The Case FOR Bureaucracy

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Myth No. 6: Agencies Should Treat Us as Individuals

People are sometimes frustrated because government administrators do not treat them as individuals. Instead, they are treated like a “number” – simply one case among many others – without any seeming sensitivity to the distinctiveness of their particular situation. Why must bureaucrats slavishly follow the rules, and not treat each person uniquely depending on his or her circumstances? Why can’t that police officer see that we were speeding because we were late in picking up our child at school, not because we were being irresponsible? Why can’t that city official simply wave the zoning rules so that we can run our new business out of our home?

It is true that bureaucrats’ treatment of us is often based on general rules and policies, rather than who we are as individuals. But what we fail to see is that this is actually a good thing. We should want bureaucrats to not treat people as individuals. Treating everyone the same is in the public interest – and often in our own interest as well. It is what ensures that government agencies treat everyone fairly and impartially. Dealing with us impersonally is what guarantees that our treatment is not arbitrary, discriminatory, or abusive. It is what discourages police officers from handing out tickets based on your race or the political bumper stickers on your car. It is what helps to ensure that government contracts are given to the lowest bidders, not those companies that give the most in campaign contributions.

If government workers had the ability to ignore procedures and treat us as individuals, this would also give them enormous power over us – which is exactly what we don’t want to happen. Imagine that you had been waiting in a long line at the Department of Motor Vehicles. A clerk recognizes a friend at the end of the line and decides to serve them next. It is unlikely that you would praise this “bending” of the rules for this individual – you would undoubtedly be mad about the unfairness of this action. You would be upset about the lack of impersonal, rule-based treatment by officials.

When things go terribly wrong in bureaucracies, it is often because they are not acting bureaucratic enough. We often hear horror stories about someone being caught in a government bureaucracy in some developing country, where nothing can get done unless you have the right connections or unless you offer a bribe to an official. But the problem in these situations is not that officials are being “bureaucratic,” but that they are not being bureaucratic enough. These abuses occur because officials are engaging in personal favoritism and not treating people the same according to a set of administrative procedures. The cure in these situations involves creating a civil service that is strongly committed to more impersonal, rule-based form of bureaucratic behavior.

So we should not be so quick to condemn government officials for not dealing with us as unique individuals. While we might not always enjoy being treated like everyone else by government workers, we should try to remember that this practice is an important political safeguard of the modern democratic state.

Bureaucracy is Good

So far, we’ve seen that government bureaucracies are not nearly as bad as conservative critics and popular mythology make them out to be. However, there is a much more positive case that can be made here – the case for bureaucracies actually being a good thing. It is not a difficult case to make. It begins with a simple fact: the modern state as we know it cannot exist without large bureaucratic agencies to implement its programs. Modern democratic governments are necessarily bureaucratic entities. And if this is true, then the successes of modern government have to also be considered the successes of government bureaucracies as well. The fact that Social Security has dramatically reduced poverty among the elderly should be counted as an achievement of this agency’s bureaucracy. The Environmental Protection Agency should also get much of the credit for our being able to breathe cleaner air and drink safer water.

In short, if government is good, then government bureaucracies are good. If government programs have had many enormously positive impacts on the lives of every Americans, some of the credit for this has to go to the agencies that make these programs work. Without bureaucracy, modern democratic governments could not possibly fulfill all the crucial roles it plays in society – including creating more economic security, curing diseases, caring for the environment, dispensing justice, educating our children, and protecting us from a variety of harms.

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