Hoffer on Scribes and Bureaucrats

Nothing is so unsettling to a social order as the presence of a mass of scribes without suitable employment and an acknowledged status…The explosive component in the contemporary scene is not the clamor of the masses but the self-righteous claims of a multitude of graduates from schools and universities. This army of scribes is clamoring for a society in which planning, regulation, and supervision are paramount and the prerogative of the educated. They hanker for the scribe’s golden age, for a return to something like the scribe-dominated societies of ancient Egypt, China, and the Europe of the Middle Ages. There is little doubt that the present trend in the new and renovated countries toward social regimentation stems partly from the need to create adequate employment for a large number of scribes…Obviously, a high ratio between the supervisory and the productive force spells economic inefficiency. Yet where social stability is an overriding need the economic waste involved in providing suitable positions for the educated might be an element of social efficiency.


It has often been stated that a social order is likely to be stable so long as it gives scope to talent. Actually, it is the ability to give scope to the untalented that is most vital in maintaining social stability…For there is a tendency in the untalented to divert their energies from their own development into the management, manipulation, and probably frustration of others. They want to police, instruct, guide, and meddle. In an adequate society, the untalented should be able to acquire a sense of usefulness and of growth without interfering with the development of talent around them. This requires, first, an abundance of opportunities for purposeful action and self-advancement. Secondly, a wide diffusion of technical and social skills so that people will be able to work and manage their affairs with a minimum of tutelage. The scribe mentality is best neutralized by canalizing energies into purposeful and useful pursuits, and by raising the cultural level of the whole population so as to blur the dividing line between the educated and the uneducated…We do not know enough to suit a social pattern to the realization of all the creative potentialities inherent in a population. But we do know that a scribe-dominated society is not optimal for the full unfolding of the creative mind.

–Eric Hoffer, The Ordeal of Change

(This essay was published in the late 1950s or early 1960s. Hoffer was talking here not principally about the United States but about what were then called “underdeveloped countries.”)

3 thoughts on “Hoffer on Scribes and Bureaucrats”

  1. Brilliant. This describes the “permit raj” in India as well as what is developing here- worthless credentialed people dedicated to interfering with those who can contribute to society.

    I think society would do well to be skeptical of intellectuals for the most part,since as a class they rarely can back up their claims.
    “An intellectual is someone who thinks that because a rose smells better than a cabbage,it will make soup” H.L.Mencken.

  2. “permit Raj”….I read the memoirs of a British sailor who spent some time in China, early 1800s IIRC. He noticed large numbers of Mandarins who seemed to be assigned to every productive activity ensuring that rules were followed and that most especially, taxes were collected.

    At Ricochet, Doug Kimball describes some new trucking regulations affecting his contracting business. No point in a direct link since it’s in the members-only section, but here’s an excerpt:

    “Suffice it to say, a small trucker will have a difficult if not impossible time of it. You need a staff of compliance experts, lawyers included, and lots of technology to stay in good stead. Now they have mandated that every carrier (and as a small contractor with two large trucks which sometimes cross state lines, I am such a carrier) any person who supervises drivers must take a special seminar on alcohol and drug awareness. So I must enroll in a class, that is pay to have some lackey drone on for four hours about drug and alcohol, impairment and the required DOT random testing program. (A small cottage industry has evolved to help truckers with their compliance and several provide this “seminar.”) As a fifty-seven year old man with an MBA, I can read the regulations. I’ve also known my share of drunks and addicts. I know how to recognize impairment.”

    Don Sensing cites de Tocqueville on the dangers of a government that:

    “… covers its surface with a network of small, complicated, painstaking, uniform rules through which the most original minds and the most vigorous souls cannot clear a way to surpass the crowd; it does not break wills, but it softens them, bends them and directs them; it rarely forces one to act, but it constantly opposes itself to one’s acting; it does not destroy, it prevents things from being born; it does not tyrannize, it hinders, compromises, enervates, extinguishes, dazes and finally reduces each nation to being nothing more than a herd of timid and industrial animals of which the government is the shepherd.”

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