The Cancer of Bureaucracy

Friday, April 30th, 2010

Bruce Charlton decries the cancer of bureaucracy:

Everyone living in modernizing ‘Western’ societies will have noticed the long-term, progressive growth and spread of bureaucracy infiltrating all forms of social organization: nobody loves it, many loathe it, yet it keeps expanding. Such unrelenting growth implies that bureaucracy is parasitic and its growth uncontrollable — in other words it is a cancer that eludes the host immune system.

Old-fashioned functional, ‘rational’ bureaucracy that incorporated individual decision-making is now all-but extinct, rendered obsolete by computerization. But modern bureaucracy evolved from it, the key ‘parasitic’ mutation being the introduction of committees for major decision-making or decision-ratification. Committees are a fundamentally irrational, incoherent, unpredictable decision-making procedure; which has the twin advantages that it cannot be formalized and replaced by computerization, and that it generates random variation or ‘noise’ which provides the basis for natural selection processes.

Modern bureaucracies have simultaneously grown and spread in a positive-feedback cycle; such that interlinking bureaucracies now constitute the major environmental feature of human society which affects organizational survival and reproduction. Individual bureaucracies must become useless parasites which ignore the ‘real world’ in order to adapt to rapidly changing ‘bureaucratic reality’.

Within science, the major manifestation of bureaucracy is peer review, which — cancer-like — has expanded to obliterate individual authority and autonomy. There has been local elaboration of peer review and metastatic spread of peer review to include all major functions such as admissions, appointments, promotions, grant review, project management, research evaluation, journal and book refereeing and the award of prizes.

Peer review eludes the immune system of science since it has now been accepted by other bureaucracies as intrinsically valid, such that any residual individual decision-making (no matter how effective in real-world terms) is regarded as intrinsically unreliable (self-interested and corrupt). Thus the endemic failures of peer review merely trigger demands for ever-more elaborate and widespread peer review.

Just as peer review is killing science with its inefficiency and ineffectiveness, so parasitic bureaucracy is an un-containable phenomenon; dangerous to the extent that it cannot be allowed to exist unmolested, but must be utterly extirpated. Or else modernizing societies will themselves be destroyed by sclerosis, resource misallocation, incorrigibly-wrong decisions and the distortions of ‘bureaucratic reality’. However, unfortunately, social collapse is the more probable outcome, since parasites can evolve more rapidly than host immune systems.

That’s the abstract. Read the whole thing.


  1. Mala Lex says:

    I’m not sure that corporate bureaucracy is getting worse. Casually, it seemed to hit a peak in mid-20th century. If anything, start-ups are more numerous than ever, and corporations try for flatter org charts these days — independent business units, etc.

    Now, government bureaucracy does seem to be growing, but I think rather than computerization, the problem there is, basically, the professional civil service. On a long-run chart, the Pendleton Act (1880s), by creating permanent budget-maximizers (contra the old spoils system, which simply created petty thieves on 4-year timers), leads inexorably to both the growth and mission creep of government.

    Unfortunately, I can’t imagine reversing this one — try selling to voters a return to the spoils system? So I suppose the system will just have to bankrupt itself, and we’ll start over.

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