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‘Bureaucracy is the very essence of the State’

Economist Barry Brownstein writes a sobering piece at the American Institute for Economic Research on “Why There Is a Civic and Moral Duty to Oppose Tyrannical Bureaucracies.” In the piece, Brownstein offers Ludwig von Mises’ advice for opposing socialist bureaucracy, which is unfortunately very applicable to today’s Covid-excused bureaucratic tyrannies.

Brownstein’s opening, however, takes its cue from a Soviet novel, Life and Fate by Vasily Grossman (which was thought destroyed by Soviet authorities but was smuggled out of the country on microfilm). He quotes a section where two colonels were talking about the horrors of bureaucracy:

One colonel tells this story:

There was an infantry detachment that had been surrounded. The men had nothing to eat. A squadron was ordered to drop them some food by parachute. And then the quartermaster refused to issue the food. He said he needed a signature on the delivery slip and how could the men down below sign for what had been dropped by parachute? And he wouldn’t budge. Finally he received an order from above.

The other colonel says, “Bureaucracy can be much more terrifying than that.” He then shares this story:

Remember the order: ‘Not one step back’? There was one place where the Germans were mowing our men down by the hundred. All we needed to do was withdraw over the brow of the hill. Strategically, it would have made no difference – and we’d have saved our men and equipment. But the orders were “Not one step back.” And so the men perished and their equipment was destroyed.

The conversation continues, and then Grossman has one colonel deliver the punchline: “What’s really terrifying is when you realize that bureaucracy isn’t simply a growth on the body of the State. If it were only that, it could be cut off. No, bureaucracy is the very essence of the State.”

The forces making bureaucracy arbitrary, capricious, and impervious to reason—”the very essence of the State”—are the same in America as they were in Grossman’s Soviet Union. We all have our stories of bureaucratic indifference; and now during Covid, indifference has become cruel. Just ask the relatives of former Governor Cuomo’s nursing home victims or the former “health angels” who gained natural immunity and now face termination for refusing the vaccine mandate.

In his book Bureaucracy, Ludwig von Mises explains, “The ultimate basis of an all-around bureaucratic system is violence.” As for the bureaucrats making the rules, Mises observes, “He who is unfit to serve his fellow citizens wants to rule them.”

Jon Sanders / Research Editor and Senior Fellow, Regulatory Studies

Jon Sanders studies regulatory policy, a veritable kudzu of invasive government and unintended consequences. As director of regulatory studies at the John Locke Foundation, Jo...