Monday, June 25, 2007


I recently read a piece in The Nation arguing in defense of bureaucrats. The article starts out by noting that at many crucial junctures, members of the bureaucracy were the ones who restrained the illegal or unwise actions of this administration. Part of what makes the bureaucracy so effective is that its members are not put in place by the current administration.

"Like teachers at a high school who watch classes of students come and go, the bureaucrats remain while the administrations change. When the current occupant of the White House leaves, his appointed hacks will leave with him, and whether or not someone actually committed to governing takes his place, the bureaucrats will be there, as always, to do their duty."

A more interesting contrast to me is that bureaucrats are expected to be competent. Elected officials and political appointees are often just career idiots who have no business dressing themselves, much less managing disaster relief. Their primary activity is giving speeches, and most of them are astonishingly bad at it. Even a successful career as a businessman or lawyer doesn't mean a person knows how the government should work, and the electoral process doesn't select for those who do. As an ordinary citizen, it's not particularly important to know the difference between Sunni and Shi'ite Muslims, but for congressmen, it's crucial. Moreover, while bureaucrats can be dishonest, just as politicians can, their positions and expertise create strong situational pressures not to be. It's an insult to a technician to ask him to subvert the standards of his practice. While that fact won't stop some from compromising their dignity, it makes them more reliable than an outside for whom that practice is just a tool or an inconvenience.

Addendum: Maureen Dowd had an editorial on Cheney's failure to safeguard classified documents. After noting that Cheney had steamrolled Colin Powell, George Tenet, etc. during the push for war with Iraq, she closed by saying

Archivists are the new macho heroes of Washington.
Archivists aren't bureaucrats, but all the same principles apply.

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