In French, “bureaucracy” means something like “rule or power by the desk or office”, the idea being that powerful desk-bound officials exercise a type of political authority over us. According to Wikipedia, the term was invented in the mid-1700s by a French economist and was a “satirical pejorative from the outset”:
The first known English-language use was in 1818. The 19th-century definition referred to a system of governance in which offices were held by unelected career officials, and in this sense “bureaucracy” was seen as a distinct form of government, often subservient to a monarchy. In the 1920s, the definition was expanded by the German sociologist Max Weber to include any system of administration conducted by trained professionals according to fixed rules. Weber saw the bureaucracy as a relatively positive development; however by 1944, the Austrian economist Ludwig von Mises noted that the term bureaucracy was “always applied with an opprobrious connotation,” and by 1957 the American sociologist Robert Merton noted that the term “bureaucrat” had become an epithet.
I was once a bureaucrat myself, working as a court clerk in Los Angeles County’s vast judicial system. My job was to keep track of stuff and make sure that the rules of civil and criminal procedure were followed.
Nevertheless, the world being the way it is, I wasn’t optimistic today when I needed to get some information from our county government. Bureaucrats!
The Union County website didn’t have the answer to my question, so I called the county’s toll-free number. As the cliché goes, imagine my surprise when a county employee answered the phone after a ring or two. I explained my problem and he told me that I needed to speak to someone in the county clerk’s office. Well, imagine my surprise again when another county employee answered the phone after another ring or two. We had a brief, pleasant, even humorous conversation, and she turned me over to a third county employee, a nice woman named Laura. By this time, it was hardly surprising at all that Laura was very helpful. She quickly took my information and promised that the required document would be mailed to me forthwith.
What? No automated phone buffer (“our numbers have changed”)? No staring into space while on hold (“your call is important to us”)? No confusion? No impatience? No rising blood pressure? A remarkably pleasant, efficient, person to person encounter with some local bureaucrats.
A cynic might conclude that these Union County employees clearly had too much time on their hands, and that our tax dollars aren’t being used efficiently. An automated phone system might achieve substantial savings (“see you around, Laura!”).
I prefer to think that these particular bureaucrats were doing their jobs efficiently and patiently. And that, after our encounter today, they felt good about helping me and I felt good about them and the service they provided.