The Encyclopedia of Democracy

Authors: Lipset
Summary: In approximately 1400 words, this entry defines bureaucracy, explains its origins and political significance, and explores the challenges it poses to democracy.
The entry defines bureaucracy as an administrative organizational system that is highly dependent on rules and procedures, command hierarchy and labor division. The term bureaucracy derives from French words literally meaning "rule by desks." Bureaucracy is the primary administrative organization of government at all societal levels in modern liberal democracies. Modern governments place much emphasis on bureaucratic management and reform.
Modern bureaucracy's most important philosophical influence is German idealism, particularly the theories of Max Weber. Weber emphasized the need for bureaucratic institutions based on law and rationally arranged power and authority in order to achieve effective functioning in complex, modern, democratic, industrial societies. Through a combination of hierarchy and procedural mandates, bureaucratic organizations are directed as well as protected from arbitrary action. Procedural rationality is bureaucracy's most significant organizing principle. These institutional arrangements flowed from the belief that a dichotomy exists between politics and administration. Woodrow Wilson shared these theories--he embraced them as a scholar and teacher, and shaped the modern American bureaucracy when he was elected President of the United States.
Democratic government faces serious challenges from institutionalized bureaucracy and its quasi-ideological partner procedural rationality. First, and perhaps most significantly, the relationship between bureaucratic government and citizens is remote with less accountability. Secondly, however, bureaucracy's inherent expertise challenges and even undermines the independent authority of popularly elected politicians.
Bureaucracy is a twentieth century characteristic of centralized governments and industrialized economies. Because bureaucratic growth appears to be an inevitable consequence of political development, issues surrounding bureaucratic institutions will most likely be extremely influential in liberal democracy's future.