The Devil and the Bureaucrats

The word “bureaucracy” stands for a thing which is (secretly) quite popular – more than I ever would have guessed before making my inquiries. These inquiries have been made throughout my adult life, and in some cases they go back to childhood. (I was once a disagreeable member of the Boy Scouts.)

Everyone wanted to join the Scouts, but girls were not welcomed. We dressed, as boys exclusively, neglecting even to provide drag queens for the story hours, in uniforms with badges, kept neat and clean. We learned special salutes. Yes, it was a fascist organization, as any woke person must see today.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. I was only a Cub. Soon, I was allowed to leave, when I got my fill of Cubbish discipline and organized camping. I would hate for some reader, who made it to Scouts, to think I was trying to pull rank on him. For even some sixty years ago, my aspirations were modest. They favored freedom. I would get away.

I seem to remember being diagnosed with an “attitude problem,” though perhaps I am confusing several later diagnoses. I may not have been cured, for in a recent encounter with a “general practitioner” (of medicine) I received this diagnosis again. It was in return for my observation that “public health” was an immense, incompetent, tyrannical bureaucracy. (Let me give this colour: I live in Canada.)

On my way out of this doctor’s office, I was subject to a vision. I looking vaguely downhill to where, over the space of about two miles, two trolleys were presumably approaching. I was eager to step aboard one, to get home, but noticed that both had paused for red lights.

Some clever person had set the traffic signals to slow all vehicles, including the trolleys, to the pace of snails. If they obeyed one red light, they would meet red lights forward, all the way up. Although trolleys were numerous, there would be an interminable wait; just like I had experienced in the doctor’s office.

I decided upon one of my discouraging little surveys. From my place at the trolley stop, without moving, I counted how many street signs gave orders “that must be obeyed” in the neighborhood around me. Naturally, I soon lost count, and as I suffer from “attitude problems,” gave up the exercise prematurely. A trolley had still not arrived. Nor had I noticed a single entertaining sign.

Be assured, I do not intend to continue this memoir into any government office. But a news report, on the Biden government’s plan to hire 87,000 new tax auditors for the Internal Revenue Service, as part of an “Inflation Reduction Act,” reminds me of the scale of the problem. For the IRS was already larger than the U.S. Department of Defense, plus several other huge government bureaucracies.

These are of course formal bureaucracies, legally constituted, on a scale beyond the reach of human imagination. The people who work in them are paid well enough to keep them from migrating to productive jobs. They spend all their working time destroying productivity instead.


When we turn our attention to the many educational bureaucracies (I’m not counting actual teachers), and those governing all other aspects of daily life, we get a convincing glimpse of Hell: hundreds of millions who push paper for a living, or do something else essentially worthless.

The people love bureaucracy; or rather, they don’t. The word is received as an insult, by anyone who is identified as a bureaucrat, regardless how comfortably the definition fits. Somehow, the bureaucrat believes that everyone else is a bureaucrat. He imagines himself to be a special case.

He dreads having to deal with the various bureaucrats he must encounter in the course of his day, to get all his permissions and exemptions lined up, and avoid laws and regulations which, in Canada as in the United States, were written in “departments.”

In other words, in two of the best-established free democracies in the world, it is government of the bureaucrats, by the bureaucrats, for the bureaucrats – with no prospect that it will ever perish from the Earth.

My interest in this phenomenon is not political, however, except as politics enter into everything that is intrinsically boring. My interest is rather religious, specifically Christian, and Catholic. Though we’ve been accused of operating a bureaucracy, no one has yet accused Christ.

Searching for what could be the opposite of bureaucracy, I quickly descend on the term, “family.” You need a compendious pre-nup agreement to make family life into a procedural nightmare, and the destruction of family involves family law.

But resisting this is what we might call “the spirit of paternalism.” Or it would be more fashionable to call it “organic.” By custom, revised gradually through most centuries, family life remains off-paper (except in literature). Traditional family businesses, such as the farm, provided an extension of non-bureaucratic life, transcending even Economics.

All such enterprises tend to be invaded, as the Church itself tends to be invaded, by the agents of government bureaucracy. They operate with the authority of frequently rewritten laws. I am not aware of any theater of human activity in which custom, sanctioned by tradition, can stand up to legalism when a challenge is made.

Nevertheless, the world got along by custom including customary law, through most of its history, and justice was somehow occasionally obtained.

What is more telling is the waste of time. For time spent in the service of bureaucracy is time spent apart from God. It is not innocently wasted. For as American and most other societies have become bureaucratized, they have also become irreligious.

The effort once put into religious observance and devotion must now be “invested” in filling out tax forms and the hundred thousand other functions of the constantly expanding State.

In my view, the Devil must be in this.


*Image: Government Bureau by George Tooker, 1956 [The MET, New York]

You may also enjoy:

Anthony Esolen’s A Lifeless Pontifical Academy

Joseph R. Wood’s Satan Loves Safety

David Warren is a former editor of the Idler magazine and columnist in Canadian newspapers. He has extensive experience in the Near and Far East. His blog, Essays in Idleness, is now to be found at: