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The decline and fall of the bureaucratic state

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | May 13, 2022

As societies “evolve”, especially if population is increasing, they tend to become more complex. This typically means that individual families and even particular communities become less self-sufficient, more interdependent. The result is a rising desire for effective behavioral controls in more and more areas of life. This in turn leads to the steady expansion of regulatory government and the bureaucracy that accompanies it. We have experienced the acceleration of this trend throughout the West over the past century, so that today even our most personal relationships are filtered through an expanding maze of bureaucracies, as is amply demonstrated by the State’s control of marriage and divorce, so-called civil unions, and the education of children.

Even as recently as the first third of the twentieth century, the United States was still predominantly a rural society. But population density amplifies the need for social control. Close-quarters and widespread inter-dependence invite an ever-widening spiral of regulation. And in societies characterized by both rapid change and high mobility, both the need and the desire for regulation increases as new problems arise while traditional values and family ties erode. It is hard to be precise about why the common values that underlie healthy societies disappear, but this trend seems always to accelerate under the pressure of affluence.

But wait, there’s more.

As traditional associations and ways of life disappear—encouraged by increasing mobility and rising anonymity—governments are called upon to play an increasing role in holding societies together—a case of the inorganic substituting for what ought to be organic. Certain accidents of history accelerate this trend. For example, the increasing emphasis on exercising political control through “the vote” tends to atomize the population.

Affairs which used to be handled through a wide variety of intermediary institutions (from churches to town councils to guilds and special associations) give way before the political myth that millions of ordinary citizens, simply by voting (from the very bottom of the political order), can effectively control the structures that govern (at the very top of the political order). But the reality is that democracy, which tends to bypass strong intermediary institutions, acquires a primarily mythological value. As inevitably practiced in large populations, democracy tends to ensure personal powerlessness in the face of the modern State.

But there is still more.

Suppose, in conjunction with the trends outlined above, that the very notion of liberty is redefined as the ability to fulfill whatever desires one may have, rather than the ability to direct oneself toward what is good. And suppose further that the experience of a people is one of rapid improvements through an increasing technological control over the material conditions of life. In this case, given certain well-known tendencies of human nature, we would not be surprised to see our culture devolve into a kind of abject materialism by which huge numbers of people are able to insulate themselves from concern about deeper spiritual realities.

Finally, if, through still more accidents of history, the initial driving spiritual force of the civilization in question has been undermined and weakened for centuries by ecclesiastical worldliness, by religious division, and by the relativistic conceptual hurdles associated with global expansion—well, then, the result would almost surely be a dominant culture driven by the demands of the rich and powerful, substituting their own personal desires for the realities given to us by Nature and Nature’s God.

The inescapable doom of bureaucratic states

The results of this development, so long in the making, are reflected throughout our society today. Consider, for example, the abandonment of marriage, the refusal to have children, the materially ideological character of education from infancy through advanced degrees, the constant expansion of “rights” and “liberties” which collide directly with both nature and common sense, the deliberate privileging of every position that can be used to undermine the remaining traditional values of Western Christian culture, and above all the Humpty Dumpty insistence that “When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.”

The remarkable Lewis Carroll posed the critical question one hundred and fifty years ago:

“The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.” “The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master—that’s all.” [Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There (1871)]

We ought not to be surprised that this is now the primary mode of thought and operation not only of government but of academia, the mass media, and corporate life—wherever power is exercised for the satisfaction of what I typically refer to as our dominant culture. And if the simple repetition of abject nonsense is not sufficient to brainwash everybody, well then everybody must be subject to increasing bureaucratic control, so that independent speech and independent action are regulated out of existence, leaving an ever-narrowing space even for critical thought.

Facing perhaps similar prejudices roughly a generation before the birth of Christ, the Roman poet Horace coined a marvelous axiom: “Naturam expellas furca, tamen usque revenit.” Which is to say, “You may drive out nature with a pitchfork; nevertheless, she will return.” This means at least two things: First, that there will always be those who are suspicious of, or become disillusioned with, the incredible shallowness and frivolity of our ever-shifting secular orthodoxies. Second, since such orthodoxies can only be maintained through immense regulatory bureaucracies, their undisputed reign is subject to the immutable law of bureaucracy: Namely, that bureaucracies always tend toward inefficiency.

Bureaucratic regimes always fall under their own weight.

The Future

We cannot see the future, but in the United States, at least, the wholesale rejection of God and nature by the Biden Administration—establishing a pattern of bureaucratic overreach which even in its first term it has been unable to sustain by law—is already causing a significant reaction. It would not surprise me if the experience of Russia in Ukraine should prove to be another example of unsustainable overreach, led by a fossilized military establishment. In any case, there is a natural law at work, and nature always comes back. In the long run bureaucracies, which by their own inner logic must continue to grow, are doomed to collapse.

Eventually bureaucratic government grows so costly and accomplishes so little that it becomes unsustainable, even in societies willing to run the risks of rapid inflation, as ours is again today. Effective societies must, at length, devolve into simpler and more organic patterns of life. At some point, it no longer matters that many influential people devoutly wish to maintain the fictions which drive meticulous control from the top. At some point this simply becomes unsustainable.

Of course, this iron law does not mean the aftermath will be nobler and better, nor that all who oppose the status quo are known to think so very clearly themselves. But it at least raises possibilities, and it is one more good reason why Christian and especially Catholic groups—parishes, charitable organizations, apostolic associations and religious communities—must continue to expand against all odds, and why the Church herself simply must concentrate not on global consultations and ideological rearrangements of the furniture but on missionary renewal. The time is coming when Christians will be called upon once again not only to support the poor and marginalized but to mobilize whole communities. The time will come when the willingness to sacrifice will trump bureaucratic inefficiency.

Christianity expanded originally not only because it was full of truth and grace but because Christians took better care of their neighbors than did a seemingly omnipotent Rome. A renewed Church must prepare to live her mission in the space vacated by the modern bureaucratic State.

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and See full bio.

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  • Posted by: mary_conces3421 - May. 14, 2022 9:47 PM ET USA

    Good analysis! Judging by the bureaucracies that I've had to deal with lately (mainly at a state university),the disintegration has already begun. I think Christians are starting to mobilize, too; although we're not as accustomed to sacrifice as we should be. (At least, I'm not.) But, to Whom shall we go?

  • Posted by: CorneliusG - May. 14, 2022 5:16 AM ET USA

    Agree on all points, but what happens when the Church is infected with the exact same tendencies as civil society? In that case the salt has lost its savor and must be thrown out . . . .

  • Posted by: mickeminer - May. 13, 2022 9:15 PM ET USA

    Thank you for articulating so clearly what I have increasingly suspected for some years now.