Bureaucrats are terrible. The alternatives are worse.
Two cheers for the pencil pushers!
No one likes bureaucracies. Just think of the adjectives we use to describe them: They are bloated, cumbersome, stifling, and impersonal, while the bureaucrats themselves are faceless, entrenched, and unelected.
This is unfortunate. It's true that dealing with bureaucracies can be extremely irritating, and they can make mistakes, sometimes big ones. The trouble is that the alternatives are usually worse — and we're far too inclined to forget it.
For much of human history, societies have been unapologetically organized to benefit those in positions of political power. Practically speaking, this meant that patronage was the rule. Whether you and your family personally benefitted from the distribution of social and economic goods — land, work, trade, and so forth — was a function of what party, faction, or class you belonged to, and whether its members controlled the political levers of power.
This is what political scientists call clientelism. Usually the term is used as a technical synonym for what most non-specialists would call simple corruption — that is, a situation in which favoritism and bribery are taken for granted and treated as perfectly normal.
Things get somewhat confused when scholars apply the concept to the developing world, where clientelistic arrangements are more common than they are in the liberal democracies of the contemporary West. This makes it appear that petty corruption is unusual or a product of a pathology uniquely afflicting certain regions of the globe when it's actually the West that's the outlier.
The reason that clientelism stands out to us is that the liberal democracies of the West have worked very hard over the last century or so to replace this way of organizing society with an alternative based on bureaucratic norms. Bureaucrats allocate and distribute benefits and goods based not on who you know, what class or party you belong to, or which official you're willing to bribe, but based instead on officially sanctioned standards of fairness and merit. And the bureaucratic adherence to these standards is assured by insulating those who work in them, as much as possible, from political influence. (That's how we get "unelected bureaucrats.")
All things being equal, this is a huge improvement over the clientelistic baseline. It institutionalizes the rule of law, regularizes what government does, makes it more likely that citizens will get treated equally, and minimizes the ability of those who win elections from using their power to benefit themselves and their supporters at the expense of other members of the political community. This is why powerful institutions such as the International Monetary Fund and World Bank tend to demand that developing countries commit to reforms that will move them in this direction as a condition of receiving loans and others forms of economic support.
But not everyone is happy with the bureaucratic revolution in government. The populist-nationalist insurgency of the past decade has been motivated in part by the conviction that certain members of the body politic lose out when bureaucratic norms and expectations take hold. Angry on behalf of these voters (or perhaps just irritated at their own inability to game the system for their personal advantage), populist politicians have acted to sabotage (or just work around) bureaucratic norms and institutions in favor of reviving something much closer to clientelism.
This is what Donald Trump was doing when he and senior members of his administration attacked career civil servants in the State Department, Justice Department, and other arms of the federal bureaucracy and sought to replace them with political appointees. Trump was doing the same thing when during and following natural disasters he would refuse to help, or drag his feet in providing aid to, states that didn't vote for him in 2016. Or when he reportedly rerouted a Navy hospital ship in the early days of the pandemic because one governor complimented him publicly and another governor did not. In all these cases Trump was acting like a patron handing out or withholding favors instead of like the head of a bureaucratic branch of government intended to serve all Americans equally, regardless of their partisan commitments.
This is bad — a deliberate attempt to make government more corrupt, less even-handed, more subject to the whims and petty grievances of elected officials, and more inclined to favor the party, faction, or class of the people in power over the citizenry at large.
But that doesn't mean that we should oversell the virtues of a system that runs according to bureaucratic rationality. One reason populists have been able to get large numbers of people to vote for them is that bureaucracies are only as intelligent and disinterested as the people who run them — and even when smart, public-spirited civil servants are in charge, they can get bogged down in the very rules they follow in order to ensure fairness, and be led off track by the priorities of political appointees who usually set their agendas.
We can see this very clearly in Europe, where the COVID-19 vaccine rollout has been shockingly slow — primarily because the work of arranging distribution throughout the continent was put in the hands of bureaucratic agencies at the level of the European Union, where regulations made it impossible for the task to be accomplished nimbly. On top of that, these same bureaucrats chose to prioritize negotiating a low price for the vaccines over speed of acquiring doses — even though the cost in lives and economic stagnation from the ongoing pandemic is far greater.
The U.S. is doing better. Hampered somewhat by the Trump administration's decision to hand off early vaccine supply to states, which resulted in a wide range of plans and rules for distribution (along with big differences in speed and efficiency from region to region across the country), the Biden administration has mainly been working to vastly increase supply in the hope that this will help to raise daily dosage totals. But with states and localities still making most of the decisions about who, where, when, and how to vaccinate, this looks likely to remain out of the president's hands and a function, at least in part, of how many bureaucratic hoops officials, doctors, nurses, drug stores, pharmaceutical companies, citizens, and other stakeholders are made to jump through.
Would the vaccination process be going faster if we had a virtuous team of experts running the show from Washington, able to make quick decisions to accelerate distribution in the knowledge that officials at every level of our enormous, highly stratified, and differentiated federal system of government would immediately follow its dictates without deferring to comparatively sluggish, bureaucratic norms? Undoubtedly. But then we'd also have a system maximally at risk of clientelistic capture by elected officials eager to use these great powers for less public-spirited ends — including for the purpose of doling out favors to allies and punishments to enemies.
Somewhere between the extremes of bureaucratic sclerosis and the free action of unbound public officials lies the ever-elusive mean of good government.