The Case FOR Bureaucracy

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Most of us also know, on some level, that public agencies are primarily there to help us, and that they often do so reasonably well. That is why we keep asking for more of them. Kevin Smith and Michael Licari are two political scientists who have written a textbook about public administration. They have noticed a curious fact: that even those of us who say we don’t like government are usually more than willing to demand and accept a new bureaucracy if it will make our lives better off. Even people who live in that notoriously anti-government state of Texas. As Smith and Licari explain:

Rural Texans tend to be an independent bunch. The stereotypical image is a politically conservative business owner, farmer, or rancher, raised on the myth of rugged individualism and a strong supporter of property rights. Not the sort of people, in other words, who favor big government programs. Or even small ones. Surely such citizens are the least likely group to start agitating for more government bureaucracy. So what does a conservative, small-government group like this do to help spur economic development and advocate for their issues? Well, it asks for a bureaucracy. And it gets one: the Office of Rural Community Affairs (ORCA). Created in 2001 by the Texas legislature, ORCA annually spends tens of millions of dollars on a wide variety of programs ranging from health care initiatives to business development to disaster relief. Rural Texas communities and their legislators are by all accounts pleased with ORCA. Now there is an agency full of bureaucrats whose job, as Texas State Representative Warren Chisum put it, is to get to work in the morning and ask themselves, “What are the people out in rural Texas doing, and how can we help them?” 26

However, it is important to see that the case for bureaucracy is about more than what those agencies can do for us as individuals, it is about the crucial role they play in creating a better society for all of us. As Charles Goodsell has noted, government bureaucracies form the public infrastructure that is essential to maintaining a free and prosperous society:

A good bureaucracy is indispensable to a free society, a democratic polity, and a capitalist economy. The freedom to wander the streets at night, for example depends on competent law enforcement. The ability to vote governments out of office without disruption requires a reliable administrative apparatus. A prosperous business community demands good schools, highways, health departments, post offices, and water and sewer systems.27

So if you feel that America is a good place to live, at least part of the credit for that must be given to government bureaucracies. Literally, the good life as we know it in the United States could not exist without the numerous and various essential tasks being performed by these public agencies on all levels of government.

Bureaucrats or Public Heroes?

If we should be thankful for government bureaucracies, we should also be thankful for the people – the “bureaucrats” – who work in them. Yet they are one of the most maligned groups in our society. They are constantly the butt of jokes and are stereotyped as being lazy, rude, rigid, arrogant, and controlling. Of course, some are like that. But you find these kind of people in every organization, including business bureaucracies. Moreover, studies have found that government bureaucrats are much like all other Americans and that there is no credible evidence supporting the charge that a pathological “bureaucratic mentality” is prevalent among government workers.28

On the whole, our civil servants are hard workers dedicated to serving the public and improving our lives. There are times when this point is made in such dramatic way that no one can deny it. In the wake of the 9/11 tragedy in New York, there was an outpouring of public praise and appreciation for the incredibly brave and self-sacrificing actions taken by numerous police officers and firefighters. What we tend to forget is that for these public employees this was not unusual – they are putting their lives and health on the line every day, not just during terrorists attacks.

And we also tend to forget that police officers and firefighters are not the only heroes working for the government. Our government bureaucracies are full of “everyday heroes” – public servants who labor away in anonymity to protect us from harm and to make our lives better. As Robert Kuttner has observed:

[We] should not let a week go by without celebrating a public hero, and not just the firefighters and the veterans. The civil servant at the Food and Drug Administration who fights drug-industry pressure and keeps a harmful drug off the market is a public hero. So is the SEC auditor who busts a corporate thief so a million people don’t lose their pensions, and the Environmental Protection Agency scientist who safeguards our water from some scofflaw mogul.29

Or consider the government workers of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. These are the people who do automobile crash tests, evaluate child safety seats, initiate recalls of defective cars, and so on. The motto of the agency is, appropriately enough, “People Saving People.” They will never meet you or know your name, but they are working week in and week out to protect your health and safety. Unfortunately, we rarely celebrate these kinds of public servants – instead they must put up with the public disdain leveled at everyone who works for the government. This is the reward they get for choosing to work for the government and to promote the public interest. It is no wonder that many of our best young people are discouraged from taking on these kinds of public service jobs.

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