a Hobbesian “war of all against all.” Nevertheless, sin unfortunately is at work in everyone at some point in time and in some on a consistent basis. Philosophers and economists might call it self-interest or selfishness (though there is a difference). The existence of sin will be an important cause of bureaucratic dysfunction.
Another issue at work is the limits of human knowledge. Because humans are created beings, and not God, who is omniscient, they cannot possess the same kind of knowledge as God. Human knowledge is limited. If this is true, as Scripture makes plain, then the ability of humans to plan and control their lives, let alone the lives and activities of others, is also severely limited, as James, Chapter 4, indicates. This fact too has significant implications for the use of bureaucratic organizations.
Let’s now look at what happens when we combine sin and limitations of knowledge with the form of bureaucratic organization on a large scale. I am sorry, but some of this might get a bit (but not too) technical. Think of a bureaucratic organization as looking like a pyramid, with one or a few leaders at the top and successive ranks of superiors and subordinates going down the pyramid to the bottom, and getting wider as the numbers of bureaucrats increases as we go down. This “shape” is due to the necessity of control by superiors at each level over those below. So, for example, at any given level of the pyramid, one superior—say a mid-level manager—will have supervision over say, three or four or five or more subordinates. His job is to coordinate their activities so as to avoid duplication, promote efficiency and resolve conflicts, as well as to oversee the quality of their actions. A large bureaucracy, such as the IRS, will have many employees and therefore many layers in a complex arrangement of superiors and subordinates. The people at the bottom, the “street level bureaucrats” generally provide actual services (or goods). But in a public bureaucracy, prices are generally not charged directly, but rather the services are paid for through taxation. Thus, there is no direct relation between the service and the payment for it. In addition, it is difficult (sometimes impossible) to measure the quantity of the good or service. Since there may be no pricing and no direct measurement, there are few ways to attempt to determine whether the service is being provided efficiently or responsively. To try to ensure that employees do work for the mission of the agency, and produce what is supposed to be produced in terms of quality and quantity, rules are instituted for each person in the hierarchy, except possibly for the head.
Now another aspect comes into play. In order for those at the top to know conditions “out there” among consumers of the service, they must have accurate information about those circumstances. Going the other direction, the head(s) must communicate orders down the “chain of command.” If we assume selfishness among even some of the bureaucrats, and the ability to evade detection, the incentive is consistently to suppress bad information (especially that making them look bad) and to pass on only the good information, or even to distort information (to lie, that is). If this distortion occurs even at a few levels it compounds, so that by the time it reaches the top, it may be significantly distorted, And with a large bureaucracy with many layers, the problem may be even worse. Therefore the head does not possess accurate information. His orders will then, to that extent, not reflect reality. Moreover, even if they begin from the top accurately, they may be distorted in translation on the way down, either accidentally or deliberately. Again, the more layers, the worse the distortion. And if we reduce the number of layers, then that means that each superior has more employees to supervise. He often cannot “keep up.” Opportunities for rent-seeking will occur among bureaucrats at all levels, as the rules cannot usually constrain all behavior and even if they could, can be evaded because of the difficulty of supervision. On top of this, it is impossible for anyone in the organization of a large agency to obtain accurate information, even if he or she wished to. It is simply to dispersed and there is such an immense amount necessary. Humans after all are just human.
What is the potential result of all this? Given the sin nature, the negative potential is huge. But even if every individual were virtuous, the knowledge problem remains. The larger the bureaucracy the greater the problem. Then agency, even if it has well-intentioned goals (sometimes an extravagant assumption), may grow increasingly disconnected from those it serves, that is unresponsive to their demands. Internally, an attempt may be made to deal with this problem by adding more rules, causing employees to exert efforts to circumvent the rules even more. Eventually the bureaucracy may become “ossified,” incapable of responding to outside demands. Again, this outcome may result even if the goals of the agency are noble. If they are perverse to begin with, driven by some radical ideology, then the resulting problems may be even worse. Moreover, if the goals are themselves perverse and the agency is largely populated with unvirtuous bureaucrats, the negative outcome might be catastrophic to those supposedly being served.
Can Christians then work in large public agencies? Of course. But they should be forewarned about the possible problems. On the other hand, they can make a difference, if only to a small extent. As to the institution itself, I am not arguing that bureaucratic organization is always a bad form. It is not an unbiblical form of organization. But it does have its limitations, precisely due to the limitations of human beings. People working in bureaucratic settings are no better or worse than anyone else, and a bureaucratic context does no magically transform an individual into a public-minded servant. Moreover, with no checks on the authority of a bureaucracy, or with no effective checks, the potential for mischief only increases, particularly in a large public organization.
Christians should therefore be very careful in their support of bureaucratic organizations, especially if they may be large ones. We above all ought to be aware of human frailties. And when those frailties result in the ability to oppress other people, the issue of justice arises, to which Christians should also be acutely sensitive. So when you read about the recent scandals occurring in Federal agencies, as Christians, understand at least some of the dynamics behind them are beyond mere politics. They go to human nature itself.