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Democracies and Bureaucracies: Strange Bedfellows

By Rick Thompson (6/12/12)

Editor’s note: This is a very slightly edited version of an undergraduate’s final paper in Dennis Loo’s Classical Social Theory class. We post it here because it addresses the question of the mutually contradictory characters of the democratic spirit versus the bureaucratic ethic and why democracy remains an elusive, unrealized goal. Governments, whether they call themselves democratic or not, all rely on bureaucracies. Yet bureaucracies by their nature are at odds with the “all people are equal” spirit of democracy. The paper does a fine job of elucidating these issues and pointing to what must be done and considered to actually change that situation.

The fact that the U.S. government employs bureaucracies may leave an individual confused when confronted with the question, “Can a bureaucracy exist within a democracy?” The fact that bureaucracies are such a major part of the way that government is organized, not only in the U.S. but in every major government, presents a problem for someone who is attempting to analyze this question. Bureaucracies are so intertwined within the fabric of modern U.S. society that one does not even question whether they can coexist with democracy. The question posed, however, is not intended to be a trick. Bureaucracies, though a common entity within modern government, are not facts of necessity, indispensible and ever-existing throughout time.

When juxtaposed with democracies, serious contradictions arise that make the coexistence of both, within the same government, illogical. Close analysis of the composition of bureaucracies and democracies and the paradigms upon which they are constructed elucidate the fact that both cannot operate simultaneously, in their pure forms, within the same government. This realization posits that our current form of government must be analyzed so as to understand the reason for its creation and the purpose behind the actions that it carries out. When these two things are made known, the truth behind the current economic system within which our society operates and the government that it promotes and is subsequently supported by will be revealed and progress toward change and social equality can be obtained.

To understand the relationship between democracies and bureaucracies, one must first understand the basic characteristics of each. Max Weber writes that bureaucracies are the highest form of societal organization. In order for society to operate on a macro level, bureaucracies, as proposed by Weber, must exist. Weber does not take this stance because he is a proponent of bureaucracies but rather because the observations that he made of society during the time his prominent works of literature were composed led him to claim that bureaucracies were the logical solution to mass control. For Weber, power, and therefore political rule – which is simply the legitimized employment of power – is the ability to coerce a person, or a group of people, to do something regardless of the desire of people. In other words, power is the ability to make someone do something whether they want to or not. Governments, therefore, possess power when they can effectively impose their will on the governed. In order to do this though, Weber states that these bureaucracies follow a particular modus operandi.

Bureaucracies – in order to fulfill their purpose of organizing society and maintaining control – possess certain traits. Weber wrote that bureaucracies are characterized by the following: having jurisdictions, appropriating official duties, granting authority to positions of leadership, possessing a hierarchy, documenting actions, having standardized training, and having a set of rules. The bureaucracy – by employing these standards – is “… the means of carrying ‘community action’ over into rationally ordered ‘societal action’” (McIntosh, 1997:149). These qualities are necessary in order to turn “public sentiment” into physical action. The size of government and the complexity of achieving a specific goal within a large society call for a strict set of rules and specific hierarchical structure to ensure the accomplishment of specific tasks. Without implementing such standards, the nature of human beings would disallow the smooth functioning of society. No sustained and efficient actions would be implemented if the masses were unorganized; control begets order. These very characteristics, though, are in opposition to the true nature of democracy.

The characteristics of bureaucracies, though efficient in facilitating the maintenance order, are not efficient in facilitating the representation of the people whom bureaucracies govern. This tendency is rooted in the very nature of bureaucracies. Bureaucracies are comprised of individuals who are appointed to their positions. The appropriation of official duties is not the appropriation by the people but by the organization itself. When talking about bureaucracies, understanding the deep complexities of a bureaucratic entity sheds light on this fact.

The maintenance of order and the deep ranks that make up a bureaucratic body are shaped internally. A quasi organism is developed in which checks and balances are applied to maintain the health of the organization. Even if the people vote that a bureaucratic organization be created – though that is not usually the case – once the organization has been established, the onus of maintaining the organization falls upon the organization itself or any governing bodies accountable for the organization. Therefore, the decisions that are made by the organization are decided by those who work within the organization; they are not decided by the people. Promotions, rules, policies, and actions that affect society are decided by those who are in control, those who have been appointed. This fact contradicts the very premise of democracy that the people decide the rules that govern them.

In the case of the U.S., one might propose that the citizenry does in fact decide the rules that govern them. One might make the argument that we elect our officials, therefore we are in control of the system. If we decide who has been elected to office, then we have essentially exerted our authority as the people; therefore the elected officials and their subsequent decisions are in essence a reflection of our will. What is being overlooked here, however, is the fact that we do not decide who is nominated to represent us in the first place.

