The Heavy Baggage of Bureaucracy

Deep and very far back in history

Tax Burden - Final word
Tax Burden
A friend complained bitterly last week about the heavy burden that bureaucratic rules and their rigid implementation by bureaucrats, in the proliferation of modern-day bureaucracies, place on the smooth running of an ordinary man’s life. His immediate gripe was with a bank but the roots of bureaucracy lie wide, deep and very far back in history. 


The formal term, bureaucracy, was coined in France during the period immediately preceding the Revolution of 1789. As a phenomenon it was, however, so common to other countries that the use of the word spread rapidly.

As is so often the case, there is some irony when the roots of a term are analysed and compared to how it has come to be perceived in present day life.

The original French meaning of the word “bureau” referred to the baize used to cover desks. Over time it became used to describe a writing desk and later the office or workplace of officials.

It was when, from the Greek suffix “kratia” or “kratos”, the collective “cracy” was added that signs of what was to come appeared for the first time. The word is said to have been coined by French economist Jean Claude Marie Vincent de Gournay (1712-1759).

The Greek “kratia” or “kratos” means "power" or "rule". Bureaucracy thus not only really meant office power or office rule, but soon came to be understood as “ruled by officialdom” or, at times, just “ruled by rules”.

As far back as 1764 Friedrich Melchior, Baron von Grimm wrote: "We are obsessed by the idea of regulation, and our Masters of Requests refuse to understand that there is an infinity of things in a great state with which a government should not concern itself."

Over the centuries, some political scientists and philosophers have even referred to "bureaucracy" as a fourth “estate” or level of government.

According to social scientist Max Weber one of the most influential users of the term bureaucracy, the attributes of modern bureaucracy include “its impersonality, concentration of the means of administration, a leveling effect on social and economic differences, and implementation of a system of authority that is practically indestructible”.

But long before the term was coined, theories about it developed and detailed studies about its functioning were done. The reality of the bureaucratic phenomenon is that it was part of ancient societies across the globe.

That rulers over the ages understood the power of officialdom to enforce rules is, among others, illustrated by the ancient Chinese dynasty of Song, that ruled more than a thousand years ago. It created a centralised bureaucracy staffed with civilian scholar officials. This led to a much greater concentration of power in the hands of the emperor and his palace officials than that of any other dynasty.

The website Askdefine tells us that “[p]erhaps the early [sic] example of a bureaucrat is the scribe, who first arose as a professional in the early cities of Sumer. The Sumerian script was so complicated that it required specialists who had trained for their entire lives in the discipline of writing to manipulate it. These scribes could wield significant power, as they had a total monopoly on the keeping of records and creation of inscriptions on monuments to kings”.

Maybe it is because they are looking back to the power they had when the ordinary man could not read what was written, that bureaucrats have developed a way of writing rules in a special language of their own, often called legalese.

Piet Coetzer
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