Module 12 Sections


Most people who serve in government never run for office or win an election; instead, they’re appointed by politicians or hired by the various departments and agencies that comprise the bureaucracy, which literally translated means “government by desks.” Jean Claude de Gourney, an eighteenth century French economist, coined the term in 1751 to critique the government of the French empire. Gourney observed then that low-level officials who held little actual power made many of the most important economic and political decisions in France. They would visit local areas, set up a desk (in French bureau), and govern on behalf of the King. The problem, however, was that they usually made decisions based on their own interests instead of the interests of the crown. Gourney mourned this “government by desks,” at the expense of the monarchy. While the modern understanding of bureaucracy has changed and matured significantly since Gourney’s time, in many ways, his critique is still rings true today.

The United States’ bureaucracy is massive, but the Framers of the Constitution said very little about its creation and nothing about its operation. Article II, Section 2 of the Constitution mentions departments within the executive branch twice, specifying that the President “may require the Opinion, in writing, of the principle Officer in each of the executive Departments,” and that Congress may enable “the Heads of Departments” to appoint “inferior Officers.” The Constitution never specifies, however, the role, size, or scope of these departments. George Washington hired the first bureaucrats when he took office in 1789. He appointed Thomas Jefferson as Secretary of State, Alexander Hamilton as Secretary of the Treasury, and Henry Knox as Secretary of War. Today, the executive branch alone employs over 1.9 million people.

To track how the United States’ bureaucracy has evolved organizationally, listen to the following podcasts from 60-Seconds Civics:


60-Second Civics: Episode 631, Administrative Agencies, Part 2: Creation and expansion

Now, listen to this podcast to learn more about the events that sparked changes within the United States’ bureaucracy:


60-Second Civics: Episode 638, Administrative Agencies, Part 9: Growth of the national bureaucracy

What is Bureaucracy?

Fig 12.1- State, War, & Navy Building.

The bureaucracies of Gourney’s France were fundamentally different from their modern counterparts. The governors “by desk” that he criticized were given directions by the king, but there was no codified system to regulate their behavior and duties. As state powers expanded in the 19th century, these states developed more technical, complicated systems of government. In the early 20th century, German sociologist Max Weber developed an extensive theory of how bureaucracies function and established three criteria for identifying a bureaucracy: reliance on a complicated division of labor, a clear chain of command, and the employment of experts who possessed the necessary training and expertise. Gourney’s bureaucracy was disorganized and unruly. By contrast, Weber described modern bureaucracies as a complicated machine in which experts act as cogs and screws, performing small, technical functions to facilitate governmental operations.

Weber envisioned bureaucracy as a meritocratic system. In a meritocracy, power is given to those with the most credentials and expertise. In Gourney’s France, government positions were given out as favors to political allies, regardless of their personal merit. By contrast, modern bureaucracies employ tests, educational criteria, and extensive training programs to determine who can serve, and in which positions, rather than relying solely on political allegiance. Weber’s ideal bureaucracy was apolitical; bureaucrats were only to carry out the designs of politicians instead of pursuing their own political designs. Weber saw bureaucrats, essentially, as pawns in a larger game played by politicians.

Today, scholars consider bureaucracy to be any technical organization that meets Weber’s criteria. The concept extends beyond government. Corporations, universities, and religious organizations have all developed complicated bureaucracies to facilitate administration. Their defining feature is systematization: the creation of consistent rules that govern how to make decisions and that are meant to apply equally to all people regardless of circumstance or context. For example, the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) is part of the American bureaucracy, and oversees the collection of taxes. Ideally, the IRS acts on systematized procedures that create rules for how all people are supposed to be taxed; its mandate is to act on those rules, regardless of circumstances. If someone fails to pay taxes, the IRS is charged with taking action based on the rules set forth by Congress, and the regulations set by the agency itself in pursuance of those rules. This pattern holds, ideally, for every bureaucratic agency.