Drawing from the works of Dr. Dennis Loo, if people are presented with a choice between two objects – he uses the example of two ice cream flavors – then whichever object is chosen is not necessarily that which the people wanted but rather that which the people preferred (Loo, 2011). There is a distinct difference between the two.

What the people truly want – leadership, in the case of political authority – is not necessarily offered as a choice. The election between two people is hardly democratic when the people did not even have the opportunity to choose whom they wanted to vote for in the first place. Claiming that an elected official is the “people’s choice” is only half true. Yes, the people did in fact elect that person, but only because he was the best option; the people decided within the narrow limits of their choices. It would be a completely different situation if the people decided who ran for office in the first place. If the choices available were the preferences of the people, then whoever got elected would in fact be the people’s choice because the candidates would have been decided by society instead of some organization in charge of choosing official candidates [including both the mainstream media’s designation of certain candidates as “credible” and major party leadership’s designation of the same]. This holds water, though, only if democracy is seen as a means to an end and not an end in itself.

If democracy is viewed as an end in itself then just the fact that people voted would be good enough to fulfill the criteria. Democracy and the event of people casting their ballots is not a full embodiment of rule by the people – as argued above. But, if democracy is viewed as an end in itself, then this is okay. If people vote, and if it did not matter whom they voted for, only that they voted, then democracy would be fulfilled. This would make the existence of bureaucracies and their system of operation okay in a “democratic” society. The problem is that if people are not in control of every aspect of government, then those who are in control will manipulate the system to meet their interests, not necessarily the interest of the people.

Marx and Engels wrote that a capitalistic system of economy would be doomed to fail because those who control the means of production would manipulate the system in such a way that would cause immense economic inequality and therefore a collapse. Engels specifically wrote that “… the economic structure of society always furnishes the real basis, starting from which we can alone work out the ultimate explanation of the whole superstructure of juridical and political institutions …” (Engels, 2007). These two realizations, the fact that a capitalistic society is doomed to fail and the fact that government ultimately represents the economic system within which it operates, expose why bureaucratic institutions in the U.S. cannot operate within a true state of Democratic rule. Going back to the fact that bureaucracies are highly stratified and maintained by the organization itself and not the people, it becomes clear that when people do not have control over an organization, and if the organization is heavily influenced by an economic system, then that organization is going to be a product of the economic system and put forth policies that support those who are in power (not the people). In the case of the United States and our capitalistic economy, those who are in charge are the capitalists themselves.

Our economic system breads inequality and those who are able to succeed within the system are able to use their material wealth to influence the system and use it to promote their desires. The decisions that are made by governments are therefore not decisions that reflect the will of the people but the will of those who are in charge. When those who are in charge are those who are at the top of social hierarchy then naturally their decisions are not going to reflect necessities of the greater population. Government institutions will therefore operate in such a way that ensures that the current economic system stays intact so that those who benefit from the system can continue to reap its benefits. This pattern is a result of the fact that Democracy is not an end in itself.

If voting was all that mattered, then those who are in charge are granted authority and are legitimized because the people “have spoken.” The people whom we elect to represent us are then free to make decisions based on their own volition and the people are powerless to stop them. There is no democratic rule if the people have no ability to affect change within the system. In order for a government to arise that is representative of the people and a proponent of equality, revolution must occur.

The reason why our current system persists is because the people have been fooled to believe that capitalism is the only way. Capitalism’s historical roots in our country and its promotion in everything in modern day society lead people to believe that it is the way that things should be. Ordinary people do not question whether capitalism is the answer or not; they automatically assume it as a truth and live their lives within its constructed reality. This deep existence in the minds and hearts of the people is what ultimately lends to its continued dominance.

People think within the paradigm of capitalism and all the individualistic selfishness that follows; it therefore serves as the base of their decisions. People do not see inequality as a result of the system but of individual failure. People do not have the desire to change the system or eliminate those who are in power because they believe that one day they might be in that position and if so, they would like to enjoy the same privileges. It makes sense to the average person why someone would manipulate the system to work for his/her own benefit; few people would say that it is unwise to do. The idea of, “I am okay as long as I get mine” follows. A more equal system cannot be put in place until these sentiments are greatly diminished or destroyed. As long as selfishness is purported as the standard of human existence, then no matter what system is put in place, manipulation will be inevitable and corruption will follow.

Bureaucracies and democracy should not coexist in the same society. If democracy is viewed as an end in itself, then this would not be true. But the fact that democracy as an end in itself is a democracy that grants almost no power to the people, means that it must be viewed as only a means to end. People must vote, this is important, but people must also be able to design the system within which they are voting. Any new system that is developed must be one that is grounded in a paradigm centered on equality and human rights. As long as the motivations of the people are based on individual gain, equality cannot manifest itself.

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