Pushing Pencils

Robert - Narberth, Pennsylvania
Entered on February 17, 2009

Famous sociologist Max Weber once said that historically, an established bureaucratic system is the exception rather than the rule. Weber said that most societies did not deal with problems through a system of checks and balances. Instead, decisions came from a single monarch or religious figure. In this system, there was no accountability, and the citizen was subjected to the whim of the sovereign. Modern bureaucracy solves this problem by establishing a hierarchical ladder of responsibilities and services. Rules and procedures govern operations in this structure.

As an employee of Pennsylvania’s Public Welfare system, I encounter people who are literally surviving on our bureaucracy. As long as someone collects welfare, the hoops of bureaucracy are their occupation. My clients witness the benefits of participating in the bureaucratic system, as well as the shortfalls of its keepers. In this way, these citizens are a mirror-image of my own performance. My shortfalls, mistakes and lapses in responsibility are reflected in the actions and reactions of my clients. Their confusion, failure, and inability to navigate the system reflects my own accessibility and efficiency as a caseworker. And it is precisely that dialectic that defines the efficiency factor inherent in the necessary rules and procedures of bureaucracy: if someone is not doing their job, someone else is going to hear about it.

I believe that bureaucracy is essential to our society because, by design, responsibility is accounted for. I am not advocating an inefficient or redundant use of rules and procedures, or the making of rules for the sake of making rules. On the contrary, I believe that societies create bureaucracy with the goal of improving human lives and livelihoods by making accountable both the bureaucrat and the recipient of those bureaucratic services. I think that the successes of our liberal democracy owe much to our ideals of personal responsibility and equality; but, more importantly, our success is predicated on our practical application of those ideals. Without bureaucratic systems, society cannot hold individuals accountable for their actions; similarly, as members of a functional society, we could not claim a person’s equality before the law. A healthy democracy is built upon the equality of its citizens. Bureaucracy acts as the daily maintenance of that equality by requiring every citizen to take part in the same process. Failure and success rely on the joint efforts of the bureaucrat and the client. Whether someone is a welfare recipient or a clerk at the DMV, each person contributes to a system that guarantees the same results for all. I believe in bureaucracy, because no matter how inefficient it might seem, it preserves our right to equal treatment by way of a social cohesion borne out in our everyday interactions with one another. And that is worth the wait.