What is bureaucracy?

The term ‘bureaucracy’ is a specific one that has changed over the years, and today encompasses a range of meanings and connotations.

The original meaning of bureaucracy is “a body of non-elective government officials” that makes policy decisions.

Today bureaucracy has taken on several more meanings, from ‘pen-pushers’, faceless civil servants, to government department people (bureaucrats) we have to meet who do things very slowly and with condescension or even disdain. Put simply, bureaucracy has also become a derogatory term.

Red tapeThe term ‘red tape’ refers to many rules, regulations and paperwork, i.e. bureaucracy, that appear to be nothing more than obstacles to getting things done.

Even in large companies, which are in the private sector and supposedly efficient, the sheer size of some of their departments are associated with bureaucracy. How often have we heard when nearing the conclusion of a deal with a large multinational “As soon as the legal department approves this, we can go ahead”?

People outside the company and also within may sometimes become frustrated with bureaucratic procedures of certain departments.


Merriam-Webster defines bureaucracy as:

“a large group of people who are involved in running a government but who are not elected,” and “a system of government or business that has many complicated rules and ways of doing things.”

The English term ‘bureaucracy’ comes from the French word bureau – office or desk – and the Greek word kratos – political power or rule. Historians say it was first used by Jackes Claude Marie Vincent de Gournay (1712-1759), a French economist, who also coined the phrase laissez faire.

Bureaucracy first used in English in the 19th century

According to Miriam-Webster, bureaucracy was first used in the English language in 1818. The meaning then referred to a system of authority in which positions were held by unelected career officials, usually subservient to the monarch.

Karl Emil Maximilian “Max” Weber (1864-1920), a sociologist, philosopher, and political economist, cited by many as one of the key founding creators of sociology, expanded the meaning of bureaucracy to include “any system of administration conducted by trained professionals according to fixed rules.” He had a positive view of bureaucracy.

Ludwig Heinrich Edler von Mises (1881-1973), an Austrian economist, said that the term bureaucracy “is always applied with an opprobrious (scornful) connotation.”

In 1957, Robert King Merton (1910-2003), and American who taught sociology at Columbia University, said that the term bureaucrat had become an epithet.

The meanings of ‘bureaucracy’

Bureaucracy has the following meanings:

  • A body of government officials whose jobs are filled by appointment rather than by election (a nonelective office).
  • An administrative group that makes policy decisions.
  • A system of government in which the majority of key decisions are made by state officials rather than by elected representatives.
  • A government characterized by specialization of functions, adherence to fixed rules, and a hierarchy of authority.
  • A system of administration characterized by red tape, officialism, routine and intransigence.

Do we need bureaucracy?

If by bureaucracy we mean civil servants or federal/state employees, we most definitely do. Without them we would have no functioning hospitals, street lighting, state schools, refuse collections, plus hundreds of others essential services and infrastructure components. Put simply, without bureaucracy everything would grind to a halt.

No government, no matter how laissez faire its elected representatives might be, could function without bureaucracy. In the USA people occasionally have a taste of what happens when federal employees are furloughed (laid off) because Congress cannot agree on raising the debt. We have seen 16-day government shutdowns. Imagine one that never ended!

Video – Bureaucracy Basics