The Jeffersonian Perspective

Commentary on Today's Social and Political Issues
Based on the Writings of Thomas Jefferson


Bureaucracies and Their Derelictions

We ask ourselves why nothing seems to work anymore. Why has every government program turned into a boondoggle? Why are our schools failing, and why is it that the more money we pour into them, the more they fail?

The answer is surprisingly simple, though explaining it in detail and demonstrating it might be a little more complex. The real culprit in all of this is the presence of a burgeoning bureaucracy in every area of national life. Moreover, Jefferson warned about this problem, with special emphasis on government, almost 200 years ago.

Thomas Jefferson lived before the Industrial Revolution and the rise of Socialism. He did not see the growth of enormous social institutions with multiple layers of administration. But he saw the tendency in government and its agencies to bloat and to centralize authority, and he spoke out against this tendency at every opportunity. Simplicity in structure was his principle in his approach to all government enterprises, with an emphasis on power being distributed to the lowest level in immediate contact with the situation being addressed. For example, government itself was to be conducted as much as possible at the local level, and only delegated to representatives to perform functions at higher levels when the people themselves were not competent to perform those functions.

    "We think experience has proved it safer for the mass of individuals composing the society to reserve to themselves personally the exercise of all rightful powers to which they are competent and to delegate those to which they are not competent to deputies named and removable for unfaithful conduct by themselves immediately." --Thomas Jefferson to P. Dupont, 1816.

Keeping responsibility in the hands of the people for as many powers of government as was reasonably possible was considered the very essence of good government.

    "Democrats consider the people as the safest depository of power in the last resort; they cherish them, therefore, and wish to leave in them all the powers to the exercise of which they are competent." --Thomas Jefferson to W. Short, 1825.

This was not an attempt to replace our republican form of government with a pure democracy; it was a call for a principle of anti-profusion that was to be practiced at every level of government to prevent the growth of institutional power to the detriment of the very people whom that power is supposed to serve.

    "The way to have good and safe government, is not to trust it all to one, but to divide it among the many, distributing to every one exactly the function he is competent to. Let the National Government be entrusted with the defense of the nation and its foreign and federal relations; the State governments with the civil rights, laws, police, and administration of what concerns the State generally; the counties with the local concerns of the counties, and each ward direct the interests within itself." --Thomas Jefferson to J. Cabell, 1816.

Moreover, this principle was to be practiced within the agencies of government also, including agencies such as schools.

    "If it is believed that... elementary schools will be better managed by the governor and council, the commissioners of the literary fund or any other general authority of the government than by the parents within each ward, it is a belief against all experience. Try the principle one step further, and... commit to the governor and council the management of all our farms, our mills and merchants' stores... No, my friend, the way to have good and safe government is not to trust it all to one, but to divide it among the many, distributing to every one exactly the functions he is competent to." --Thomas Jefferson to J. Cabell, 1816.

This was an argument to take power away from central authority and distribute it to the lowest possible local level. The bureaucratic need for uniformity and the socialistic demand for equality of result was not to take precedence over a people's need to be free and to enjoy the liberty of conducting their own affairs in their own way. It was as anti-socialist as the early 19th century could get: away from central planning and the transfer of control from local to general authority! Away from the unresponsive control of people's lives by faceless government bureaucracy! Do not trust direction to one person or to one small group of persons, but distribute it to the lowest level that is competent to handle it and let responsibility be taken at the very point where action occurs. It is Socialism that has introduced the principle of centralized planning by an all-knowing elite who issue directives to an army of unresponsive bureaucrats who are "only doing what they are told." A full description of how the Socialist system destroys incentive, obviates creativity, and leads to disaster is covered in the essay, Socialism vs. Liberty. Every organization requires levels of administration, but the secret of successful administration is not to concentrate control and responsibility in the higher levels, but to distribute it to the lower levels, leaving higher levels to perform those coordinating functions which only it can perform. This is difficult to accept for those who are opposed to human liberty and feel that government must direct and control the lives of all its citizens. Infected by socialist thinking, they believe that the job of social improvement is not to be left to the people, but is to be imposed from above by the government. They wish, therefore, to leave nothing to the discretion and responsibility of the persons in direct contact with the public. But issuing directives and guidelines so that those officers that have first contact are deprived of responsibility for what they do and need only follow minute instructions is the way to kill an effective governmental organization. It removes the human element and turns service to the people into a machine-like response.

