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A bureaucracy is "a body of non-elective government officials" and/or "an administrative policy-making group". Historically, bureaucracy referred to government administration managed by departments staffed with nonelected officials. In modern parlance, bureaucracy refers to the administrative system governing any large institution.
Since being coined, the word "bureaucracy" has developed negative connotations for some. Bureaucracies are criticized when they become too complex, inefficient, or too inflexible. The dehumanizing effects of excessive bureaucracy were a major theme in the work of Franz Kafka, and were central to his most well known work, The Trial. The elimination of unnecessary bureaucracy is a key concept in modern managerial theory and has been a central issue in numerous political campaigns.
Others have defended the necessity of bureaucracies. The German sociologist Max Weber argued that bureaucracy constitutes the most efficient and rational way in which human activity can be organized, and that systematic processes and organized hierarchies were necessary to maintain order, maximize efficiency and eliminate favoritism. But even Weber saw unfettered bureaucracy as a threat to individual freedom, in which an increase in the bureaucratization of human life can trap individuals in an "iron cage" of rule-based, rational control.
The term "bureaucracy" is French in origin, and combines the French word bureau – desk or office – with the Greek word κράτος kratos – rule or political power. It was coined sometime in the mid-18th century by the French economist Jacques Claude Marie Vincent de Gournay, and was a satirical pejorative from the outset. Gournay never wrote the term down, but was later quoted at length in a letter from a contemporary:
The late M. de Gournay...sometimes used to say: "We have an illness in France which bids fair to play havoc with us; this illness is called bureaumania." Sometimes he used to invent a fourth or fifth form of government under the heading of "bureaucracy."
The first known English-language use was in 1818. The 19th-century definition referred to a system of governance in which offices were held by unelected career officials, and in this sense "bureaucracy" was seen as a distinct form of government, often subservient to a monarchy. In the 1920s, the definition was expanded by the German sociologist Max Weber to include any system of administration conducted by trained professionals according to fixed rules. Weber saw the bureaucracy as a relatively positive development; however by 1944, the Austrian economist Ludwig von Mises noted that the term bureaucracy was "always applied with an opprobrious connotation," and by 1957 the American sociologist Robert Merton noted that the term "bureaucrat" had become an epithet.
Although the term "bureaucracy" was not coined until the mid 18th century, the idea of organized and consistent administrative systems is much older. The development of writing (ca. 3500 BCE) and the use of documents was critical to the administration of this system, and the first definitive emergence of bureaucracy is in ancient Sumer, where an emergent class of scribes used clay tablets to administer the harvest and allocate its spoils. Ancient Egypt also had a hereditary class of scribes that administered the civil service bureaucracy. Much of what is known today of these cultures comes from the writing of the scribes.
Ancient Rome was administered by a hierarchy of regional proconsuls and their deputies. The reforms of Diocletian doubled the number of administrative districts and led to a large-scale expansion in Roman bureaucracy. The early Christian author Lactantius 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 time the term "byzantine" came to refer to any complex bureaucratic structure.
In Ancient China, the scholar Confucius established a complex system of rigorous procedures governing relationships in family, religion and politics. Confucius sought to construct an organized state free from corruption. In Imperial China, the bureaucracy was headed by a Chief Counselor. Within the bureaucracy, the positions were of a "graded civil service" and competitive exams were held to determine who held positions. The upper levels of the system held nine grades, and the officials wore distinctive clothing. The Confucian Classics codified a set of values held by the officials.
A modern form of bureaucracy evolved in the expanding Department of Excise in the United Kingdom, during the 18th century. The relative efficiency and professionalism in this state-run authority allowed the government to impose a very large tax burden on the population and raise great sums of money for war expenditure. According to Niall Ferguson, the bureaucracy was based on "recruitment by examination, training, promotion on merit, regular salaries and pensions, and standardized procedures". The system was subject to a strict hierarchy and emphasis was placed on technical and efficient methods for tax collection.
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. The implementation of Her Majesty's Civil Service as a systematic, meritocratic civil service bureaucracy, followed the Northcote-Trevelyan Report of 1854, which recommended that recruitment should be on the basis of merit and promotion should be won through achievement. This system was modeled on the imperial examinations system and bureaucracy of China based on the suggestion of Northcote-Trevelyan Report.
France also saw a rapid and dramatic expansion of government in the 18th-century, accompanied by the rise of the French civil service; a phenomenon that became known as "bureaumania," in which complex systems of bureaucracy emerged. 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, this led to even further growth of the bureaucracy.
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% of the workforce in many Western countries. Within capitalist systems, informal bureaucratic structures began to appear in the form of corporate power hierarchies, as detailed in mid-century works like The Organization Man and The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit. Meanwhile, in the Soviet Union and Eastern Bloc, a powerful class of bureaucratic administrators termed nomenklatura governed nearly all aspects of public life.
