Bureaucracy (the word) is dead

Nobody talks about bureaucracy anymore. When they do, it’s a quaint word from the Sixties when hippies raged against faceless bureaucrats.


Those faceless gray bureaucrats turned us into to numbers, not the individualistic, free-willed, peace-loving, flower children that we were. Paperbacks like The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit reflected our disdain.

The word may be passé but bureaucracies are as popular as ever. Conservatives like to talk about small, lean governments. They like to cut red tape and trim regulations. They imply that pointy-headed bureaucrats are colluding with the parasitic poor to insure their own jobs and perpetuate the pitiful poor. Often the rhetoric has distinct racists overtones when it comes to handouts for Indian Bands.

However, the rhetoric doesn’t match practice. Before Stephen Harper took office in 2005, there were 144,000 civil servants according to Statistics Canada. By 2015, there were 13,000 more living off the taxes of we hardworking Canadians.

How can this paradox be? No prime minister has tried harder to reduce government and deregulate the marketplace than Harper. David Graeber has an answer:

“Indeed, this paradox can be observed so regularly that I think we are justified in treating it as a general sociological principle. Let’s call it the Iron Law of Liberalism: Any market reform or government initiative intended to reduce red tape and promote market forces will ultimately increase the number of regulations and bureaucrats, as well as the amount of paperwork, that the government employs (Harper’s magazine, March 2015).” (No, the irony of the magazine’s name is not lost on me.)

Conservative governments like to talk about becoming more business-like but businesses are as bureaucratic as governments. The argument needs to be turned on its head: bureaucracies were the forerunners of government. Take the Hudson’s Bay Company, for example. Before there was a Canada, there was HBC. Bureaucracies were the only way of administering such a vast territory and they did it well. Governments up until that time were non-bureaucratic: controlled by monarchs and rich families.

Canada became a manageable country by emulating the corporate bureaucracy of the HBC. In a nod to the popular idea of the time –democracy– one chamber of government was elected but the other, the Senate, was comprised of those same unelected wealthy family members.

When something goes wrong, the curtain is pulled back to reveal just how bureaucratic corporations are. Just ask world-famous photographer Gary Fong who lives in Los Angles but had a cabin near Kelowna. Earlier this year his cabin burned down yet his hydro bills actually gone up. This month he received one for $4,500 for the billing period between May 19 to July 17.

“The house isn’t even there so it defies any type of reasoning.” Fong told InfoTel News. He’s tried to complain to the hydro utility, Fortis, but they tell him (get this) to pay or they’ll cut off his power.

Bureaucracies are alive and well; just don’t mention them by name. Instead, let’s use bright, empty terms like “vision,” “stakeholders,” and “excellence” to describe the way public and private bureaucracies operate.