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  • Summer Rerun—Hoffer on Scribes and Bureaucrats

    Posted by David Foster on September 22nd, 2019 (All posts by )

    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.”)

    (2019 update)  Also, Francis Bacon noted four hundred years ago that one reason for sedition and mutiny in any polity was breeding more scholars than preferment can take off…A modern translation of might be “graduating more PhDs than have any hope of getting tenure,” or, more generally, “graduating more people with degrees, and especially advanced degrees, than can use those degrees to pay for the cost of getting same.”

    The extended Bacon quote:  “Therefore the multiplying of nobility, and other degrees of quality, in an over proportion to the common people, doth speedily bring a state to necessity; and so doth likewise an overgrown clergy; for they bring nothing to the stock; and in like manner, when more are bred scholars, than preferments can take off.”


    5 Responses to “Summer Rerun—Hoffer on Scribes and Bureaucrats”

    1. Assistant Village Idiot Says:

      Pretty devastating comments. It describes a great deal of our current difficulty, doesn’t it?

    2. Mike K Says:

      We are over run with useless scribblers. I am listening again to Pat Buchanan’s book, “Nixon’s White House Wars.

      He points out that Walter Cronkite was almost the first to start the Watergate controversy. Buchanan had nothing to do with it but it is an interesting history.

      Trump will not be at risk because he is not as needy as Nixon was, which left him open to the enemies he had in the FBI.

    3. Gavin Longmuir Says:

      Joseph Tainter produced an interesting analysis in his book “The Collapse of Complex Societies” (Cambridge Uni Press, 1988). We tend to forget there have been many previous civilizations on the face of the planet, and (present company excluded) all have eventually collapsed.

      Tainter’s review of these failed civilizations suggests that all societies over time build up an excessive layer of non-productive overhead, in one form or another. Eventually, the cost of this growing overhead becomes unsustainable and leads to the failure of the society — either by simple collapse or by leaving it unable to resist external forces. But since the overhead people are effectively in charge of society and benefitting from the status quo, they are too resistant to any reduction in their numbers or privileges, even though this ultimately dooms themselves and their society.

      Tainter’s work provides evidence-based support for Bacon’s and Hoffer’s hypothesizing.

    4. Mike K Says:

      Tainter’s review of these failed civilizations suggests that all societies over time build up an excessive layer of non-productive overhead,

      My impression, probably very much like yours, is that complexity, because of the need to cope with many variables, wears out the leaders and they make fatal mistakes. Bureaucracies thrive on complexity.

      Probably the same thing.

    5. PubliusII Says:

      Mike K: “My impression, probably very much like yours, is that complexity, because of the need to cope with many variables, wears out the leaders and they make fatal mistakes. Bureaucracies thrive on complexity.”

      Not only are they worn out by the constant need to make decisions, the decisions they make are always too late.

      Bureaucracies are put in place to manage society and the economy. Yet because of the well-known knowledge problem (also known as the speed of information), the data needed to properly direct an economy arrives too late to be used by the managerial bureaucracy.

      Inevitably, the bureaucracy makes decisions and takes actions that are always out of step with reality because they are based on out-of-date information.

      This situation cannot be improved because (1) information can never travel instantaneously, and (2) reality is what happens on the periphery, while decisions are made centrally.

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