The Old Cause
by Joseph R. Stromberg

August 29, 2000

Bureaucracy, State, and Empire


We are living through the Second Demonization of American right-wing opinion. The First Demonization, that of the 1950s and ‘60s, took place just when the Right itself was making the transition from relative "isolationism" to full-bore global anticommunist crusading. That transition was rather lost on the left-liberal academics who led the charge against the so-called "radical right." Radical, it turns out, meant that these rightists genuinely wanted to roll back the New Deal. This was bad form.

A substantial literature grew up around the task of psychoanalyzing the radical right, "pseudo-conservatives," and alleged "authoritarian personalities," who resisted the liberals' New Order. Such worthies as Daniel Bell, Seymour Martin Lipset, Richard Hofstadter, and the tame "conservative" Peter Viereck enlisted to lay bare the sins of the "far" right. Oddly, it was never a "near" right.

These writers burdened the right with a long list of mentally suspect bad attitudes: "isolationism," xenophobia, "McCarthyism," failure to embrace trade union violence, and – especially wicked – "Poujadism." For the Left, Poujade was a terrible "fascist" to be suppressed as quickly as possible. So who or what was Poujade? Poujade was a minor postwar political figure in France, whose program centered on drastic reduction of taxes and elimination of bureaucratic micromanagement of French life. Some "fascist." His movement sought to rally shopkeepers and farmers against the centralized state and, thus, in the direction of greater freedom.


Clearly, such an antisocial monster had to be destroyed. Rather than be happy that the Poujadists were giving their petty-bourgeois followers a program which drew on laissez-faire liberalism, the Left chose – in predictable Marxoid fashion – to assume that such backward cretins just had to be fledgling fascists, whatever their rhetoric and program. Look, it says so right here on page so-and-so of this or that Marxist scripture. And did those fellows really believe you can run a Modern Society/State without zillions of bumbling but kindly social engineers keeping everything in motion? Shocking.

In the end, the Poujadists destroyed their own movement by committing themselves rather blindly and stupidly to the Algerian War. I don't think anyone should really complain about balanced and intelligent forms of nationalism. Such nationalisms are compatible with (laissez faire) liberalism and don't make me lose much sleep. Austria for the Austrians, for example. Where's the problem?

But calling on one's compatriots to die in the last ditch to hold on to some stupid colonial possession, which should never have been acquired, is a sure way to lose one's mass base, particularly if they ever work out the relationship between war, taxes, and bureaucracy. The last two items having been the Poujadists' central issues, their leaders had certainly gotten them into a corner. There may be a lesson here. Certainly, the fawning display of military brutalism at the late GOP convention suggests that smaller government may not really be on offer from that quarter. Have the Republican Party hacks and managers been watching too many old newsreels of Soviet May Day parades? What nostalgia for them. Or maybe it was just a subtle hint to certain contractors that happy days on the gravy train are here again.


The mouvement Poujade may be gone, but the bureaucracies of which it complained live on, and not just in France, as you may have noticed. To get a better handle on bureaucracy, we must betake ourselves into the 19th century, for a look at vintage liberal critiques of that office-bound phenomenon. Richard Simpson was the longtime collaborator of the great English Catholic liberal historian Lord Acton at The Rambler and The Home and Foreign Review. Simpson took our topic on in The Rambler in 1859.1 His short essay "Bureaucracy" is well worth the reading.

Bureaucracy, Simpson pointed out, was not the same as military rule. Bureaucracy did not correspond, directly, to any form of government, but "it can arise gradually under every form of policy, and it renders every form of government despotic." Lawyers, of course, throve under bureaucracy, but they were not the essence of it. Various mistaken reforms had contributed to bureaucracy's recent forward leap. Thus, Poor Law reform called forth more inspectors, while the secret ballot gave rise to something like an "internal passport." After all, you can't have people voting, if you don't rightly know who they are.