To learn more about the authority of the IRS from Congress, listen to the following from 60-Second Civics:


60-Second Civics: Episode 636, Administrative Agencies, Part 7: The Internal Revenue Service

Though Weber’s criteria help with identification, bureaucracies develop and function differently in different contexts. No two bureaucracies are exactly alike. The American bureaucracy has four distinct features. The first is its division at the federal level among the different branches of government. The legislative, executive, and judicial branches have created various bureaucratic organizations that frequently overlap or compete with one another. Second, individual states have developed bureaucracies that share functions and responsibilities with federal bureaucracies. Third, American bureaucracy has a unique history, including its rapid expansion in the 20th century. Fourth, though American bureaucracies often regulate business, American bureaucratic organizations do not actually engage in economic production, unlike many of their counterparts in Western Europe, China, and Russia.

Throughout the 20th century, scholars became increasingly critical of Weber’s mechanistic explanation of bureaucracy, which stressed a depersonalized understanding of the phenomenon. Although Weber’s categories are still generally used to define and describe bureaucracy, contemporary analysis considers bureaucrats themselves as Gourney did, in many respects. They are, after all, human beings, with all the same sorts of motivations and temptations that both politicians and the general public have. The systematization of complicated bureaucracies may change the rules of the political game, but bureaucrats are nonetheless players of the game themselves, not just pawns. Procedural rules do not dictate the behavior of bureaucrats; they merely define the constraints under which they operate.

Governing is complicated, and elected officials don’t have the time, energy, or resources to undertake all of the responsibilities associated with governance. Over time, this has led to the growth of a massive bureaucratic system filled with technical “experts” tasked with facilitating governance. This came about through a process of evolution rather than design. Listen to this podcast from 60-Second Civics:


60-Second Civics: Episode 636, Administrative Agencies, Part 7: The Internal Revenue Service

Development of the American Bureaucracy

Fig 12.2- President Lincoln and his cabinet

George Washington created three departments at the outset of his presidency: the State Department, the Treasury Department, and the War Department. He promised that he would hire people “as shall best be qualified”—by merit—to lead and run these departments, choosing Jefferson, Hamilton, and Knox, respectively. The responsibilities he gave the departments were quite limited, and remained so for the next hundred years. The State Department employed only a handful of diplomats. The Treasury Department employed the most people, hiring many to collect taxes, manage debt, and run the national bank. The War Department had only about 80 employees by 1800 to oversee its few thousand soldiers.

Washington’s meritocratic precedent was quickly replaced by a system of patronage. Thomas Jefferson, for example, fired all the officials from the Federalist Party and replaced them with people from his own party upon entering office. This trend continued and became known as the “spoils system,” the best example of which was Andrew Jackson’s “kitchen cabinet.” After taking office in 1829, Jackson appointed only his friends to cabinet positions as political favors, and would council with unofficial, more qualified advisors in his kitchen at night.

The size of each of the three original departments grew slowly over the next hundred years. Surprisingly, the largest growth occurred in the Postal Service, which was established by the Congressional Postal Service Act of 1792 and then grew rapidly to meet the demands of American territorial expansion. In only twenty-five years between 1816 and 1841, the number of people employed by the postal service grew from 3,341 to 14,290. These employees, however, can’t be considered truly bureaucratic because they performed a service rather than making political decisions. America’s political bureaucracy began to expand in earnest in the late 19th century.

Multiple new federal departments were created in the mid-to-late 19th century, including the Department of Interior in 1842, Department of Agriculture in 1862, and Department of Justice in 1870. In the 1870s, Americans became increasingly concerned about the influence of the spoils system on their growing bureaucracy. Politicians took no action to remedy the situation, however, until Charles Guiteau assassinated President James Garfield in 1881. Guiteau had become angry when he was refused a position in America’s French Consulate. Garfield’s death finally brought congressional action. In 1883, Congress passed the Pendleton Civil Service Reform Act, which required that government jobs be awarded by merit instead of political affiliation or patronage. From that point forward, a growing number of civil service jobs required that applicants have specific education and work experience, or that they pass qualifying examinations. By the time President Grover Cleveland came to office in 1881, there were 95,000 federal civilian officials in an increasingly meritocratic bureaucracy.

To learn more about civil service reform, listen to the following from 60-Second Civics:


60-Second Civics: Episode 640, Administrative Agencies, Part 11: The civil service

Bureaucratic growth was heightened at the outset of the 20th century. After his 1912 inauguration, President Woodrow Wilson oversaw the most rapid bureaucratic growth in America’s history to that point. In 1913-14, he signed three laws which both created new and powerful federal agencies like the Federal Trade Commission and Federal Reserve, and expanded federal power with the Clayton Antitrust Act. This law allowed the federal government to regulate private industry and necessitated the hiring of more bureaucrats to fulfill its expanded regulatory needs. During World War I, with the creation of nearly 5,000 new but temporary federal agencies charged with producing the needed resources for the war, an unprecedented bureaucratic growth occurred. This foreshadowed an even greater expansion in the coming decades.

