Bureaucracy for the Ages

05/25/2011 12:15 pm ET

I was recently given a copy of Reader's Digest from September, 1945, as a birthday present. It was a fun read, with everything from tips such as "You Can Write Poetry - and Enjoy It," which began, "Poetry writing provides the soldier with an absorbing pastime in which he can both lose and restore himself"; to an exciting story, "The Marvel of Jet Propulsion," about how this technology meant we would all have personal helicopters within ten years.

There were recipes, vocabulary words ("livid," "lurid" and "mayhem"), eight things to do about the Soviet Union (first was "Have good will toward the Soviet Union") and even a frustrated grocer who had problems with a "soprano demanding beef," "butter-berserk housewives" and "fluff-brained customers" who phoned in orders.

But, the nostalgia and amusement ended when I arrived at "Bureaucrats at the Multiplication Table," a narrative seemed better suited for "The Huffington Post" in 2007 than a family-friendly magazine 60 years ago.

Written by Jules Romains (identified as author of more than 60 books, "now again in France on a special government mission"), it began:

"Bureaucracy is a universal disease that threatens the modern state everywhere. Much has been written about it, but most writers have failed to reveal its gravity. They have preferred to treat it as one of those ridiculous little nuisances of daily life that persist for no known reason. My object is to show that there is no harm in laughing at Bureaucracy as long as we remember that after laughing at it we must crush it, lest it crush us."

Not wanting to confuse bureaucracy with administration, he explains, "Bureaucracy begins where legitimate, useful administration leaves off; when the bureaus through which normal Administration function grow morbidly to a size out of all proportion to their usefulness and become parasites that choke off the life they feed on."

An "unslakable thirst for paper" is one sign he notes. "[The bureaucrat] can no longer give a spoken order or discuss any matter in a few rapid phrases. He drafts memoranda and in return demands memoranda backed by reports."

Romains hopes that the end of World War II will signal the end of government bureaucracy.

"Of all systems, Democracy has most to fear from Bureaucracy, for more than any other it respects the Constitution and shrinks from abuse of authority. Consequently, it does not put Bureaucrats violently in their place; rather it humors them. Thus, they are able to spread the dictator's net, and bait it, in the heart of Democracy.... Striking more deeply, Bureaucracy prepares the way by warping the citizen's conscience and making him forget the habit and meaning of liberty...."

Was 1945 really that long ago?