The Operation Was a Success But
The old joke about the Devil and organization harks to the Iron Law of Oligarchy, formulated in 1911 by a German sociologist named Robert Michels. Simply stated the Iron Law is: "Who says organization says oligarchy."
The Iron Law has influenced generations of political thinkers and is considered the perennial bugaboo of large organizations, including government ones and dominant political parties. Oligarchy is seen as an inevitable byproduct of humans organizing themselves, with the few exceptions representing a unique set of circumstances. No type of government, even the most liberal democratic one, is considered immune from the operation of the Iron Law of Oligarchy.
I had cause to question the Iron Law after I read passages in Arvind Kejriwal's 2011 e-book Swaraj (Self Rule), available for free in PDF in both Hindi and English. The passages outline how, starting in the 1860s, the British Raj used a process of departmentalization to gain control of an ancient system of self-government in India's villages:
Earlier the villagers ran the establishment for irrigation, which the British started to control through an irrigation department.The passages illustrate that without a shot fired, and with no need for secret police and forced labor camps, it's possible through a process of departmentalization to rob a people of their ability to govern their affairs.
The villagers earlier had the education establishment under their control. Now the British formed an education department.
All areas of life and living were soon controlled by the British through one or other government department. ...
Yet Kejriwal was wrong when he assumed the British Empire's departmentalization effort was specific to India. Once the British government's civil service went into high gear, starting in the mid-1850s, it did to its own populace what it later did to Indian villagers!
However, departmentalizing villages in the homeland would be one thing. But because there are so many villages in India that only God has ever known exactly how many there are, the question would be the extent to which the British Empire had extended itself in India as the 19th Century drew to a close. At least as early as the 1890s it was clear the empire was greatly overextended. Another question, perhaps an unanswered one, would be the extent to which the civil service applied its departmentalization effort to lands the British controlled other than the homeland and India.
What is known for certain is that Her Majesty's Civil Service survived with flying colors the collapse of the British Empire. An odd fact when one stops to think about it. Was this a case where the operation was a success but the patient died? Had the British Empire departmentalized itself out of existence?
With that thought in mind I decided to investigate whether the Iron Law of Oligarchy is as iron as it's cracked up to be.
The Iron Law of Oligarchy
Wikipedia's article on representative democracy, which the majority of the world's nations have adopted in one form or another, cites the criticism that this type of government inevitably devolves into a particracy or oligarchy because of the Iron Law of Oligarchy -- a particracy being "a de facto form of government where one or more political parties dominate the political process, rather than citizens and/or individual politicians." (Wikipedia)
As to the Iron Law itself, it was first presented in Robert Michels' 1911 magnum opus, Political Parties: A Sociological Study of the Oligarchical Tendencies of Modern Democracy:
Any large organization, Michels pointed out, has to create a bureaucracy in order to maintain its efficiency as it becomes larger. Many decisions have to be made daily that cannot be made by large numbers of disorganized people.Bureaumania
For the organization to function effectively, centralization has to occur and power will end up in the hands of a few. Those few -- the oligarchy -- will use all means necessary to preserve and further increase their power. ... [Wikipedia]
I found weak links in Michels' chain of reasoning.
1. Michels over-applied the concept of bureaucracy, as have all those who apply the concept to the operational structure of any large organization. Bureaucracy is specific to a government (or quasi-governmental organization such as the World Bank). It literally means a rule of bureaus or 'desks' (or departments, as they're more commonly called today).
The term was coined in the mid-1700s by Jacques Claude Marie Vincent de Gournay, a French economist and government official, as a sarcastic commentary on the craze in the French government for setting up bureaus to handle the burgeoning specialties represented by modern government administration. He also called the craze "bureaumania."
The joke was on the economist, if John Stuart Mill was correct; he argued that bureaucracy is a type of government distinct from other types, including representative democracy, and that the most successful monarchies were actually bureaucracies. If Mill is correct this could explain why no matter how different their politics and economic views, governments that administer through a bureaucracy tend to develop the same or remarkably similar problems. The most consistent feature of the problems isn't oligarchy. It's department heads acting with the zeal of a duke defending his dukedom to protect their department's turf and expand their budget allocations.
2. Even by the time he died, in 1936, Michels couldn't have imagined the number of specializations that would arise in the post-World War II era and reflect in the creation of a dizzying number of departments in government.
3. Nor could he have imagined how the concept of the rule of law, when over-applied, works out in practice over time in a representative democracy. Once people are elected to legislate and are paid to do so -- once it's their job -- they can't be expected to play badminton when they convene. They will write as much legislation as they possibly can, which must be administered by one or more departments in government. This generally leads to the creation of a new department(s) or expansion of existing ones.
