Bureaucracy and Power

In my previous post discussing the tension between Bureaucracy and Aristocracy, I was not actually describing two forms of government, but three.

The ‘tension’ is between bureaucratic centralism, where a central authority rules through appointed officials, and aristocracy, where offices belong to a noble class who have some guaranteed degree of independence from the central power.

What we actually have today is neither one nor the other, but a self-perpetuating and largely unaccountable bureaucracy. It is not quite yet a true aristocracy, though it is well on the way, but it is
nearly immune from “political influence”, to the degree it is sometimes openly demanding such immunity.

So when Spandrell comments that there is no alternative to rule by bureaucracy, I am not quite sure what he means. Certainly we have had no aristocratic rule in a modern country for a couple of centuries; the dominant ideology has been set against it. However, it does not seem impossible to have a bureaucracy under genuine central control. I get the impression that prior to World War II, the governments of Britain and the USA were mostly in control of their bureaucracies: they could fire officials and dictate policy.

Moldbug’s interpretation of US history is that the FDR Government was entirely in sympathy with the bureaucracy, and effectively did not end as later governments were not able to divert the Civil Service from the path that FDR set it on.

In Britain, the Civil Service seems to have gained power over approximately the same period, due to a combination of the destruction of the old ruling class in the Great War, and the arrival of Labour politicians, outsiders to the government system, who the Civil Servants were both willing and able to defy.

My answer, therefore, is that it is possible for a government to rule through a bureaucracy, rather than being ruled by it, and that this was the normal situation prior to 1918, and to a lesser degree even up to 1945. If the government were no longer subject to elections and media opinion, it would be in a much stronger position to impose its will on the bureaucrats.

As for aristocratic rule: if the existing civil servants were to mainly hire their own children, we would be there — it is conceivable that we could have a de facto aristocracy within a decade or
two. Replacing the existing bureaucracy with a different aristocracy, such as the old titled families of Britain, is more far-fetched; but given (somehow) the total ideological sea change that it would require, there are no practical obstacles to it functioning.

Democracy affects the tension between the centre and the bureaucracy in two major ways: as above, the precarious position of elected politicians weakens them vis-a-vis their permanent officials (Moldbug’s “rotor/stator” point). Second, the employment of very large numbers of low-ranking officials becomes one of the main forms of vote-buying. The junior officials do not have direct power over policy in the sense that senior civil servants do, but they have democratic power over questions relating to their continued employment and working conditions. In Britain particularly, the Labour party is now overwhelmingly the party of state employees. Without votes, the block power of junior state employees would be vastly diminished.

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Five Tensions

While pondering the tricky questions that have come to be debated within the reaction — such things as the conservation of sovereignty, I was struck by this lecture in a series of Harvard’s online learning that I’ve been working through on Chinese history.

This lecture, covering the Han dynasty, raises a lot of the questions that we’ve already been looking at about how power should be organised in a reactionary state.

(It doesn’t provide answers, which doesn’t matter since I’m not all that concerned with what Harvard thinks the right answers are, but it’s a good look at the questions).
The key slide is 25:

  • centralization versus regionalism
  • feudalism versus bureaucracy
  • hereditary right versus merit
  • military versus civil interests
  • inner court versus outer court

The lecturer says, “None of these institutional tensions … is ever stabilized perfectly in Chinese history”

As important as these tensions are, I don’t think there are clear-cut answers to them, even to the closely-related second and third tensions which I’ve previously written about in some detail. I didn’t do more than critique the progressive position which is unequivocally in favour of bureaucracy over feudalism and meritocracy over hereditary right. In attacking that position I did not establish that the reactionary state should adopt the wholly opposite position.

In the absence of simple answers, we can nevertheless talk sensibly about how a reactionary state would handle the tensions.

This whole discussion exists in the context of the long comment chain at Outside In which considered the nature of limitations on power or sovereignty. Crucially, we do not believe we can design a solution to the problems of government. We are not writing a legal constitution for a supreme court to enforce. What I am hoping to produce is constitutional writing in an older sense: a description of how a good government works, that influential people can point to when a question that it addresses becomes relevant, and say, “as described in the collected writings of AnomalyUK, this development which seems to be happening is harmful and should be resisted; rather, the current problems should be addressed in this other way”. It’s not guaranteed to work, but nothing else possibly can. It’s what I mean when I talk about the war of ideas.

To demonstrate, consider yet again the tension between feudalism and

The reactionary argument for bureaucracy is the Moldbuggian one that power should be undivided. If subordinates serve at the whim of the sovereign, there is no struggle for power between the subordinates and the sovereign, and therefore no policies adopted for their effect on the balance of power between the two, rather than for their overall effect on the realm. Establishing powers of subordinates that can be exercised in defiance of the sovereign historically tends to lead to civil wars between barons and the crown, and to stripping of assets by aristocracies who get all the benefits of seizures, while the long-term benefits of respecting private property of commoners accrue generally.