Among President Wilson’s most important contributions to American bureaucracy was his interpretation of the difference between politics and bureaucratic administration. During his career as a political scientist prior to his 1912 election, Wilson had developed a theory of the relationship between politics and administration, which he detailed in an 1887 essay titled, “The Study of Administration.” Wilson held that administration and politics are inherently different, and ought to be treated as such. He wrote, “The field of administration is a field of business. It is removed from the hurry and strife of politics,” and that “[a]dministration lies outside the proper sphere of politics. Administrative questions are not political questions.” This meant that once a legislative bill became law, the bureaucratic agencies that saw to its implementation and enforcement should operate as businesses would. As attractive as this reasoning might first appear, business operates in pursuit of profit. But bureaucratic officials have no profit motive; instead, they are often incentivized to lobby for higher budgets and more extensive powers at the expense of taxpayers.

You can read President, then Professor Wilson’s essay here:

After his time as president, Wilson’s logic guided the development of new laws that reformed the civil service, such as the Hatch Act of 1939. To learn more about the Hatch Act, listen to the following from 60-Second Civics:


60-Second Civics: Episode 641, Administrative Agencies, Part 12: The Hatch Act

Influenced by Wilsonian interpretations of administration, bureaucratic growth again reached an all time high during President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s first term beginning in 1933. The country was suffering through the Great Depression, and FDR sought to revive the nation by focusing the “three Rs”: recovery, relief and reform. To do this, he signed a number of laws and executive orders, known collectively as the New Deal. A number of new agencies and social programs were created as a result, including the Federal Emergency Relief Administration, the Civilian Conservation Corps, the Agricultural Adjustment Administration, the Public Works Administration, National Recovery Administration, and the Tennessee Valley Authority. Rapid expansion continued under FDR throughout the duration of the New Deal until the late 1930s and throughout WWII. During FDR’s three terms (he died just four months into his fourth term), the number of federal employees rose from roughly half a million to about 3.2 million.

After the end of the Second World War, the size of the federal bureaucracy shrunk to around 2 million employees. The subsequent decades, however, saw that number return to around 3 million under the policies of the Kennedy and Johnson Administrations. While the size of the bureaucracy has remained relatively stable since then, the scope of its powers have greatly expanded, most notably with the 2002 creation of the Department of Homeland Security and expansions of the National Security Administration. Today, bureaucrats guide the development and implementation of policies that influence all walks of life in America, from education and agriculture to domestic espionage and tax collection.

For an organizational review of America’s bureaucracy watch the following:


Bureaucracy in American Politics

The power of America’s current bureaucracy is evident in its role in shaping and carrying out legislative acts. Experts argue that American legislation is the result of an “Iron Triangle” of competition and cooperation between special interests, bureaucrats, and elected officials. Bureaucrats cultivate relationships with special interest groups like the American Farm Bureau Federation or National Rifle Association, to gain access to valuable statistics and private industry information. Bureaucracies and interest groups both independently develop relationships with elected officials, either cooperating or competing to influence legislative debates. This triangular relationship affects each stage of the legislative process, from the formulation of ideas to their final implementation.

The Iron Triangle has produced a highly complicated system of governance than no one person understands completely. Each year, the Office of the Federal Register prints out the laws, administrative codes, and regulations passed by Congress and federal bureaucratic agencies. The Federal Register for the year 1936 was a little over 20,000 pages long. By 1966, the yearly total was closer to 80,000 pages, where it has remained almost each year since. Because no single person can read and retain that much information, the various laws and administrative codes are often contradictory, creating loopholes that special interests and bureaucrats can both use to subvert the political process and evade accountability to the American people.

The upshot of all of this is that the American people are highly regulated, which is something that, by definition, undermines their individual liberties. Consider the fundamental tension between regulation and public order, and individual liberty as you watch this video:


The Iron Triangle explains how the bureaucracy functions politically, but doesn’t explain why it grows. While much of the initial growth of the American bureaucracy was a result of legislative mandate, such as those which occurred during the presidencies of Woodrow Wilson and FDR, bureaucracies also grow internally as they mature over time. Parkinson’s Law and the concept of bureaucratic inertia help to explain why this internal growth occurs.

