Bureaucracy will set you free
Two movements, fundamentally opposed, are at work in the world: corruption and anti-corruption. The marketization of the economies of China, India and Russia in the past two decades has exacerbated the corruption in those countries. Businesspeople and politicians, often hardly distinguishable, become billionaires in tandem.
But corruption is falling out of favor in more and more countries as more and more governments realize that while it may get things done in the short term, it corrodes everything in the long term. As public anger rises everywhere against the grossest inequalities the modern world has seen, it provides the fuel for future fires. Bribes, the most common form of corruption, are a crime not just against the law but against the public. Those states now climbing the wealth ladder will risk worse than poverty if they do not grasp that truth.
What do they need? A good bureaucracy, that’s what.
For two centuries, disparaging bureaucracy has been a major component of our freedom myths. Charles Dickens, Franz Kafka, George Orwell rynd Alexander Solzhenitsyn all made the bureaucrats villains in their work. In Dickens’ 1857 masterpiece, Little Dorrit, an inventor, Daniel Doyce, goes gray attempting to register his invention at the Circumlocution Office ‑ a tragicomic institution dedicated to squashing all private initiative. He gets a final judgment that:
[U]pon the whole, and under all the circumstances, and looking at it from the various points of view, [we are] of the opinion that one of two courses was to be pursued in respect of the business: that was to say, either to leave it alone for evermore, or begin it all over again.
Likewise, anti-bureaucracy is a major trope in U.S. culture, one that harks back to a time when government was tiny and people were free. In Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln, the country’s defining president is attended by at most two officials. When messengers bring him news from Congress during the debate on the anti-slavery amendment, they burst into a White House empty except for Lincoln and his young son.
It’s an entrancing picture of the way things were ‑ and if the Tea Party had its way, the way things should be. One of the Tea Party’s lodestars, Ron Paul, argued that “the judgment of politicians and bureaucrats … replaces confidence in a free society.” But it’s not confined to the Republican right: All presidential candidates must run against Washington, even as they are later embraced and soothed by its bureaucrats.
So ingrained is this reflex, at least in the western political world, that it was a surprise when Britain’s former top bureaucrat, Gus O’Donnell, who was cabinet secretary until last year, broadcast two programs on BBC Radio 4 titled “In Defence of Bureaucracy.” They argued that bureaucracy was the basis of a good society and might even save the world.
O’Donnell’s example is the British civil service, which, since the reforms of the 1850s – around the time Little Dorrit was published – has progressively become free from major corruption. His bureaucrat is one who decides and allocates on the basis of rules, not on grounds of class, gender, race or status. He brings in a man with a quintessentially establishment English name, Sir Sherard Cowper-Coles, former British ambassador to Afghanistan, to argue that the “best thing we can do for Afghanistan is to leave a good bureaucracy behind us.”
Cowper-Coles is right. The lack of a decent bureaucracy dooms institutions of all kinds. As the cardinals gathered in Rome Tuesday to deliberate on a new pope, among their biggest criticisms was the chaos in the Vatican curia, the administrative office, under the retired Benedict XVI. But there are several larger bureaucracies whose dysfunction is even more critical to the future of the world.
Vladimir Putin’s bureaucratic arrangements hinder rather than help him; his strategy has been to make deals with the billionaire oligarchs, keeping their corporations and profits safe as long as they stay out of politics. It has meant the toleration – and alleged involvement in – massive corruption, to the point where a 2014 Winter Olympics projected to cost $10 billion is now likely to cost some $50 billion. Russian bureaucracy has the worst of both worlds: It’s corrupt, it’s unproductive in its love of forms and it has survived the privatization of the economy, right down to the small shop level.
The bureaucracy in India is famous for its delay and corruption. A report by the Singapore-based Political and Economic Risk Consultancy puts the state, soon to be the largest by population in the world, at the bottom of a list that includes Vietnam, Indonesia and the Philippines, by no means clean bureaucracies. The corruption means endless delays, large bribes and dragged-out disputes like that between the Indian government and the telecommunications giant Vodafone, with its retrospective tax claims.
In China, still the world’s largest country, the bureaucracy should be good: It was the Imperial Chinese civil service on which the British reforms were modeled. But corruption is in the woodwork there, too. China’s 50 million officials (one for every 27 people) constitute a sizable state in themselves, while the wholly opaque Central Organization Department oversees the placing and performance of every institution – public and “private” – in the country.
Does it get things done? It surely does in China, and it does, if more slowly in Russia, and even in India – as long as the wheels are well greased. But the price mounts. The protests that have been features of all three states are by men and women who don’t wish to live in a state where the elite are thieves, even if they get things done. Bureaucrats whose hands are in the public’s pockets are a curse; the answer is not their abolition but their cleansing. It can be done, and it must, if progress is to have a steady foundation.