Feature Article: The perils of unbridled bureaucracy

The perils of unbridled bureaucracy

A bureaucrat is an unelected official who works for government. Bureaucrats are not chosen by the electorate. They are beholden to neither the voting public nor the country at large irrespective of whether they, as civil servants, take an oath of loyalty or service to the state. Their behaviour is driven by such factors, for example, as a desire to serve the politicians to whom they report. These factors may not directly coincide with and may even be antagonistic to the interests of the people.

Elected politicians, by contrast, are charged with the responsibility of implementing and monitoring the policies that arise from the promises they make to the voting public. Whether they succeed or fail in this regard is another matter.

The interests of bureaucrats lie, principally, in their own job security. They are accountable first and foremost to the elected representatives (usually senior politicians) of the ruling party who choose to deploy them. They operate, therefore, in a manner which they believe to be in synchrony with the views and ideological sentiments of their employers. If they fail to do so, they are likely to find themselves out of work.

On the eve of an election, politicians tend to make outrageous promises. They seldom consider, up front, the cost implications and other consequences that will necessarily be incurred to make good on their promises. There is, of course, method in this madness. Politicians, generally, get more enthusiastic support when they pander to popular hopes and fears rather than when they address the questioning of more sophisticated and informed voters. They forget their responsibilities in the desire to satisfy the wishes of powerful allies or lobby groups and, without too much forethought, too often find themselves making promises, promises and more promises they can never hope to keep.

This phenomenon badly distorts the relationship that should exist between bureaucrats and their political employers. It requires bureaucrats to defend policies that they know to be disastrous or counterproductive. In support of their political employers, they are put under pressure by those same self-serving extra-parliamentary lobby groups that might have called for the enactment of some impractical or counterproductive legislation.

Frequently, the extra-parliamentary groups convince politicians and bureaucrats that more complex amendments and regulations are needed to address ‘shortcomings’ in existing legislation. Instead of carrying out a drastic overhaul or repeal of bad law to remedy the situation, they fall into the trap of trying to improve conditions by piling on new laws and regulations that only confuse the issue even more. The recent legislative proposals coming from the Treasury are a case in point. Is this, as the late economist Milton Friedman observed, a case of “Hell hath no fury like a bureaucrat scorned”.

Take the tax advisory industry. It seems that as long as taxpayers remain unable to deal personally with complex tax legislation, tax consultants, to assure themselves of a continuing demand for business, seldom challenge the logic of new tax legislation.  

Bureaucrats may surreptitiously hijack the legislative process and undermine the parliamentary procedure. Many elected representatives (Members of Parliament and the provincial legislatures) do not have sufficient knowledge to deal with legislative proposals from government officials. Also, they transfer quite rapidly from one legislative body to another, or serve on numerous committees. The sheer volume of paper is unmanageable. Elected representatives are at the mercy of the more permanent elements within government, the bureaucrats.

Sun Yat-Sen (1866 – 1925), who founded the Chinese Republic after the overthrow of the Manchu Dynasty (Qing) in 1912, saw fit to put certain measures in place as a precaution against the dangers of bureaucratic hijacking of national objectives (though he himself was a believer in a centralised state and bureaucracy) so that “...national reconstruction will depend upon the people and no bureaucrat or militarist will be able to confiscate it.”

South Africa, as with every other country, should be concerned and vigilant to ensure that elected representatives do not surrender their legislative mandate by failing to critically and vigorously question the proposals and comments of all participants or by being too readily favourably disposed towards the opinions and contributions of bureaucrats involved in the drafting of legislation. In fact, elected representatives of the country’s people should be especially vigilant vis-à-vis the comments and proposals of the bureaucracy.

Bureaucrats tend to be oriented towards the maintenance of the status quo. They often will defend their turf vigorously, irrespective of how detrimental existing policies and structures may prove to be. As Lawrence J Peter said “Bureaucracy defends the status quo long past the time when the quo has lost its status.”

In South Africa, we can see this in the field of energy policy. The obviously sane thing that should be done is to open electricity generation to competing providers of electricity rather than place the industry and the whole country at the mercy of a state monopoly and a bureaucratic empire. Hopefully, this scenario will not be repeated in respect of policy concerning proposed Special Economic Zones, which the elected representatives have shown the foresight and ambition to propose. This matter is especially urgent against the backdrop of South Africa’s pitiful annualised economic growth rate of 0.9 per cent and shocking unemployment level of over 36 per cent.

It should be borne in mind that when South Africa, or any country, suffers unnecessarily because of the consequences of bad legislation, it is the elected representatives of the people who will be answerable to the voters, not the bureaucrats.

Some individuals in the government service perform sterling work, but, in general, the bureaucracy needs to be reined in to preserve the laws and economy of the country and to ensure that they serve all citizens. For the sake of effective legislative vigilance and to ensure that good, just, and economically rational policies prevail, the litmus test should always be that enacted or proposed policies enhance the economic freedom of all who are affected by them.


AuthorTemba A Nolutshungu is a director of the Free Market Foundation. This article may be republished without prior consent but with acknowledgement to the author. The views expressed in the article are the author’s and are not necessarily shared by the members of the Foundation.


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