- Historic Sites
August 1974 | Volume 25, Issue 5
But there is another measure, as seen in Alexander Hamilton’s judgment that the true test of good government is necessarily the administrative system it produces. By that standard the present-day bureaucracy comes off quite well. Over the last hundred years it has maintained a generally high level of performance; it has yet, for example, to create a crisis of confidence in this century on the order of Teapot Dome or Watergate, both of which were the work of executive appointees and not of career civil servants. Certainly it has kept the government functioning during the latter scandal while the President and Congress seemed to give way to drift and indecision over the matter of impeachment and the energy crisis. As for the inevitable administrative foul-ups—which are clearly part of the record—the bureaucracy of big government, on balance, has performed no better and no worse than the bureaucracy of big business, as anyone who has attempted to correct a billing error or secure a warranty claim from a major corporation can attest.
Why then is it always open season on the bureaucrat? Why in an age of complex administrative systems is the governmental employee singled out for derogation? Two reasons, at least, supply the explanation. One is the historic role of the bureaucracy; the other is the peculiarly American perception of what government service actually entails.
The bureaucracy as a distinct unit of government probably dates from the time of Hammurabi, the king of ancient Babylonia (about 1700 B.C.). Since then the form has undergone profound change, notably in the degree of its complexity and specialization; but throughout its long history there has been one constant: bureaucracy outside the United States has always been identified with the interests of the ruling power rather than with the people at large. As a consequence bureaucrats have generally been viewed with suspicion and fear because of the authority they possessed as the visible agents—especially in modern times—of the state.
Added to the basic distrust of concentrated power, which in the European experience often meant oppression, was a contempt for the selection system whereby government workers were chosen for their jobs. Until fairly recent times (the first civil-service reforms were introduced in England after 1840) talent and expertise were the least significant factors involved. Loyalty to the king or the ruling party, nepotism, favoritism, and intrigue underlay most appointments, many of which, at the upper levels of government at least, were mere sinecures offering good salaries—in effect, public pensions—for little or no work. As late as a hundred years ago, for example, the English bureaucracy, which is now a model administrative system, was known, in the words of John Bright, a leading reformer, as “the outdoor relief department of the British aristocracy.” Elsewhere the civil service as a whole was seen as a necessary evil, staffed by petty individuals who were given to subservience before those they took to be their betters and to arrogance in their dealings with the public. Their primary concerns were selfprotection and their own convenience at the expense of the services they were appointed to provide.
In America much the same evaluation has persisted to our own time but for reasons uniquely our own. Until 1930 government played only a peripheral role in the lives of most Americans. Its principal function was to provide for the national defense and to secure the orderly growth of the nation by maintaining a sound currency and effective trade relations with foreign states. It offered virtually no social legislation, and its regulatory functions, if they existed at all, were both hesitant and minuscule. The role of the bureaucracy was as a consequence essentially clerical and custodial, and staff size in every department was small, the Postal Service presenting the one exception. In 1861, when the federal civilian bureaucracy totalled 36,672 workers, or roughly one employee for every 857 persons in the population, 30,000 serviced the mails. In 1930, on the eve of the New Deal, one of every two federal employees was in the postal department.
During the first hundred and forty years under the Constitution, then, no sizable bureaucracy appeared. But it was not simply the role of government as a limited agent that precluded the emergence of a governing class like the modern civil services in England or France. The essential stability of the American political order robbed the federal bureaucracy of at least one function that is central to some of its European counterparts—that of defending the state against the threatened depredations of shifting regimes. Where in certain European states, notably France, a shift in the ruling political party has often meant a fundamental change in national ideology, the transfer of power in the United States has produced no extraordinary upheavals. Few radical innovations result from a change in administration, and the basic ideology of the nation remains the same. Institutions are largely unchanged, and the bulk of the bureaucracy, the civil service corps, is hardly aware that a new party and a new President govern.