The Iron Law of Departmentalization
If Michels could have imagined unchecked specialization in government and legislation, I venture he would have noticed that galloping departmentalization is the result, and all that goes with it:
1. Pretty soon the myriad departments are fiercely protecting their mandates and budget allocations.
2. This puts them in conflict with myriad other departments doing the same.
3. This leads to departments working at cross-purposes and the weaponization of information; i.e., 'information capture' or extreme compartmentalization of information. (What has also been called stovepiping or silo-ing of information.) When this happens the people at the top and even those in key departments might have no knowledge of vital information held by other department(s).
4. The volume of data generated by a large number of departments means that key information can easily be overlooked by decision makers. And when combined with compartmentalization of specializations across numerous departments, key information can be misunderstood or not even recognized as key by decision makers.
The upshot isn't oligarchy, which presumes a reasonably united front among a few people; it's chaos.
(This might have been the Devil's plan all along).
Thusly, when the number of departments in a government reaches the magic number, the juggernaut of departmentalization crushes everything in its path, including the Iron Law of Oligarchy.
Now what is the magic number? From my back of the envelope calculations it's the number at which everyone gives up trying to make an accurate count of the number of departments.
(Departments would include agencies, commissions, services, etc., as well as departments within a department no matter how they're named; e.g., division, section, etc.)
From all this I'd say there's an Iron Law of Departmentalization, which simply stated is that chaos cancels out oligarchy when departments proliferate like rabbits.
Here American readers might want to know whether the U.S. government has reached the magic number yet. From these two articles about bureaucracy in the U.S. government, the answer is yes.
But how could generations of political thinkers have overlooked the Iron Law of Departmentalization? To put the question another way, how can a government administration continue functioning if it's in chaos? The answer is that it can't, not without factors that offset or mitigate chaos in the decision-making processes. Here are three factors that apply to the USA:
1. The introduction of 'czars' to government administration. In the USA a czar is appointed by the U.S. President and answerable only to the President, so he can override chaos at the Cabinet level of departments and lower on the bureaucratic food chain.
2. A de facto plutocracy. While the rich can be in disagreement with each other on many issues, they're staunchly united around the goal of remaining rich. This gives their decisions as a bloc great coherence. And as a bloc the rich have the power to greatly influence many types of government decisions. This helps mask chaos at the operational level of government.
3. This factor would only apply to a few governments in history. It's when a nation or empire's currency is the dominant one used in international trade. This currency hegemony allows a government a virtually unlimited line of credit -- or the ability to kite checks, in a manner of speaking, without penalty. This allows the government to evade the full consequences for bad decisions, including those arising from chaos at the government's operational level.
From the post-World War II period onward, the U.S. dollar's status as the world's major reserve currency has in effect provided the U.S. government with an unlimited line of credit. This has repeatedly let administrations off the hook when chaos at the operational level has led to consequences that would destabilize if not crash any other government.
Yet the most problematical aspect of a government relying on its currency for bailouts is that this shields decision-makers in the government from the full consequences of any bad decisions. This interferes with the famous feedback loop by which humans increase their intelligence, which is also known as learning from mistakes. One doesn't have to learn from mistakes if there's always a safety net with a soft cushion underneath. In government this translates to people not being fired or demoted even for catastrophically bad decisions.
The Devil is in the Detail
So if the Devil does not actually reside in the human tendency to get organized, where does he reside when it comes to government?
One of Michels' professors was the German sociologist Max Weber, whose prolific writings on bureaucracy helped establish public administration as a field of study distinct from political science. Weber believed that bureaucracy was the only efficient means for modern governments to organize themselves, but he was very wary of bureaucratic administration. He saw it as trapping individuality in an "iron cage" of rules-based or 'by the book' decision making.
I've not made a study of Weber's works so I don't want to short his research and conclusions. But from what I know of his writings I don't think he paid much attention to nonprofessional government. I'd say it was the same for Robert Michels. Weber was analyzing paid professional government administration. In fact, he wasn't so much studying government administration as the career of government administration.
Weber's neglect of nonprofessional systems of government, if it was neglect, would be understandable. Even if he'd wanted to study examples of nonprofessional government he was limited by his era's sketchy histories of governments that predated written historical records.
As for the early American experience with governing, which was in the do it yourself mode -- while Weber surely had some knowledge of that, the American experience couldn't be applied to Europe, where his attention was focused. Weber, as with Michels and many other European political thinkers of the day, was trying to find ways to democratize government administration in a region of the world that for thousands of years had only known one form or another of authoritarian rule and professional government administration.
This said, those millennia are a drop in the bucket next to the ages when government was a do it yourself affair. For most of humanity's history governing wasn't a profession. It was an unpaid activity -- and a costly activity in some respects, in that people had to take time away from the means by which they supported themselves to participate in governing. (I think it's just because of this cost that decisions in nonprofessional governing are oriented to solving a problem rather than making a career out of it.)
Nonprofessional governing does generate organizations and also hierarchies, but to say that an oligarchy inevitably derives from these is to distort the concept of oligarchy.
To boil it down, there is no such thing as a volunteer bureaucrat. Those who swear by the Iron Law of Oligarchy are overlooking this detail.