Front Page Titles (by Subject) 2.: Bureaucratic Complacency - Bureaucracy
The Online Library of Liberty
A project of Liberty Fund, Inc.
Search this Title:
2.: Bureaucratic Complacency - Ludwig von Mises, Bureaucracy 
Bureaucracy, edited and with a Foreword by Bettina Bien Greaves (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2007).
About Liberty Fund:
Liberty Fund, Inc. is a private, educational foundation established to encourage the study of the ideal of a society of free and responsible individuals.
The copyright to this edition, in both print and electronic forms, is held by Liberty Fund, Inc.
Fair use statement:
This material is put online to further the educational goals of Liberty Fund, Inc. Unless otherwise stated in the Copyright Information section above, this material may be used freely for educational and academic purposes. It may not be used in any way for profit.
The officeholder’s task is to serve the public. His office has been established—directly or indirectly—by a legislative act and by the allocation of the means necessary for its support in the budget. He executes the laws of his country. In performing his duties he shows himself a useful member of the community, even if the laws which he has to put into practice are detrimental to the commonweal. For it is not he who is responsible for their inadequacy. The sovereign people is to blame, not the faithful executor of the people’s will. As the distillers are not responsible for people getting drunk, so the government’s clerks are not responsible for the undesirable consequences of unwise laws.
On the other hand, it is not the merit of the bureaucrats that many benefits are derived from their actions. That the police department’s work is so efficient that the citizens are fairly well protected against murder, robbery, and theft does not oblige the rest of the people to be more grateful to the police officers than to any other fellow citizens rendering useful services. The police officer and the fireman have no better claim to the public’s gratitude than the doctors, the railroad engineers, the welders, the sailors, or the manufacturers of any useful commodity. The traffic cop has no more cause for conceit than the manufacturer of traffic lights. It is not his merit that his superiors assigned him to a duty in which he daily and hourly prevents accidental killing and thus saves many people’s lives.
It is true that society could not do without the services rendered by patrolmen, tax collectors, and clerks of the courts. But it is no less true that everyone would suffer great damage if there were no scavengers, chimney sweepers, dishwashers, and bug exterminators. Within the framework of social cooperation every citizen depends on the services rendered by all his fellow citizens. The great surgeon and the eminent musician would never have been able to concentrate all their efforts upon surgery and music if the division of labor had not freed them from the necessity of taking care of many trifles the performance of which would have prevented them from becoming perfect specialists. The ambassador and the lighthouse keeper have no better claim to the epithet pillar of society than the Pullman porter and the charwoman. For, under the division of labor, the structure of society rests on the shoulders of all men and women.
There are, of course, men and women serving in an altruistic and entirely detached way. Mankind would never have reached the present state of civilization without heroism and self-sacrifice on the part of an elite. Every step forward on the way toward an improvement of moral conditions has been an achievement of men who were ready to sacrifice their own well-being, their health, and their lives for the sake of a cause that they considered just and beneficial. They did what they considered their duty without bothering whether they themselves would not be victimized. These people did not work for the sake of reward, they served their cause unto death.
It was a purposeful confusion on the part of the German metaphysicians of statolatry that they clothed all men in the government service with the gloriole of such altruistic self-sacrifice. From the writings of the German etatists the civil servant emerges as a saintly being, a sort of monk who forsook all earthly pleasures and all personal happiness in order to serve, to the best of his abilities, God’s lieutenant, once the Hohenzollern king and today the Führer. The Staatsbeamte does not work for pay because no salary however large could be considered an adequate reward for the invaluable and priceless benefits that society derives from his self-denying sacrifice. Society owes him not pay but a maintenance adequate to his rank in the official hierarchy. It is a misnomer to call this maintenance a salary.2 Only liberals, biased by the prejudices and errors of commercialism, use such a wrong term. If the Beamtengehalt (the civil servant’s salary) were a real salary, it would be only just and natural to give the holder of the most modest office an income higher than that of anybody outside of the official hierarchy. Every civil servant is, when on duty, a mandatory of the State’s sovereignty and infallibility. His testimony in court counts more than that of the layman.
All this was sheer nonsense. In all countries most people joined the staff of the government offices because the salary and the pension offered were higher than what they could expect to earn in other occupations. They did not renounce anything in serving the government. Civil service was for them the most profitable job they could find.
The incentive offered by the civil service in Europe consisted not only in the level of the salary and the pension; many applicants, and not the best ones, were attracted by the ease of the work and by the security. As a rule government jobs were less exigent than those in business. Besides, the appointments were for life. An employee could be dismissed only when a kind of judicial trial had found him guilty of heinous neglect of his duties. In Germany, Russia, and France, every year many thousands of boys whose life plan was completely fixed entered the lowest grade of the system of secondary education. They would take their degrees, they would get a job in one of the many departments, they would serve thirty or forty years, and then retire with a pension. Life had no surprises and no sensations for them, everything was plain and known beforehand.
The difference between the social prestige of government jobs in continental Europe and in America may be illustrated by an example. In Europe social and political discrimination against a minority group took the form of barring such people from access to all government jobs, no matter how modest the position and the salary. In Germany, in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and in many other countries all those subordinate jobs that did not require special abilities or training—like attendants, ushers, heralds, beadles, apparitors, messengers, janitors— were legally reserved for ex-soldiers who had voluntarily given more years of active service in the armed forces than the minimum required by the law. These jobs were considered highly valued rewards for noncommissioned officers. In the eyes of the people, it was a privilege to serve as an attendant in a bureau. If in Germany there had been a class of the social status of the American Negro, such persons would never have ventured to apply for one of these jobs. They would have known that such an ambition was extravagant for them.
[2. ]Cf. Laband, Das Staatsrecht des Deutschen Reiches (5th ed. Tübingen, 1911), I, 500.