But the real core of bureaucracy was none of the above-named trends. No, "the idea of bureaucracy is not fulfilled till we add the pedantic element of a pretence to direct our life, to know what is best for us, to measure out our labour, to superintend our studies, to prescribe our opinions, to make itself answerable for us, to put us to bed, tuck us up, put on our nightcap, and administer our gruel" [my emphasis]. This can only arise, says Simpson, in a state whose rulers believe they understand everything important about human existence. In 20th-century America, this requirement has long since been fulfilled. Our leaders and nannies do indeed have a world-outlook, a philosophy, and ideology. It is pretty much the "Wisconsin Idea" writ large and will be the 21st century's task to overthrow it, if we are to have any lives and civilization at all.

I call as my second witness – we believe in balance around here – the great French liberal Alexis de Tocqueville. In the last chapters of Democracy in America, he writes that the social equality enjoyed by the Americans may be preparing them for a new form of despotism. Under such a system, the benevolent state – harmless because, after all, the people ultimately rule by voting – "provides for [the people's] security, foresees and supplies their necessities, facilitates their pleasures, manages their principal concerns, directs their industry, makes rules for their testaments, and divides their inheritances. Why should it not entirely relieve them from the trouble of thinking and all the cares of living?"2 Writing in the 1830s, Tocqueville might not have guessed that it would be precisely state-run schools that would relieve Americans from the burden of thinking.

Interestingly, Tocqueville, like Simpson later, sees that the new despotism would view itself as an educational enterprise: "I do not expect their leaders to be tyrants, but rather schoolmasters." I mean, some of us hated state-run school. The whole thing is compounded when I think of all those well-meaning lies my teachers told us about how this a free country and all that. They were setting us up for needless value conflicts later on. Had they told us we were doing our best to catch up with the Swedish Model, the Soviets, or whatever, the great bureaucratic leap forward from JFK onward might have been less jarring for us.

The schoolmaster connection puts me in mind of that wonderful philosopher-king, democrat, educationist, would-be bureaucrat, and all-around force for evil, John Dewey. But he deserves a full column. I'll deal with him later.


The role of the pedagogue/bureaucrat/intellectual in the 20th century has been important and harmful to the nth degree. One thinks of Professor Woodrow Wilson, FDR's Brain Trust, and the "New Mandarins" who flocked to Washington to serve and profit under JFK and LBJ. And who can forget Dr. Henry Kissinger, favorite wherever he goes?

All these people were true believers in what C. Wright Mills called "bureaucratic rationality." The world was a discreet set of objects - big aggregates like "savings," "investment," or "distribution" to be apprehended directly by those trained in the bureaucratic sciences. The bureaucracy would then manipulate these big objects and – presto! – we have a much better society and good time, to boot. What could be simpler? The few pockets of resistance – laissez faire die-hards, religious nuts, etc. – would be reeducated soon enough with mailed fists, velvet gloves, tedious lectures, and aerial sorties, whatever it took.


Martin Van Creveld, Robert Bresler, and many others have stressed the role of 20th-century warfare in making possible bureaucratic expansion and social "reform." War technique and the need to shape up and reward the masses of potential cannon fodder account for the successes of soft-core socialism in Europe and North America. In the last chapter of his War and the Rise of the State, Bruce Porter writes that the modern bureaucratic state may have "transcended its origins" in war technique.3 If this is true, world peace – assuming that were possible – might not fully address the chicken-and-egg problem of the relationship between war and statism. We might still need an intelligent mouvement Poujade of our own. Where can we sign up? Algore wants to "reinvent" bureaucracy. I don't think Dubya can help us here. Pat has to have bureaucrats to collect all those tariffs. Harry Browne looks forward to setting up a new special-operations bureaucracy…. Friends, we may have to do it ourselves….


  1. Richard Simpson, "Bureaucracy" in J. Rufus Fears, ed., Essays in the History of Liberty: Selected Writings of Lord Action, I (Indianapolis: LibertyClassics, 1985), pp. 518-530.
  2. Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, II (Garden City, N.Y.: Anchor Books, 1969), Part IV, Ch. 6, "What Sort of Despotism Democratic Nations Have to Fear," pp. 690-695.
  3. Bruce D. Porter, War and the Rise of the State (New York: The Free Press, 1994), last chapter.

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