philosophers don’t get orgtheory

West 86th has an article by Ben Kafka on the subject of bureaucracy. Kafka’s main point is that philosophers, and political philosophers especially, have consistently misunderstood administration. In the 19th century, there was this belief that if we could just use science, we could administer ourselves to peace and stability. In the 20th century, philosophers, especially those with a left bent, felt that the problem of administration had been solved. It was so easy, anyone could do it. The intuition isn’t crazy. Kafka’s points out that these statements came on the heels of the French Revolution and its aftermath. People simply wanted rational rules that could easily be applied.

So how would a modern orgtheorist respond to the utopian philosophers? I think we’d say that administration is hard (and often brutal in the case of socialist nations) for the following reasons:

  • Limited knowledge – aggregation of knowledge is hard, though bureaucracy makes it a little easier
  • Self interest – Since administration is set up to deal with massive resources that owners can’t directly supervise, you get principal-agent problems
  • Mission creep – a consequence of the principle-agent problem. Since it’s hard to monitor bureaucrats, it’s hard to keep a lid on them.
  • Asymmetry – bureaucracies often have the upper hand over individuals because they don’t rely on a single person E.g., if this lawyer can’t fight anymore, a new one will be hired. In contrast, an individual can easily be outlasted in a conflict.
  • Myth and ceremony – Rather than solve problems, states and organizations may expand bureaucracies to show they’re dealing with the problem

Thus, administration is a tool with limits and it comes with its own problems.

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Written by fabiorojas

June 1, 2012 at 12:01 am

2 Responses

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  1. “Mission creep – a consequence of the principle-agent problem. Since it’s hard to monitor bureaucrats, it’s hard to keep a lid on them.”

    I’m not sure it exactly fits, but your post reminds me how in bureaucratic settings “merit” comes down to who better can negotiate the underlying structures. For example, there are a number of observations that, in the run-up to the Iraq war, Rumsfeld was a bureaucratic master whom Condoleeza Rice had no chance to “keep a lid on,” hence the outsized role Rumsfeld’s ideas had on the execution of the war. Were Rumsfeld’s ideas “better”? Sure seems not, but he knew the game.



    June 1, 2012 at 5:37 pm

  2. I wonder if a better title would be “Orgtheorists don’t get philosophy.”

    As an exercise in intellectual history, Kafka’s piece has some merit. But it would show a serious lack of engagement with contemporary political philosophy to say that *philosophy* doesn’t understand orgtheory. Indeed, problems of organizational administration are a central theme in the work of (among others) Martha Nussbaum, Josh Cohen, Amartya Sen, Ingrid Robeyns, and Richard Miller–not to mention that arch “ideal theorist” John Rawls.

    Contemporary political philosophy is very much alive the problems of organizational administration.


    Samuel A.

    June 1, 2012 at 10:51 pm

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