The 1980s brought a backlash against bureaucratic forms of rule. 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 the corporations themselves.
Still, in the modern world practically all organized institutions rely on bureaucratic systems to manage information, process and manage records, and administer complex systems and interrelationships in an increasingly globalized world, although the decline of paperwork and the widespread use of electronic databases is transforming the way bureaucracies function.
Karl Marx theorized about the role and function of bureaucracy in his Critique of Hegel's Philosophy of Right, published in 1843. In his Philosophy of Right, Hegel had supported the role of specialized officials in the role of public administration, although he never used the term "bureaucracy" himself. Marx by contrast was opposed to the bureaucracy. He saw the development of bureaucracy in government as a natural counterpart to the development of the corporation in private society. Marx posited that while the corporation and government bureaucracy existed in seeming opposition, in actuality they mutually relied 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."
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 thought bureaucracy as a 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, and that "A bureaucracy always tends to become a pedantocracy."
The German sociologist Max Weber described many ideal-typical forms of public administration, government, and business in his 1922 work Economy and Society. His critical study of the bureaucratisation of society became one of the most enduring parts of his work. It was Weber who began the studies of bureaucracy and whose works led to the popularization of this term. Many aspects of modern public administration go back to him, and a classic, hierarchically organized civil service of the Continental type is called "Weberian civil service". As the most efficient and rational way of organizing, bureaucratization for Weber was the key part of the rational-legal authority, and furthermore, he saw it as the key process in the ongoing rationalization of the Western society. Although he is not necessarily an admirer of bureaucracy, Weber does argue that bureaucracy constitutes the most efficient and (formally) rational way in which human activity can be organized, and that thus is indispensable to the modern world.
Bureaucratic administration means fundamentally domination through knowledge
— Max Weber
Weber listed several precondititions for the emergence of bureaucracy. The growth in space and population being administered, the growth in complexity of the administrative tasks being carried out, and the existence of a monetary economy requiring a more efficient administrative system. Development of communication and transportation technologies make more efficient administration possible but also in popular demand, and democratization and rationalization of culture resulted in demands that the new system treats everybody equally.
Weber's ideal-typical bureaucracy is characterized by hierarchical organization, delineated lines of authority in a fixed area of activity, action taken on the basis of and recorded in written rules, bureaucratic officials need expert training, rules are implemented by neutral officials, career advancement depends on technical qualifications judged by organization, not individuals.
While recognizing bureaucracy as the most efficient form of organization, and even indispensable for the modern state, Weber also saw it as a threat to individual freedoms, and the ongoing bureaucratization as leading to a "polar night of icy darkness", in which increasing rationalization of human life traps individuals in a soulless "iron cage" of bureaucratic, rule-based, rational control.
Writing as an academic while a professor at Bryn Mawr College, his essay “The Study of Administration”  argued for a bureaucracy as a professional cadre, devoid of allegiance to fleeting politics of the day. Wilson advocated a bureaucracy that "is a part of political life only as the methods of the counting house are a part of the life of society; only as machinery is part of the manufactured product. But it is, at the same time, raised very far above the dull level of mere technical detail by the fact that through its greater principles it is directly connected with the lasting maxims of political wisdom, the permanent truths of political progress."
Wilson did not advocate a replacement of rule by the governed, he simply advised "Administrative questions are not political questions. Although politics sets the tasks for administration, it should not be suffered to manipulate its offices." This essay became the foundation for the study of public administration in America.
In his 1944 work Bureaucracy, the Austrian economist Ludwig von Mises was highly critical of all bureaucratic systems. He believed that bureaucracy should be the target of universal opprobrium, and noticed that in the political sphere it had few defenders, even among progressives. Mises saw bureaucratic processes at work in both the private and public spheres; however he believed that bureaucratization in the private sphere could only occur as a consequence of government interference. He wrote that "No private enterprise will ever fall prey to bureaucratic methods of management if it is operated with the sole aim of making profit."
The American sociologist Robert K. Merton expanded on Weber's theories of bureaucracy in his work Social Theory and Social Structure, published in 1957. While Merton agreed with certain aspects of Weber's analysis, he also considered the dysfunctional aspects of bureaucracy, which he attributed to a "trained incapacity" resulting from "overconformity." He saw bureaucrats as more likely to defend their own entrenched interests than to act to benefit the organization as a whole. He also believed bureaucrats took pride in their craft, which led them to resist changes in established routines. Merton also noted that bureaucrats emphasized formality over interpersonal relationships, and had been trained to ignore the special circumstances of particular cases, causing them to come across as "arrogant" and "haughty."
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