The fault with bureaucracy? Idealism

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Bureaucracies have a real beauty to them. Though it would be impossible to precisely define and pin-point rationality, one could argue — much to Immanuel Kant’s disapproval — that human beings are, in fact, not rational, that they are social animals. Though that isn’t to say that human beings cannot experience rational thoughts and respect rationality. Much to the contrary, I would argue, as many would, that man respects rationality, and bureaucracies are the epitome of that respect.

Even though many would argue we are living in a post-bureaucratic world, or at least trying to, bureaucracies keep us rational and we have found it terribly difficult to distance ourselves from them. However, that isn’t to say that bureaucracies are perfect either, in fact it would be impossible to impose a purely rational form of organization on a social animal.

Therefore let us identify some of the promises of bureaucracy and their consequences. Through this post we will look at the argument that bureaucracies yield fairness and a sense of ethics, then we will look at rise of hierarchies, followed by the role of knowledge and finally looking at the irrationality of rationality.

 

Let us first look at the idea that bureaucracies uphold fairness. In his writings on the topic, Paul du Gay argues that the setting of rules and rigidity eliminates nepotism, where a manager cannot choose who they would like to hire based on race, gender or other baseless criteria. Du Gay would certainly be right about this notion of fairness in an idealistic and purely rational society. Yet, as ample research on the matter has shown, even if organizations impose rigid rules and remove nepotism in their hiring procedures, that idea of fairness does not always reign true. In fact should we look at Frederick Taylor’s work, often known as one of the more tangible examples of bureaucracy in practice and rationality as a whole, one can see that he adheres to upholding fairness. However, his idea of fairness is completely flawed. Taylor’s idea of fairness is often described as being “a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work” but he never explicitly explains what either of these are. Instead we are left assuming that to Taylor a fair day’s work is the maximum physically possible for a human being to work and a fair day’s pay being the lowest wage he is willing to do it for.

 

What’s more, Taylor’s sexist and racist beliefs render him even more opposed to fairness. He refers to his employees as “men” for he has never hired a woman in his factory, and his descriptions of his conversations with his workers— who are mostly immigrants— paint the picture of a viciously condescending and bigoted man. Yes, one could argue that at the beginning of the 20th-century sexism and racism weren’t as widely condemned as today, but doesn’t that just show how restricted and subjective that idea of fairness is? Surely even du Gay would argue that Taylor was not a valid example of such fairness, even though he described himself as such.

 

In these same writings, Taylor takes the tone of the elitist manager who governs his workforce from above. Such are often some of the consequences of bureaucracy. By imposing strict rules and guidelines, you create an environment where managers design and develop orders which are then executed by those beneath them. Such hierarchies were the product of a bureaucratic division of labor, and make some sense in theory. It makes sense to arrange and assign a specialist to each task as it creates efficiency, however, the constant and precise repetition of a task yields a dehumanised individual in the long run. Such hierarchies can also distance a manager from his workers, disabling him to truly appreciate the difficulty and reality of his work. That detachment creates elitism, where the top brass are part of a completely different organization.

 

That detachment stems from a shift in power, which is an unacknowledged consequence of bureaucracy. Since Max Weber thought Taylor’s work to be so emblematic of rational organization, let us use his work again as an example. Prior to Taylor’s implementation of Scientific Management (which many argue led to Fordism), the collusion of factory workers was where the power lay. That was because they alone decided on the manner and timing of their work, in essence they had the knowledge. This knowledge gave them power, as it allowed them to unite and work at a certain pace so as to secure the employment of their peers. Taylor recognised the logic and tried to invert it. His introduction of a meticulously precise and efficient system allowed him to shift the power to management which not only created a hierarchy-led form of elitism and dehumanisation, but also reduced his workers’ knowledge.

 

Finally, surely all can agree that the prominent focus of bureaucracies is the means for which an end is met. However, when bureaucracies fail to align both means and end they are faced with what Robert Merton has called ‘goal displacement’. In such instances the means becomes an end in itself, and whilst the original goal of bureaucracies is to rationalise the method, all of a sudden the organization is faced with an irrationally rational organisation. What’s more, rules are likely to produce efficiencies in theory, but if we deny the fact that human beings are not just “hands for hire” as Peter Drucker puts it, we are basing the advantages of bureaucracy on a purely theoretical pedestal, one which can never survive the environments provided by social animals.

 

Therefore, if we tackle bureaucracies on a theoretical level, as Weber conceived it and as du Gay perceived it, we force ourselves to deny the truth about human beings’ nature. Having said that, and living in an ever more bureaucratic world, it is simply impossible to reign any organization without the faintest use of bureaucracy. Even post-bureaucrats would agree that the implementation of rules and regulations keep us from veering towards anarchy. Yes, we need rules to keep us in place and to maintain a level of efficiency, but we should also recognise that the imposing of bureaucracies— a rational form of organization— on social animals comes at some cost. We mustn’t think too theoretically, for bureaucracies are not as efficient as Weber envisioned, nor as fair as du Gay argues. They are, however, quite vital.


I invite you to read the publications mentioned in this post, as they are often pillars in the base of all organizational forms.

In Praise of Bureacracy” by Paul du Gay

The Principles of Scientific Management” by Frederick Taylor

The Practice of Management” by Peter Drucker

Finally, one which was not mentioned in the post but that deserves equal consideration is, “A Very Short, Fairly Interesting and Reasonably Cheap Book About Studying Organizations” by Chris Grey

Image credit: TheHenryFord.org

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