    "What has destroyed liberty and the rights of man in every government which has ever existed under the sun? The generalizing and concentrating all cares and powers into one body, no matter whether of the autocrats of Russia or France, or of the aristocrats of a Venetian Senate. And I do believe that if the Almighty has not decreed that man shall never be free (and it is blasphemy to believe it), that the secret will be found to be in the making himself the depository of the powers respecting himself, so far as he is competent to them, and delegating only what is beyond his competence by a synthetical process, to higher and higher orders of functionaries, so as to trust fewer and fewer powers in proportion as the trustees become more and more oligarchical." --Thomas Jefferson to J. Cabell, 1816.

Notice: the secret of good governance is not central planning and consolidation of responsibility, but placing power in the individual citizen to the extent he is competent thereto. Matters of immediate concern are to be dealt with by local authorities in direct and immediate contact with the concerns. Jefferson extended this principle of dispersal of power to the relationship between the State and Federal government also.

    "The support of the State governments in all their rights, as the most competent administrations for our domestic concerns and the surest bulwarks against antirepublican tendencies, I deem [one of] the essential principles of our Government." --Thomas Jefferson: 1st Inaugural, 1801.

There is now some tendency to return things to the States, but inevitably the Federal government retains control, usually because it is furnishing the funds, and insists on seeing to it that those funds are spent "correctly" according to its own directives. All central authorities become oppressive because they are unable to let go and let control be exercised at a lower level. They wish to draw all powers to themselves and away from those responsible on location.

    The Calamity of Central Planning

The evils of central planning are not just theoretical, nor are they only the destruction of liberty and the rights of man, though that would be evil enough. The consolidation and growth of central bureaucracies are like a spreading cancer that consumes resources and depletes energy. The bureaucracy itself proliferates, creating layers upon layers of office holders. Pouring more money into such a system only makes matters worse, because the major portion of the money is invariably diverted into building an even greater bureaucratic organization. If cuts are ever needed, these are most often made in essential, front line services, and rarely if ever in the central bureaucratic structure. This is often done quite deliberately in order to make the public feel the "pinch," and force them to clamor for more funds to feed this growing monster. All bureaucracies have this tendency to become a parasitical growth that saps our substance, even as Jefferson noted in his time.

    "I think, myself, that we have more machinery of government than is necessary, too many parasites living on the labor of the industrious. I believe it might be much simplified to the relief of those who maintain it." --Thomas Jefferson to W. Ludlow, 1824.

Simplicity, then, is the key. But the question is raised, How can we insure simplicity? Isn't top-heavy growth a natural tendency of all bureaucracies?

The answer is, these are tendencies, but there is nothing in the nature of bureaucratic structures that demands they must become bloated. They can be controlled by simplifying the bureaucratic structure and keeping it that way. The Catholic Church is a centuries-old bureaucracy, but it has worked quite well and continues to do so with only three levels of control: the parish priest, the bishop and the Pope. Catholic parishes have typically operated better schools than the public schools, and they have done it with a tiny fraction of the bureaucratic structure that their public counterparts have required.

    What is to be Done?

What must be done is we must deliberately eliminate the levels of bureaucracy that have overgrown government and government agencies everywhere and introduce the principles of simplicity and economy. Certainly, there is no constituency opposing this reduction of bureaucracy except the bureaucracy itself.

    "The people through all the States are for republican forms, republican principles, simplicity, [and] economy." --Thomas Jefferson to E. Livingston, 1800.

Any individual who has ever dealt with these bureaucracies knows how independent they have grown, how contemptuous they are of the public they are supposed to serve, and how solicitous they are for their own emoluments. This in-grown sense of independence, alienated from the people they serve, starts at the top and is infused to the lower bureaucratic functionaries, who always get their cues from above. But as Jefferson pointed out,

    "Reduce every department to economy, and there will be no temptation to them to betray their constituents." --Thomas Jefferson to A. Stuart, 1799.

