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On Bureaucracy: Mises Versus Weber

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When people think of government, specifically democratic government, they think of politicians or elected officials. They imagine representatives whose power is temporary and can be influenced by possibility of losing popular support and elections. However, “bureaucracy is the largest part of any government if measured by the number of people engaged or by fund expended” and is defined as “the totality of government offices or bureaus that constitute the permanent government of a state.” (Oszlak, 2005, 488-489) Elected officials and policy makers, for the most part, legislate or dictate goals, that ideally reflect the goals of the people they represent, but bureaucracy is the means through which those goals are pursued. The regulations, actions, and compulsion necessary to achieve the tasks and goals of policy makers emanate from bureaucracy. In other words, policy makers create an outline of action and bureaucracy is the source of the content and substance that is the state. Since bureaucracy is, by nature, “more permanent…than politician” it “makes the politician…more subject to bureaucracy” instead of the more common assumption of the bureaucracy being subject to the politician. (Anderson, 2004, 8-9) While the literature and theory on bureaucracy is disproportionately less, relative to its size and influence, compared to other components of the state, two major theorists have provided needed insight into this monumental, but intellectually neglected, institution: Max Weber, in “Economy and Society”, and Ludwig von Mises, in “Bureaucracy.”

Weber and Mises each approach bureaucracy from very different angles which, not coincidentally, leads them to starkly different observations and conclusions regarding the nature of bureaucracy and its impact on society. For Weber, his theories on bureaucracies are part of a “purely formal and typological discussion.” (Weber, 991) He describes the traits of the “ideal type” of bureaucracy as “arranged in a clearly defined hierarchy of offices;…compelled by the impersonal duties of their office; units and positions are arranged in a chain of command; …functions are clearly specified in writing, so there is specialization of task and a specified sphere of competence; and the bureaucrats behavior is subject to systematic control.” (Oszlak, 2005, 489) However, Weber focused much less on the cause of bureaucracies or the reasons they deviated from his ideal type, nor did he explain the axiomatic principles from which his ideal type was derived from. Instead he relies on historical relativism and a general institutional perspective that is biased towards “collective phenomena” as opposed to individual action in determining causal factors to describe bureaucracy, which he already accepts as both “inevitable” and “indestructible”, in abstractions of reality, whose generic nature and basis in flawed perception make the discovery of core “truths” impossible (Anderson, 2004, 6-9). Instead the observations are simply used as a means for predicting outcomes and do not attempt to answer “Why?”

Mises, on the other hand, relies on axiomatic principles to explain his theory of bureaucracy. The first principle is the “axiom of human action,” which can be described “simply as purposeful behavior” and is inherent to human beings “by virtue of their existence and their nature;” further human action “can be undertaken only by individual actors.” (Rothbard, 2004, 1-2) The second principle applicable here is the “Law of Marginal Utility,” which states that “things are valued as means in accordance with their ability to attain ends valued as more or less urgent.” (Rothbard, 2004, 21) For Mises, both bureaucratic action and non-bureaucratic action are undertaken by individuals with purpose toward some end, the difference, then, is that bureaucracy seeks ends without consideration for profit and non-bureaucratic institutions actions are profit driven. This concrete definition would apply to many if not all of the same institutions described by Weber and others as being a bureaucracy, but it also has the added advantage specificity and clearly separated categories to prevent overlap or contradictions in the conclusions that can be drawn from it. This definition applies to government, business, charity or any institution that takes actions without consideration for profit or to the degree in which their decisions are not made based on profit. In other words, the less an institution considers profit the more bureaucratic it becomes and vice versa.

In modern society not seeking “profit” is often viewed as altruistic or positive but this usually stems from a misunderstanding of “value” and the only way to translate “values” to “actors” providing goods or services to the public. As stated in the “Law of Marginal Utility” earlier, goods and services do not have inherent value but are only worth as much as the ends they to be used in attaining for according to the urgency of each individual. The only way for individuals, who all value things differently, to communicate these values to the producers of goods and services, so that capital resources are used efficiently to produce the most aggregate value, is monetarily or terms of exchange. This causes a problem for bureaucracies, as they do not consider profits, since they are not able to form computations of the value of the goods and services they provide and therefore, have to rely on the “guesses” of bureaucrats in the use of their resources, which will inevitably lead misallocation.

Both Weber and Mises viewed bureaucracy as destructive to society, Mises more definitively so. They both also foresaw the continued expansion of bureaucracy. Mises believed this expansion was due to the “interventionist”nature of State bureaucracy that forces institutions that were once profit seeking to adapt in order to “guard itself from destruction” by “incur[ring] all sorts of expenditures for matters not related to business” and act according to regulations imposed by government bureaucracy that force “production and consumption to develop along lines different from those prescribed by an unhampered market.” (Anderson, 2004, 12-14) The continued expansion of bureaucracy and regulations will reduce innovation and creativity, they will be replaced with compliance and obedience, and destroy the lines of communication between consumer and producer; as well as lead to massive waste through misallocation of resources.

Anderson, William P. (2004) Mises Versus Weber on Bureaucracy and Sociological Method. Journal of Libertarian Studies 18 (1) 1-29

Oszlak, Oscar. (2005). Regimes and Contention. In T.A. Janoski, A.M. Hicks, & M.A. Schwartz (Eds.), Handbook of Political Sociology: States, Civil Societies, and Globalization (482-505). Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Rothbard, Murray N. (2004) Man, Economy, and State with Power and Market. (Scholar’s ed.) Auburn, Alabama: Ludwig von Mises Institute

Filed under Philosophy, Politics
Apr 13, 2011