Thursday, February 17, 2011

Bureaucracy: Isn't It Strange?

Has it ever struck you as just a little strange that the world today is governed by bureaucracies, in other words, that modern nations are run out of offices? For that is what the word literally means: rule from an office. According to, the word is first attested in French in the 18th century, and was coined by physiocrat Vincent de Gournay (1712-1759). Gournay presumably coined the word to name a phenomenon that had not yet been named. In other words, bureaucracy was a mode of governance that was relatively new in the world and had yet to be described.

But, since when were we ruled by a race of pale-faced men who spend their days sitting behind desks? In days of yore, kings held court and did justice for the common man in the open air. And they didn't get bogged down in technical details either, because it must have been difficult to keep track of files when a gust of wind could blow all the papers away at any moment. For example, according to Jean de Joinville, St. Louis
after hearing Mass, went to the wood of Vincennes, where he would sit down with his back against an oak, and make us all sit round him. Those who had any suit to present could come to speak to him without hindrance from an usher or any other person. The king would address them directly, and ask: "Is there anyone here who has a case to be settled?" Those who had one would stand up. Then he would say: "Keep silent all of you, and you shall be heard in turn, one after the other."

(Quoted in Antonin Scalia, "The Rule of Law as a Law of Rules," 56 U. Chi. L. Rev. 1175 (1989))

Besides doing justice for their subjects, many kings were renowned for their martial prowess. William the Conqueror earned his epithet at the Battle of Hastings. Richard the Lionheart wasn't going to stare all day at some dusty parchments when he could be fighting the infidel in the Holy Land. Frederick Barbarossa died a rather inglorious death--drowning in a stream on his way to the Holy Land during the Third Crusade--but he had already spent a considerable part of his reign on the battlefield.

Not only did medieval kings act this way, this was how they were expected to act, as reflected in popular tales from the Middle Ages. The King Arthur stories tell us of knights errant who delighted in rescuing damsels in distress, not in negotiating legal settlements with villains and knaves. The closest King Arthur himself ever came to becoming a bureaucrat was when he sat down once in a while with his wisest counselors at the Round Table to discuss some pressing matter. Once that was done, he was free to return to the jousting tournament or the banquet hall.

The average medieval court, of course, was not Camelot, and real medieval kings were supposed to take care of their fair share of administrative duties, but which most of them seem to have avoided by going out hunting. For example, relatively soon after the Norman invasion, the kings of England found themselves so overwhelmed by these mundane tasks that they had to delegate them to others. Over time, the Lord Chancellor became in effect England's chief justice and "keeper of the king's conscience." The Exchequer was assigned the duty of collecting revenue for the royal household. Nevertheless, these medieval bureaucracies were nowhere near as large as their modern equivalents. Moreover, the stories that have come down to us always show the ideal ruler as either a man of action or a man of wisdom, or in a really ideal word as both: a wise warrior. They never portray the king as a pencil-pusher, or even as the pencil-pushers' boss. And this ideal had some basis in reality.

What would happen if a contemporary American or European ruler tried to act more like a medieval king? The effect would not necessarily be that which he intended. For instance, were most Americans really impressed by George W. Bush when he landed a Navy jet on an aircraft carrier (or rather sat in the cockpit while a real pilot landed it for him)? Would we respect Barack Obama more if, after playing a pick-up basketball game (no jousting permitted), he took a seat on the White House lawn and listened to federal inmates' petitions for habeas corpus? Do we fear Vladimir Putin because he likes to be photographed shirtless while horseback riding? Did Benito Mussolini inspire awe in his people, or his enemies, because he liked to ski shirtless?

My guess is that most people just laugh at these examples because they're somehow ridiculous. Nowadays we expect our highest-ranking government officials to act less like kings and more like business executives. First of all, they need to keep their clothes on. Second, their chief domestic concern is usually the national economy, such as ensuring job growth and overseeing government entitlement programs. Indeed, when presidents go to economic summits or visit foreign leaders, they could almost be seen as traveling salesmen drumming up interest in their product, or in this case their country (albeit traveling salesmen with huge expense accounts and bodyguards). Third, while they may retain power as the "commander in chief," they usually have little or no military background; most senators or cabinet secretaries, I suspect, are not accomplished sword-fighters.

There was obviously a significant shift that took place, from the earlier conception of the ruler as a wise warrior to that of the ruler as a business executive at the head of a vast bureaucracy, but I don't know anything about the causes and ultimate importance of this shift. I apologize for not giving any answers here, but I do have two questions, which are probably better than any answers I could offer:

1. When and why did this shift from the king as man of action and wisdom to the president as business executive take place? My hunch is that this modern preference for business executives as national leaders is simply one aspect of the transition from feudalism to mercantilism (and beyond).

2. Have we lost something importance with this shift? Granted that some administration will always be necessary, it nevertheless seems that the world has lost some of its romance. Many people, for instance, who work primarily in an office still itch at the opportunity to get out.

So, next time you see a picture of Vladimir Putin strutting his stuff, ask yourself: Is he simply a misunderstood soul trying to revive medieval kingship? Or, is he just a peacock?
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