Bureaucracy is the administrative system governing any large institution, whether publicly owned or privately owned. It is a centralized form of management and tends to be differentiated from adhocracy, in which management is decentralized.
Some have argued that bureaucracy constitutes efficient and rational way in which human activity can be organized and that systematic processes and organized hierarchies are necessary to maintain order, maximize efficiency, and eliminate favoritism.
On the other hand, others have seen bureaucracy as a threat to individual freedom, with the potential of trapping individuals in an impersonal “iron cage” of rule-based, rational control.
Modern bureaucracy meaning
Modern bureaucracy has been defined as comprising four features: hierarchy (clearly defined spheres of competence and divisions of labor), continuity (a structure where administrators have a full-time salary and advance within the structure), impersonality (prescribed rules and operating rules rather than arbitrary actions), and expertise (officials are chosen according to merit, have been trained, and hold access to knowledge).
Although the term “bureaucracy” first originated in the mid-18th Century, organized and consistent administrative systems existed much earlier.
The development of writing (c. 3500 BC) and the use of documents was critical to the administration of this system, and the first definitive emergence of bureaucracy occurred in ancient Sumer, where an emergent class of scribes used clay tablets to administer the harvest and to allocate its spoils.
Ancient Egypt also had a hereditary class of scribes that administered the civilservice bureaucracy. A hierarchy of regional proconsuls and their deputies administered the Roman Empire. The reforms of Diocletian (Emperor from 284 to 305) doubled the number of administrative districts and led to a large-scale expansion of Roman bureaucracy.
The early Christian Author Lactantius (c. 250 – c. 325) claimed that Diocletian’s reforms led to widespread economic stagnation, since the provinces were divided into minute portions, and many presidents and a multitude of inferior officers lay heavy on each territory.
After the Empire split, the Byzantine Empire developed a notoriously complicated administrative hierarchy, and in the 20th century the term “Byzantine” came to refer to any complex bureaucratic structure. In China, when the Qin dynasty (221–206 BC) unified China under the Legalist system, the Emperor assigned administration to dedicated officials rather than nobility, ending feudalism in China, replacing it with a centralized, bureaucratic government.
The form of government created by the first emperor and his advisors was used by later dynasties to structure their own government. Under this system, the government thrived, as talented individuals could be more easily identified in the transformed society.
The Han dynasty (202 BC – 220 AD) established a complicated bureaucracy based on the teachings of Confucius, who emphasized the importance of ritual in a family, in relationships, and in politics. With each subsequent dynasty, the bureaucracy evolved. In 165 BC,
Emperor Wen introduced the first method of recruitment to civil service through examinations, while Emperor Wu (r. 141–87 BC), cemented the ideology of Confucius into mainstream governance installed a system of recommendation and nomination in government service known as xiaolian, and a national academy whereby officials would select candidates to take part in an examination of the Confucian classics, from which Emperor Wu would select officials.
In the Sui dynasty (581–618) and the subsequent Tang dynasty (618–907) the shi class would begin to present itself by means of the fully standardized civil service examination system, of partial recruitment of those who passed standard exams and earned an official degree.
Yet, recruitment by recommendations to office was still prominent in both dynasties. It was not until the Song dynasty (960–1279) that the recruitment of those who passed the exams and earned degrees was given greater emphasis and significantly expanded. During the Song dynasty (960–1279) the bureaucracy became meritocratic.
Following the Song reforms, competitive examinations took place to determine which candidates qualified to hold given positions. The imperial examination system lasted until 1905, six years before the Qing dynasty collapsed, marking the end of China’s traditional bureaucratic system.
Jurisdictions where bureacracy once existed Ashanti Empire
The government of the Ashanti Empire was built upon a sophisticated bureaucracy in Kumasi, with separate ministries which saw to the handling of state affairs. Ashanti’s Foreign Office was based in Kumasi. Despite the small size of the office, it allowed the state to pursue complex negotiations with foreign powers.
The Office was divided into departments that handled Ashanti relations separately with the British, French, Dutch, and Arabs. Scholars of Ashanti history, such as Larry Yarak and Ivor Wilkes, disagree over the power of this sophisticated bureaucracy in comparison to the Asantehene. However, both scholars agree that it was a sign of a highly developed government with a complex system of checks and balances.
The United Kingdom
The 18th Century Department of Excise developed a sophisticated bureaucracy. Instead of the inefficient and often corrupt system of tax farming that prevailed in absolutist states such as France, the Exchequer was able to exert control over the entire system of tax revenue and government expenditure.
By the late 18th Century, the ratio of fiscal bureaucracy to population in Britain was approximately 1 in 1300, almost four times larger than the second most heavily bureaucratized nation, France.
