Images of obstructive bureaucrats feature heavily in film. Consider the typical police procedural work. Invariably there will be a flunky or chief someplace which will insist on obviously ineffective policies. The protagonist will somehow surmount these difficulties (often threatening to resign his badge) and catch the villain. Viewers are left with the impression that the flunky is wasteful and meaningless. So why was he there in the first place?
Reality brings us the most feared of all bureaucrats in the United States: the IRS auditor. Auditors are, perhaps, more feared than policemen and battalions of armored vehicles. Everyone is accountable to them, but as Lois Lerner and her lost hard drive attests, they are accountable to no one save, perhaps, the President.
How did the bureaucrats gain such power? Even the lesser forms, the DMV workers, bring forth images of long wait times, exceedingly poor service and demands for “papers please.”
To understand, one must go back to the very beginning of civilization, which saw the rise of agriculture, metalworking, writing and, yes, the bureaucracy. Writing is the function most tied to them. In ancient Egypt, hieroglyphs originally formed as decorations, but by the the period immediately preceding the First Dynasty, it becomes obvious that the pictographs were being used for something else entirely. It wasn’t quite writing yet, in the traditional sense that I am using to communicate now, or even the sense that later hieroglyphics would become.
No. These early markings were used in trade. Ledgers came into existence, showing certain numbers of wine jars, livestock, weapons and other products exchanged or documented. The man recording these things was probably the first bureaucrat in history. His job was to carve on the clay and stone tablets for his master, probably a wealthy merchant or noble kinglet.
Initially, bureaucrats were quite useful. The merchant had better things to do than carve pictures into rocks. But the pictures were useful, and the scribe got his share of the loot for his efforts. Things were good.
Soon, however, as writing systems advanced from ledgers to full-fledged hieroglyphics, the system began to drift from common understanding. The merchant may not have had the time to ponder the details of his accounting, but six pictures of wine jars was clearly understandable by him where sets of thousands of pictograms, each having meaning both as pictures and as sounds, might not be. Writing became the exclusive domain of the scribes, priests and the highly educated.
Bureaucrats realized that they possessed a minor superpower. Cooking the books was possible for them, so long as the books did not deviate so far beyond reality that the merchant or king discovered the deception and had them executed for the theft. Graft entered the world as an additional benefit for the bureaucrats. Eventually this benefit far outweighed the crumbs tossed their way by merchants, traders and nobles. You cannot underestimate how awesome this was for bureaucrats, they could steal without risking themselves. They could tell someone the law said this, when it really said that. They could interpret the signs of the Gods and write down proclamations for their favor. See that tablet, peasant? It says if you don’t give your firstborn to the priests of Horus, the locusts will consume you. Yeah, that’s what it says. See? Right here!
Egypt remained remarkably static for nearly three thousand years, in this form. But more dynamic civilizations eventually supplanted them as traders. Phoenecians and Greeks (earlier, Myceneans) understood the value of written accounting, but eschewed the complex writing systems of the Egyptians and Sumerians in favor of simple alphabetical systems. Why? Because even though they couldn’t read it, they were practical folk, they knew how great it would be to not have to remember everything, or to hand someone a scroll instead of spending hours reciting cargoes. So they had to bastardize their own forms of it (they were traders, they would not spend years in a temple to learn this shit). Soon, without the burden of extensive graft, the Phoenicians and Greeks came to dominate trade. Eventually they came to dominate much of the known world, too, including Egypt itself. Graft really fucks up a civilization’s ability to mobilize in its own defense. Too many soldiers only exist on paper. Ramses II won too many victories, so how did he lose the war?
Right, bureaucrats. All of the temples say Ramses was the victor at the battle of Kadesh. History knows that is a bald-faced lie, but the peasants didn’t know any better. Ramses may have been the very first historical representation of Baghdad Bob.
Bureaucracy was, itself, innovative however. With domination of the writing system removed from them, they instead began to infiltrate the political systems of the host nations and cities. In Egypt, scribes and bureaucrats tended to avoid this (although priests occasionally got involved). After all, to them, it meant little who was on the throne so long as they got their cut of things. The Greeks and Phoenicians were wise to this and their higher rates of literacy made discovery of graft much easier.
Politically, however, the cities, with their Democratic traditions, were still weak. Favored leaders could be put forward in Republican venues. Leaders so advanced would be grateful to the bureaucracy and reward them with the desired graft. It might have been less than their due in static monarchies, but it was good enough. Graft reentered the system, trade declined and became less favored of a profession (Plato despised it — he was a bureaucrat). Increasingly, Greek and Phoenician traders moved on to found colonies far away from their parent cities, rife with bureaucracy and inefficiency. For awhile this was beneficial, and it certainly spread Greek and Phoenician cultures around.