Cyril Northcote Parkinson opened a November 1955 article in The Economist with a simple formulation. “It is a commonplace observation,” he wrote, “that work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.” He applied this concept to politics, arguing that the rise in the number of bureaucrats didn’t actually reflect the amount of work being accomplished. Instead, Parkinson held that bureaucracies expand to fill the roles granted to them no matter the amount of useful work accomplished. His observations are known today as Parkinson’s Law, which explains bureaucratic growth as the result of unnecessary processes and policies created to keep everyone busy, such as multiple layers of authorization and editing. According to Parkinson, it can be expected from this cycle that public firms grow between 5-7% annually “irrespective of any variation in the amount of work (if any) to be done.”

Bureaucracies also grow due to their own inertia. Bureaucratic inertia describes the tendency of administrative institutions to complicate their operations at the expense of accomplishing their original goals. The more complicated procedural frameworks become, the more time it will take to negotiate those procedures, which in turn means it will be more difficult for the bureaucracy to achieve the ends it was designed to pursue in the first place. Bureaucratic growth results.

Watch this video to learn about various means used to limit the power and growth of bureaucracies:


Together, the Iron Triangle, Parkinson’s Law, and the concept of bureaucratic inertia explain how the bureaucracy fits into current American politics and why it continues to grow. Unlike the technical meritocracy described by Weber, America’s bureaucracy is an idiosyncratic assortment of political players, each working to advance personal and institutional interests, often at the expense of the American public.

To get an idea of how politics continues to guide the bureaucracy, listen to the following from 60-Second Civics:


60-Second Civics: Episode 642, Administrative Agencies, Part 13: Presidential appointees to federal agencies

America’s bureaucracy is often called its “fourth branch of government.” Unlike the other branches of government, though, its design was not predetermined by constitutional mandate, but by a slow evolution that involved all three branches of the federal government, not to mention the influence of myriad private interests. While Weber compared bureaucracy to a machine and Wilson held that it should function like private business, the bureaucracy is deeply entrenched in politics, acts in the interests of the people who comprise it, and faces fundamentally different incentives than any other type of organization or institution, public or private.

You can get a sense of how pervasive the American regulatory regime has become by considering water regulation, especially in the American West, where water is a scarce resource. Access to water determines, in no small part, how, or even if any number of people make their living. Watch the following video:

There are times, rare though they may be, when things break in the opposite direction. One of those times was when the airline industry was deregulated in the 1980s. Have a look at this video to see what sometimes happens when entire industries are deregulated:

And finally, it is often the case that regulations, and the bureaucracies that implement them, address problems that could have been addressed by markets instead. Here is Professor Randy Simmons addressing government failure and market failure, and the possibility that government ought not always be the first answer to every problem for a number of reasons that are often not fully considered as policy is made, but are often felt when bureaucracies implement those policies:



  • Watch the video clip “Are We Safer” at this link: After the video, answer the following questions in 1-2 paragraphs per question: Why have federal agencies such as the NSA grown in size, scope, and power since September 11, 2001? What are the potential risks and/or benefits associated with this growth? Has this growth in government made citizens safer? What controls/oversight, if any, should be placed on intelligence agencies?
Key Concepts and Topics:
  • American bureaucracy
  • Executive departments
  • Max Weber’s vision of bureaucracy
  • Spoils system
  • Civil Service reform
  • Wilson’s public administration ideal
  • FDR and the New Deal
  • Iron Triangle
  • Parkinson’s Law
Curriculum Resources


  • Watch the video clip “Are We Safer” at this link: After the video, answer the following questions in 1-2 paragraphs per question: Why have federal agencies such as the NSA grown in size, scope, and power since September 11, 2001? What are the potential risks and/or benefits associated with this growth? Has this growth in government made citizens safer? What controls/oversight, if any, should be placed on intelligence agencies?

Fig 12.1
State, War, & Navy Building. Harris & Ewing Collection at the Library of Congress.

Fig 12.2
President Lincoln and his cabinet in F.B. Carpenter’s First Reading of the Emancipation Proclamation of President Lincoln (1864).

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