Thomas Taylor Meadows, Britain’s consul in Guangzhou, argued in his Desultory Notes on the Government and People of China (1847) that the long duration of the Chinese Empire is solely and altogether owing to the good government which consists in the advancement of men of talent and merit only, and that the British must reform their civil service by making the institution meritocratic.
Influenced by the ancient Chinese imperial examination, the Northcote–Trevelyan Report of 1854, recommended that recruitment should be on the basis of merit determined through competitive examination, candidates should have a solid general education to enable inter- departmental transfers, and promotion should be through achievement rather than preferment, patronage, or purchase.
This led to implementation of Her Majesty’s Civil Service as a systematic, meritocratic civil service bureaucracy. In the British civil service, just as it was in China, entrance to the civil service was usually based on a general education in ancient classics, which similarly gave bureaucrats greater prestige.
The Cambridge-Oxford ideal of the civil service was identical to the Confucian ideal of a general education in world affairs through humanism.
Like the British, the development of French bureaucracy was influenced by the Chinese system. Under Louis XIV of France, the old nobility had neither power nor political influence, their only privilege being exemption from taxes. The dis-satisfied noblemen complained about this “unnatural” state of affairs, and discovered similarities between absolute monarchy and bureaucratic despotism.
With the translation of Confucian texts during the enlightenment, the concept of a meritocracy reached intellectuals in the West, who saw it as an alternative to the traditional ancient regime of Europe. Western perception of China even in the 18th Century admired the Chinese bureaucratic system as favourable over European governments for its seeming meritocracy.
Napoleonic France adopted this meritocracy system and soon saw a rapid and dramatic expansion of government, accompanied by the rise of the French civil service and its complex systems of bureaucracy.
This phenomenon became known as “bureaumania”. In the early 19th century, Napoleon attempted to reform the bureaucracies of France and other territories under his control by the imposition of the standardized Napoleonic Code. But paradoxically, that led to even further growth of the bureaucracy.
French Civil Service examinations adopted in the late 19th Century were also heavily based on general cultural studies. These features have been likened to the earlier Chinese model.
Other industrialized nations
By the mid-19th Century, bureaucratic forms of administration were firmly in place across the industrialized world. Thinkers like John Stuart Mill and Karl Marx began to theorize about the economic functions and power-structures of bureaucracy in contemporary life.
Max Weber was the first to endorse bureaucracy as a necessary feature of modernity, and by the late 19th century, bureaucratic forms had begun their spread from government to other large-scale institutions.
The trend toward increased bureaucratization continued in the 20th Century, with the public sector employing over 5 per cent of the workforce in many Western countries. Meanwhile, in the Soviet Union and Eastern Bloc nations, a powerful class of bureaucratic administrators termed nomenklatura governed nearly all aspects of public life.
The 1980s brought a backlash against perceptions of “big government” and the associated bureaucracy. Politicians like Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan gained power by promising to eliminate government regulatory bureaucracies, which they saw as overbearing, and return economic production to a more purely capitalistic mode, which they saw as more efficient. In the business world, managers like Jack Welch gained fortune and renown by eliminating bureaucratic structures inside corporations.
Still, in the modern world, most organized institutions rely on bureaucratic systems to manage information, process records, and administer complex systems, although the decline of paperwork and the widespread use of electronic databases is transforming the way bureaucracies function.
Various theories of bureaucracy Karl Marx
Karl Marx theorized about the role and function of bureaucracy in his book, Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right, published in 1843. In Philosophy of Right, Hegel had supported the role of specialized officials in public administration, although he never used the term “bureaucracy” himself.
By contrast, Marx was opposed to bureaucracy. Marx posited that while corporate and government bureaucracy seem to operate in opposition, in actuality they mutually rely on one another to exist. He wrote that, “The Corporation is civil society’s attempt to become state; but the bureaucracy is the state which has really made itself into civil society.
Mill Writing in the early 1860s, political scientist, John Stuart Mill, theorized that successful monarchies were essentially bureaucracies, and found evidence of their existence in Imperial China, the Russian Empire, and the regimes of Europe. Mill referred to bureaucracy as a distinct form of government, separate from representative democracy.
He believed bureaucracies had certain advantages, most importantly the accumulation of experience in those who actually conduct the affairs. Nevertheless, he believed this form of governance compared poorly to representative government, as it relied on appointment rather than direct election. Mill wrote that ultimately the bureaucracy stifles the mind.
Thought for the week
“In any bureaucracy, there’s a natural tendency to let the system become an excuse for inaction.” (Chris Fussell).
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