Phoenicia itself faded away. Caught between rival Empires, it eventually fell apart. Its successor colonies continued to thrive. The Greeks, on the other hand, attracted the ire of the Persians.
Persia was part of a bureaucratic tradition too, one dating back to Sumeria and ancient Babylonia. Like Egypt, writing came gradually. Like China, the bureaucracy survived barbarian invasions, effectively subsuming invaders into Mesopotamian culture. When a culture is based on bureaucracy, like the Eygptians, Sumerians and Chinese, it can last an astonishing amount of time. Egyptian and Mesopotamian culture lasted well over 3000 years. China STILL soldiers on. They were useful to invaders, because they knew how to effectively steal from the populace. As long as the invaders got their cut, all was well for the bureaucrats.
And so a conflict between the spreading Greek civilization, only partially bureaucratized (and even then, only at its center), was inevitable. Similarly inevitably, the conflict resulted in an eventual Greek victory. Heavily bureaucratized societies can expand into smaller bureaucratized states with ease. They have difficulty defeating barbarians, but can assimilate them. What they struggle with is dealing with is dealing with states lacking stifling bureaucracy, because they get all of the benefits of organized civilization without the deadweight of excessive graft and waste.
So the Greeks and their Macedonian successors conquered Persia. They only needed a leader to push them into doing it, and so an eventual Alexander was almost inevitable. Unfortunately for the Greeks, this was the end of their dynamic, relatively free situation. For the Mesopotamian bureaucracy assimilated the victors as it had many times before. Greece became Persia. Rome became both. Carthage, the last and greatest of the dynamic Phoenician colonies fell to Rome who, in turn, fell to the Oriental bureaucracy. It is no coincidence that the dying Republic of Rome met its end in the sands of Egypt.
It was the triumph of the scribes, the priests and the bureaucrats. Now they would serve the Caesars. The graft continued. For a time it was good. Rome had no serious competition outside of Persia, itself just as hobbled with corruption. But over time, the graft grew, the economy weakened and dynamic religions made their appearance. Christianity won that battle, but in those days it was no sure thing. Upon victory, it was seized by the Roman bureaucrats who, to this day, still control much of it.
But successive waves of Germans, then Arabs, free of the bureaucratic tradition, broke the old Roman Empire. Its culture assimilated them, but for the first time in Western and Middle Eastern history, the great bureaucracy was broken. Rome was ravaged by the Romans themselves under Belisarius. The Goths, the Lombards and the Franks in turn destroyed the old system. The Arabs reduced North Africa, Egypt and Syria. In time, they would form bureaucracies of their own, but little connection remained to the old world. It was a dark time for grafters, but it was also a dark time for everyone.
Medieval banking provided the solution. As before, ledgers were needed by traders. How much gold did they have? How much stock in trade? This time, with alphabetical language and at least some literacy among the traders, the new bureaucrats could not use the same tactics as before. So modern banking began. At first a goldsmith would simply offer to securely store gold, for a nominal amount. But lending, exchange rates and complex financial instruments made their appearances, and goldsmiths became bankers. Watch the video that explains this in simple terms.
Within a few hundred years, bankers were the power behind the thrones of several major powers. Graft had returned. More modern attempts created central banking, fractional reserve banking and a number of other practices which, once again, involved taking things from people without their knowledge, stealing without seeming to steal. Middlemen were everywhere, but unlike a trader, who performs a function by moving goods to where they are desired, the bureaucrat does nothing.
The parasites killed the host as Rome fell. They have learned now. They merely take as much as possible without -quite- inflicting fatal damage. Socialism was a step too far, centralizing all wealth and distribution into the hands of bureaucrats, who could literally take everything. But people living under socialism generally realized something had gone terribly wrong. Perhaps they could not articulate it exactly, but they knew they were getting a raw deal, and that doesn’t work in the long run.
So we’re back to the maximum amount of socialism possible, with central banking and a massive, 40% of GDP, bureaucracy. It seems that a bit less than 50% can be stolen, and the society still limp along. The bureaucrats have found the maximum permissible graft. But bankers still aren’t exactly popular. The people are naturally suspicious of them. Thousands of years of Darwinism ensured that paranoid folks survived in great numbers. So now, as before, bureaucracy is tied to media. If they control the gates to fame, to the media, to television, pop culture, music and publishing then, once again, only their word exists in the wild. When I said you could keep your plan, I meant only the ones that conformed with the new law! Duh! Just turn on CBS, they are saying the same thing.
And just like the first scribes of Egypt, 5000 years ago, they still speak in a language that you cannot understand, such that you don’t even know they are stealing from you. That has always been the key.