Wednesday, May 3, 2006

Bureaucratic Authority is Irrational

Ever just write what is in your head to get it on paper. I was doing that when I stumbled on this memory of when I was a kid. I was babysitting for a family in the neighbourhood, two kids but they were only a few years younger than me. I heard one is now on his way to being a preist.

It was the summer so I was doing 8-6'ish depending on when the parents left and when they got home from their 9-5, 5 days a week. One saturday morning I got a call asking where I was. And like the few Saturday mornings before I was sleeping. Apparently they had asked for me to be there a few days before. So I rushed down and slept on their couch while their children played.

The interesting part happened when the mother got home. I had been sitting on the floor watching tv with the kids. She asked the kids to excuse us, she sat on the edge of the couch, sat up very straight, looked down at me and proceded to tell me the havoc I had caused.

The thing is that even as a kid I knew the effect this was supposed to have, and I knew the effect it was having. I was supposed to feel humbled and embarassed while I felt like I was watching a piece of theater. But she was commited to her role so what else could I do.. I faked it. I counted 'steamboats' between making eye contact, I lowered my head and fidgeted with my hands. Now I wasn't just watching a piece of theater, I was in it.

The problem was that I was still thinking rationally. Her displays of authority were intended to overwhelm my reason so that she could appeal to my emotion. And that is what bureaucatic authority is about. Had she noticed I was still in a rational mindset she could have tried to appeal to my reason and been just as effective as if she had overwhelmed me and appealed to my emotion. But in appealing to my reason she wouldn't have been selling bureaucratic authority. She could could have painted the picture 'These are the things I need from you and this is what you get in return,' and so forth, and rather than pretending to respect her office of 'mother of the house' I likely would have (and perhaps did) find respect for her ability to organize and manage the exchange.

Respect for offices is what Max Weber refered to as bureaucratic authority while respect for abilities is charismatic authority. But selling respect for an office is irrational. The office itself has not abilities sperate from the person who occupies it.

On the other hand, if I may get a little geopolitical, consider bush. It is now widely accepted that a one-eyed retarded monkey (bush has two eyes, right?) could have done a better job than him. And yet the country has not decended into chaos. I would argue that is because of the power of the office, which would be derived from a legacy of great(er) men that preceded him. So the country remains centered around him.. or rather his office.

This is all to say that it is rational to follow bureaucratic authority to about the same extent as everyone around you. The flexability would be for activism. 'Around' is also open to interpretation. But it is history, and legacy that builds this common vision of the authority of the office. (I'm going to try to use that.)



  1. And here I thought you were a meddling socialist. But I guess any leftist has the right to trash its major fault, bureaucracy.

    The good and rational side of bureaucracy, however (to me), is that is slows down the economy's "metabolism" (wait for my paper on this).

    It does so by allowing knowledge inputs to be "digested" or analysed for greatest wealth maximization. Effective beurocracy ensures that potentially overlooked essential "vitamins" are metabolized along with cash-crop "simple carbohydrates". And reasonably more of each... Respect for these seemingly opportunity costing and irrational decisions is essential for the health of the economy.

    Of course,depending on which side of the fence one is on, the market control of bureaucracy may be seen as a market barrier or an opportunity.

  2. 'A meddling socialist'? There is no word for what I am. Try and describe me with any two words and you will be doing a grave disservice to your audience.

    The paper sounds interesting.