The reactionary argument for feudalism is that undivided power is an unrealistic aim; that underlings will in fact be able to exercise power in private interests, since limitations of knowledge and time mean they can never be supervised sufficiently, and therefore, on formalist principles, their powers should be established and exercised openly. This actually reduces the conflict over the extent of their powers compared to the case where the powers are informal and exercised surreptitiously. Further, establishing a formal class of aristocrats stabilises the system by giving a large body of powerful people an interest in preserving it. It breaks the link between educational institutions and political patronage that defines today’s cathedral.

There’s a lot more that can be said on both sides, and it’s worth doing, but for now that serves as an example of how to look at the tensions. In teasing out the arguments, we can link them to circumstances, and show what circumstances favour particular approaches and solutions.

It is easy to see how a state can move between bureaucracy and feudalism. Starting from bureaucracy, if the sovereign is unwilling or unable to overrule his officials, they will consolidate their power, and collectively take control over selection of entrants to their ranks, eventually reaching the stage of being able to hold offices within families. Conversely, a stronger sovereign will bypass established families and institutions, and divert influence to appointed officials of his own choosing, loyal to him personally. Both of these courses are familiar.

What I have argued for most recently is a formally established but weak aristocracy. That would not be immune from either being bypassed or growing more powerful, subject to circumstances and personalities. The justifications for it are:

  • It provides a pool of officials under higher than normal expectations of loyalty and good behaviour
  • Hereditary privileges are a reward for loyalty and achievement
  • It prevents some other institution with an important purpose from becoming a de facto aristocracy

If a strong king can rule well without relying on the aristocracy, that is probably a good thing, but the three justifications above become three dangers. His successors may not have his advantages, and therefore may struggle to find trustworthy underlings either among a disgruntled aristocracy or a competitive and anonymous commons. The powerful may scheme to find ways to privilege their descendants if there is no approved path to do so. Other institutions (educational, media, military) could acquire aristocratic pretensions and compromise their proper function in doing so. If these things start to happen, the cause should not be a mystery.


The Modern Structure

Moldbug’s coining “The Cathedral” has caught on and been the subject of much debate, but his other term “The Modern Structure” less so, which is a shame.
The Modern Structure is the constitution of the United States of America, in the sense that that term was originally used — a description of how the government of that country operates. Other Western Democracies have very similar constitutions.
The centre of the Modern Structure is the Civil Service. They actually carry out the business of government.
In theory, they are under the control of Politicians, but in reality the politicians are at most peers of the civil service, and in many cases completely subservient.
In theory again, the Politicians are controlled by the Electorate. However, the influence of the Electorate is slight: enough to tip the balance occasionally when the issue is close, but not to dictate anything. Further, on any issue, the majority of the electorate are completely ignorant, and depend on the media for information about the issue and how they should vote.
Meanwhile, business has at least as much influence on the politicians, and additionally has direct influence on the civil service (through lobbying and other forms of corruption).
In terms of power over government policy, then, the map of influences look something like this:

That is less than half the story, however. In the long run, what matters is not how the noisy controversies of the moment get resolved, but rather what is or is not controversial in the first place. That is the matter of the dominant ideology — what all the people in this network believe about what is and what should be.
The ideology is not fixed: it has changed enormously over mere decades. Who has influence over ideology?
The high status of the organs of the modern structure make them significant, but there are other important influences, and other directions of influence within the network.
This diagram shows the flows of ideological influence. For this purpose I have broken out of “Education” the most crucial organ of ideological influence — “Elite Academia”. This is where ideology comes from.

It is true that, in a sense, everything influences everything else. However, a fully-connected undirected graph has little information content, so the diagram only shows what I think are the biggest influences on what people believe.
I have left out business from the ideology diagram. My view is that while business and lobbyists are able to significantly affect policy, they has very little influence on what people believe. They perhaps have the capability of causing such influence, but in practice businesses are primarily in competition with each other, and it is much more profitable for each player to spend his influence on favouring his own narrow interests rather than on promoting a general business-oriented ideology. To the extent that a business-oriented ideology exists, it is developed by enthusiasts, and funded more by a few eccentrics such as the Kochs rather than by moneyed interests as a whole.
However, this is a disputed point, so here’s the diagram with them added back in, and with the Conservative media broken out from the respectable media.

With or without business interests, it is in the network of ideological influence that we see “The Cathedral” — Elite Academia and Respectable Media — at the core. Ideology flows out from them.
It should go without saying, that this is not intended to be the last word: it is my interpretation of what is mostly general knowledge, and there is a lot of room for refinement, correction and expansion.