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Max Weber And The Idea Of Bureaucracy

What is notable about the very idea of bureaucracy is its severe rational modernism. Political modernity and bureaucracy are largely symbiotic; the rise of the state paralleled the rise of the bureaucracy. One of the philosophers of the modern economizing state and the modern bureaucratic idea is Adam Smith (1723–1790), whose defense of the division of labor promoted the bureaucratization of the early Westphalian state. Indeed, Smith's ideas are elemental to Weber's core tenets of bureaucracy: the rigid division of responsibilities and tasks and the economization of organizational forms. Whereas Smith advocated the division of labor in order to promote efficient economic growth, Weber suggests the division of labor for the efficient production of goods or services. Inevitably, bureaucracy was conceived as, and has become, an economizing tool for the rationalization of complex and ambiguous environments.

The rationality of bureaucracy is a central idea within Weber's ideal type. In fact, Weber himself suggests that bureaucracy be a rational-legal form designed to promote the rationalization of organizational tasks and goals. The rationalizing tendency of bureaucracy, while being one of the elements most open to contemporary criticism, was also its most attractive quality for the architects of Enlightenment-guided governance, who sought alternatives to earlier forms of despotic and aristocratic dominance. The adoption of the bureaucratic form by theorists of liberal government has its roots in the legal protection of natural (rational) rights for all. In fact, embedded in the rationalization structure of bureaucracy is the elimination of particularism—the diminishment of universal individual rights for the sake of traditional forms of class or ethnic domination. Those responsible for the French Revolution pined, within their writings, for the rational nonexceptionalism of the bureaucratic form. Indeed, as Maximilien de Robespierre (1758–1794) and later Alexis de Tocqueville (1805–1859) identified, the ancien régime was epitomized by the irrational occupation of power by a centralized bureaucracy of the ruling class.

The products of mid-modern European thought on the liberalizing and economizing role of government produced the context in which Weber penned his essay "Bureaucracy." Within the essay he establishes the criteria elemental to the ideal bureaucracy. Foremost, he recommends that bureaucracy be the instrument of rational-legal authority, which he defines as that manner of authority "resting on a belief in the 'legality' of patterns of normative rules and the right of those elevated to authority under such rules to issue commands" (Scott, p. 44). This supplanted traditional forms of authority such as the sanctity of hereditary rule or charismatic authority such as the leadership of Napoleon. The bureaucratic organization of rational-legal authority involves the following necessary criteria: the specification of jurisdictional areas, the hierarchical organization of roles, a clear and intentionally established system of decision-making rules, the restriction of bureau property to use by the bureau, the compensation by salary (not spoils) of appointed officials, and the professionalization of the bureaucratic role into a tenured lifelong career. The idea of bureaucracy suggests that rules, norms, merit, regulations, and stability are paramount to the operation of government. The rule-bound nature of bureaucracy has been widely critiqued in modern political and sociological analyses; however, the number of alternative forms of organization that have received as much consideration is limited.

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