We have seen how bureaucrats with massive public funds at their disposal spend lavishly on their office furnishings and waste millions on trips all over the globe. With such funds at their disposal, these administrators are able to ignore the public, pursue their own ends and win the support of private interests to the detriment of the people who bear the burdens of taxation.

    "We [must endeavor] to reduce the government to the practice of a rigorous economy to avoid burthening the people and arming the magistrate with a patronage of money which might be used to corrupt and undermine the principles of government." --Thomas Jefferson to M. Pictet, 1803.

But pulling in the reins, while painful and disruptive at first, will help to bring the focus around where it should be: on genuine service to the public.

    "A rigid economy of the public contributions and absolute interdiction of all useless expenses will go far towards keeping the government honest and unoppressive." --Thomas Jefferson to Lafayette, 1823.

At first, however, we can expect that such agencies will attempt to make any cuts felt by the public. The administrative structure will be the last thing to be reduced unless deliberate reductions of that structure are demanded by external authorities. Through every level of government, federal, state and local, there has developed oppressive levels of bureaucracy that have grown fat at the public trough and have become unresponsive to their public benefactors. But our choice is between reining them in, or being overwhelmed by their all-pervasive control.

    "We must make our election between economy and liberty, or profusion and servitude." --Thomas Jefferson to S. Kercheval, 1816.

No bureaucracy needs more than three levels of administrative control. Additional levels tend to cause the agency to become self-concerned and unresponsive to its public duties. Bureaucratic administrators with multiple layers of administrators beneath them represent unaccountable power, as far as the public is concerned. Separated as they are from the actual people their agency is supposed to serve, their empire becomes the agency itself and their concerns become organizational concerns and the perpetration of their own power. With fewer levels, they would be compelled to deal with problems that are more directly associated with the service they are expected to perform, and less concerned with making a huge bureaucratic structure function.

Our problem is not "big government" so much as it is bureaucratic growth and centralization that takes power away from the levels that actually do the work of an agency, and makes the workers in an agency responsive to the bureaucratic structure rather than to the public it is supposed to serve. In a big country, government must necessarily be big. But it is the kind of organization, the multiple layers of administration, that makes government agencies unresponsive, not the mere fact that it is "big."

The solution to any problem that a governmental agency was designed to address almost always requires action at the local level, in a person-to-person contact. Bureaucratic centralization tends to divest persons at that level of the power to act responsibly and responsively. It transfers that power to supervisors and program directors who issue guidelines and directives that control persons at the level of action and tell them precisely what to do, often in step-by-step, "fool-proof" directions. Such materials in schools are often actually described as "teacher-proof." This, supposedly, gives uniformity and expert control, but it also removes responsibility and turns the person at the level where action occurs into a kind of automaton. At the same time, the actual controller (the supervisor) is separated from the scene of action and from contact with the specific needs of the individual citizen being served. And this, in turn, is what makes modern bureaucracy so faceless, so uncaring, so inhuman. Rare indeed is this deadly tendency overcome, and even then only in very limited respects by people who may actually be jeopardizing their jobs.

In our schools, education obviously occurs in the contact between a teacher and the student, not in a bureaucratic administrative office. But bureaucratic intervention means there are levels of administrative personnel to provide direction to the classroom teachers, and to "assist" them in ways that divest them of full authority and responsibility in their relationship with their students. This is justified as providing supervisory "expertise," of course; but it also weakens the relationship between student and teacher. Many teachers today bravely overcome the tyranny of paper from above. But the obsession with control that is the very essence of bureaucratic organization has a stifling effect. And all of this is done to "improve" the educational program. But what has been the result? Are schools any better now than when they were run by a minimal administrative staff? No, they are decidedly worse, and this overgrown bureaucratic administration often consumes more than 50% of the cost for running the schools. Courses are dropped, music and art programs are terminated, but the bureaucracy keeps on going.

This, then, is the real culprit behind the general disillusionment with government and with our society today. It is not so much the size of the government, but the growth and form of the bureaucracy that has made it a thing unto itself, promoting its own interests, and ignoring and, in some cases, trampling on the interests of the very people it was created to serve.

Cross References

To other essays in The Jeffersonian Perspective

To Thomas Jefferson on Politics & Government

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Thomas Jefferson on Politics & Government: Table of Contents

© 1996 by Eyler Robert Coates, Sr.

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