Edward T. Hall on Bureaucracy: “no soul, no memory, and no conscience …”

A key factor in explaining the sad state of American education can be found in overbureaucratization, which is seen in the compulsion to consolidate our public schools into massive factories and to increase to mammoth size our universities even in underpopulated states. The problem with bureaucracies is that they have to work hard and long to keep from substituting self-serving survival and growth for their original primary objective. Few succeed. Bureaucracies have no soul, no memory, and no conscience. If there is a single stumbling block on the road to the future, it is the bureaucracy as we know it.
Bureaucratic and institutional irrationality occur because, of all man’s institutions, bureaucracy in all cultures has a tremendous potential to be counterproductive. This drive toward inefficiency may be a direct consequence of blind adherence to procedure, but it also stems from bureaucratic needs for self-preservation and a vulnerability to pressure groups. The combination is unbeatable.
By their very nature bureaucracies have no conscience, no memory and no mind. They are self-serving, amoral and live forever. What could be more irrational? Changing them is almost impossible, because they function according to their own rules and bow to no man, not even the President of the United States. Custom, human frailties, and the will to power keep our bureaucracies going. … Paradoxically, most bureaucracies are staffed largely with conscientious, committed people who are trying to do the right thing, but they are powerless (or feel powerless) to change things. None of which would be so serious if it weren’t that these are the very institutions on which we depend to solve all our major problems. Some answer must be found to bureaucracy. It is not social injustice capitalized upon by political leaders that causes revolutions. It is when bureaucracies become so top heavy and inefficient that they are incapable of serving the needs of the people, that governments fall.

(Emphasis added.)

Beyond Culture (1976), Edward T. Hall

This article provides an overview of Hall’s thought.

Edward T. Hall’s Beyond Culture was cited by Jonathan Fletcher in his excellent essay Culture-mapping: A framework for understanding international B2b decision-making, which I discussed in this post.

Bureaucracy on the life-destroying scale described by Edward T. Hall is an industrial era phenomenon. Only a bureaucracy can turn ordinary, decent people into participants in gigantic atrocities that go on and on, and absolve the people who operate the government machine from personal responsibility for the consequences.

In America 3.0 Jim Bennett and I refer to Industrial Era America as “America 2.0” — an era which is ending, and a new post-bureaucratic, post-industrial era, America 3.0, is struggling to born. Edward T. Hall helps us see that there is a lot about the old world that will not be missed.

11 thoughts on “Edward T. Hall on Bureaucracy: “no soul, no memory, and no conscience …””

  1. “Some answer must be found to bureaucracy.” A previous notable example was called The Fall of the Roman Empire.

  2. “Paradoxically, most bureaucracies are staffed largely with conscientious, committed people who are trying to do the right thing,”

    Theodore Dalrymple has an excellent essay on The Uses of Corruption.

    Where the state looms large in everyone’s life, a degree of corruption exerts a beneficial effect upon the character of the people. Only up to a point, of course: when the state is all-embracing and official corruption becomes total, both together stifle wealth creation, and general impoverishment results.

    He points out where British bureaucracy has become a burden.

    In Britain, by contrast, the financial probity of the public administration, a legacy of the Victorian era (in which the state hardly impinged on the lives of individuals at all) misled people into a fatal misapprehension. They supposed that, because no public official ever asked for or expected a bribe, or could be easily swayed by other forms of illicit influence, public officials actually worked both for the public good and the good of individuals. People therefore came to believe in the beneficence, or at least the benevolent neutrality, of the state. Its officials were honest and fair, and therefore it was good.

    It is the lack of corruption which is nearly fatal. We are in a transition zone where corruption favors the bureaucracy and its supporters.

  3. Free competition is always a good antidote to bureaucracy. I can shop for a school I like, both from performance and school culture and cost viewpoints. If I’m dissatisfied, I can change. I am not a hostage to them. I’m buying a service from them. They are forced to compete for business or cease to exist.

    “Depend upon it, sir, when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully.” ~Samuel Johnson

  4. One antidote to bureaucracy is free competition. as Michael H said. Another is top management seriously committed to de-bureaucratization…one CEO of my acquaintance referred to “playing whack-a-mole” against incipient outbreaks of bureaucracy. A third is providing appropriate levels of individual discretion to people throughout the organization, rather than excessive Taylorization. Finally. good organization-structure design is very important. For example, put together a company with a centralized engineering organization serving multiple business units and I guarantee you that you will get more bureaucratic behavior than if each business unit has its own engineering group.

    Government organizations are *inherently* more bureaucratic than private-sector organizations….as Peter Drucker pointed out, you have a choice between making it “a government of printed forms,” resulting in great inefficiency and Kafkaesque behavior, or allowing more employee and manager discretion…which, given the inherent power of government. is dangerous from the standpoints both of individual rights and of corruption-avoidance.

  5. The founding documents of the US were designed to make the government the servant of the people; the government, and specifically the bureaucracy, has worked to reverse that ever since. Just a nibble here and there mind you, with the best intentions of course, but the outcome is the same.

  6. It may be he had enough trust fund money and lack of responsibilities that how the real world works and real world consequences never intrude on his life. You see this a lot.

  7. The solution to an over-engorged bureaucratic state is to starve it of resources and powers, to whittle it down until it, and therefore its cadres, has a strictly limited list of duties, authorities, and responsibilities.

    This was clearly the intent of the Constitution, which was designed as a set of limits, indeed, chains, on the scope and power of the state and its minions.

    The progressive, collectivist, statist movements in our politics and culture have managed to turn that purpose on its head, and now use the Constitution to justify expansive state powers, or simply ignore it altogether, and do whatever they believe to be expedient.

    The first step is to revoke the pernicious idea of the state having various responsibilities for every aspect of our lives, and to reclaim those responsibilities for ourselves as independent, adult citizens.

    It is common, and understandable, that people think of freedom and liberty as open fields, allowing the citizen to run free and pursue his or her own path through life, and, indeed, that is an important aspect of the concept of “being free”.

    However, an equally significant meaning of being a free citizen is that that condition involves, and requires, the assumption of enormous responsibilities for oneself, one’s family, and one’s community.

    The siren song of the allegedly caring, collectivist state is that its various organs and cadres are ready, willing, and able to take some of those many responsibilities off the shoulders of the poor, bewildered, confused citizenry, and perform all sorts of tasks so the ordinary citizen doesn’t have to bother with all that burdensome stuff any longer.

    But it is the responsibility to make informed decisions regarding one’s own life, and for the welfare of one’s family and community, that forms one of the most fundamental building blocks upon which a free life as an independent person is built.

    It is the glory of the free man and woman that they are responsible for themselves, not some terrible burden which should be given over to the first politician who comes oiling down the campaign trail promising this benefit or that goodie in exchange for the citizens’ votes.

    We, as a nation and a society, have brought this current administrative authoritarianism down upon ourselves through our own intellectual and moral laziness, and dereliction in one of our most basic duties—to remain free, we must act as free citizens, not frightened children.

    It will be a long, slow, ugly process to dismantle this frankenstein creation we have allowed to take life, and run wild across the land, requiring all the dedication, intellectual and moral coherence, and courage we can muster. But it must be done.

    The “sunlit uplands” of which a great man once spoke are only open to the free and independent minds and hearts of citizens who know themselves as deserving of liberty, and demand it with each breath they take.

  8. Lexington Green

    Well, you can’t hold a dead man responsible for the idiocy of his adult grandchildren

    No, you cannot. Rags to riches to rags back again in three generations. Or something like that.

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