Wednesday, February 23, 2005


Portrait of a Bureaucrat

Balzac, Le Père Goriot (tr. Ellen Marriage):
There is a race of quill-drivers, confined in the columns of the budget between the first degree of latitude (a kind of administrative Greenland where the salaries begin at twelve hundred francs) to the third degree, a more temperate zone, where incomes grow from three to six thousand francs, a climate where the bonus flourishes like a half-hardy annual in spite of some difficulties of culture.

A characteristic trait that best reveals the feeble narrow-mindedness of these inhabitants of petty officialdom is a kind of involuntary, mechanical, and instinctive reverence for the Grand Lama of every Ministry, known to the rank and file only by his signature (an illegible scrawl) and by his title -- "His Excellency Monseigneur le Ministre," five words which produce as much effect as the il Bondo Cani of the Calife de Bagdad, five words which in the eyes of this low order of intelligence represent a sacred power from which there is no appeal.

The Minister is administratively infallible for the clerks in the employ of the Government, as the Pope is infallible for good Catholics. Something of his peculiar radiance invests everything he does or says, or that is said or done in his name; the robe of office covers everything and legalizes everything done by his orders; does not his very title -- His Excellency -- vouch for the purity of his intentions and the righteousness of his will, and serve as a sort of passport and introduction to ideas that otherwise would not be entertained for a moment? Pronounce the words "his Excellency," and these poor folk will forthwith proceed to do what they would not do for their own interests.

Passive obedience is as well known in a Government department as in the army itself; and the administrative system silences consciences, annihilates the individual, and ends (give it time enough) by fashioning a man into a vice or a thumbscrew, and he becomes part of the machinery of Government.
This type thrives in the corporate world as well as in government.

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