Bureaucrats: What Are They Good For?

Aeon Ideas

Socrates, while serving on the Athenian Council, sought to prevent it from making an illegal decision. Martin Luther, when a council convened by the Emperor Charles V in 1521 told him to recant, is said to have declared: ‘Here I stand; I can do no other.’ The United States’ attorney general Elliot Richardson and the deputy attorney general William D Ruckelshaus both chose to resign in 1973 rather than obey President Richard Nixon’s order to fire the special prosecutor investigating Watergate. More recently, the acting attorney general Sally Yates was fired after she announced that the US Department of Justice would not cooperate in enforcing President Donald Trump’s executive order against Muslim immigrants. They all said no. Each of them, for reasons of principle, opposed an order from a higher authority (or sought to prevent its issuance). They are exceptional figures, in extraordinary circumstances. Yet most of the time, the rule of law is more mundane: it depends on officials carrying out their ordinary duties within the purposes of the offices they hold, and on citizens obeying them. That is to say, the rule of law relies upon obedience by bureaucrats, and obedience of bureaucrats – but crucially, within the established norms of the state.

The ancient Greeks made no sharp distinction between political rulers and bureaucratic officials. They considered anyone in a position of constitutional authority as the holder of an office. The ancient Greek world did not have a modern bureaucracy but they did confront the question of respect for norms of office and of obedience to office-holders. Plato addresses these questions, in both the Republic and the Laws, in relation to the danger of usurpation of democracy by a budding tyrant.

Of course, Plato was no democrat. But he did recognise the value of liberty – most explicitly in the Laws, where he posited liberty, wisdom and friendship as the three values that ought to guide the work of government. Plato wanted to balance liberty with what we would call the rule of law. For him, that included not only obedience to the law, but also obedience to the officials who have to carry it out. In the Republic’s portrait of democracy (in some ways a caricature, to be sure), he warns against drinking liberty unmixed with obedience, likening it to wine unmixed with water – a serious social solecism for the ancient Greeks. Doing so, he thinks, can lead to a deterioration of the norms of political office. Too much liberty might lead to the point that a city ‘insults those who obey the rulers as willing slaves and good-for-nothings, and praises and honours, both in public and in private, rulers who behave like subjects and subjects who behave like rulers’ (translation by G.M.A. Grube revised by C.D.C. Reeve, in John M. Cooper (ed.) Plato. Complete Works (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1997)).

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