Bureaucracy: The 90% of the Government Iceberg

The bureaucracy is probably one of my favorite topics to teach about. I think it’s fascinating and I love being able to untangle the bureaucratic web for my students. It’s a concept that most people know little about. Really, what do you think of when you read the word “bureaucracy”? Let me guess.

Red tape?

Government regulation?

Something boring?

Maybe you’re drawing a blank?

I don’t blame you if you don’t really know what a bureaucracy is. I didn’t fully understand it until taking a bureaucracy class in my graduate program. Yes, I took an entire graduate level class that focused exclusively on the bureaucracy. And guess what? It wasn’t boring!

I believe that understanding what the bureaucracy is and what it does is of essential importance to Americans today. I think I’ve already well established in this blog my belief that Americans are painfully uneducated about politics and government in general and my strongly held belief that Americans need to know the truth about government if we are to keep government accountable to anything. Well, the bureaucracy is perhaps one of the most important aspects of government for Americans to understand and yet one of the least understood. It’s important because we have such a strong influence on the size and reach of the bureaucracy.

I’ve noticed that my students, regardless of their political ideology, almost all respond the same when their eyes are opened about the bureaucracy. This motivates me more to educate others about it because I realize that people across the political spectrum seem to dislike government regulation and the bureaucracy. Therefore, when they see the logical connection between the enormous size of the bureaucracy and their demand for more laws, even the most staunchly big government democrats wince a bit.

So, take a moment to read this post and enlighten yourself (and then your friends) about this simple yet complicated government entity: the bureaucracy.


Let’s start with the basics. What does bureaucracy, the term, actually mean?


  1. a body of non-elected government officials and an administrative policy-making group

  2.  government characterized by specialization of functions, adherence to fixed rules, and a hierarchy of authority

  3. a system of administration marked by officialism, red tape, and proliferation

    The root of bureaucracy is French, coming from the French bureaucratie. This French word came from combining bureau (“desk”) and –cratie (a suffix denoting a kind of government). Which basically means “desk government”. It has a negative connotation and usually references red tape or government bureaucrats.

Alright, make sense? Now, we usually associate bureaucracy with government, but any large organization, corporation or university has a bureaucracy. Bureaucracy is complex because of the authority structure over the workings of the organization. The authority is usually divided among numerous managers, making things a bit confusing and complex for the individuals who are attempting to please and follow more than one master.

Here’s the key point you need to take away from this definition of bureaucracy. Whatever bureaucracy is, it is simply an outgrowth, of a Constitutional Republic with democratic representation. By this I mean, if people ask the government to do little or nothing, the laws would then change and/or diminish and all the agencies that exist to implement those laws would dissolve.


Ok, good. This definition leads me to conceptualization. To start, I’m going to make two foundational points.

1. There really is nothing in the Constitution that discusses or talks about the bureaucracy. Meaning the bureaucracy is just an outgrowth of government’s expanding reach and there is little outside law to which it is accountable.

2. The bureaucracy is part of the executive branch but is accountable to both the president and Congress.

Now that you know these points about the bureaucracy, I’m going to explain conceptually what American bureaucracy actually is.

In order to do that, I want you to follow along with me in this imaginary thought experiment. Let’s say that a good portion of the American public get riled up about the healthiness of the food being served in public schools. The media gets a hold of this citizen angst and begins to publicize it and stir up more angst. As the topic becomes more public and more popular, members of Congress begin to notice and feel pressure from their constituents to do something about “it”. As the external pressure mounts, members of Congress begin to realize that this topic is one that should be put on their lawmaking agenda. So, they do so. They write a law requiring school lunch food to be healthier, introduce the law and eventually pass the law.

Well, what happens next? Ever thought about that? Are those members of Congress that passed the law going to now go to each school in the nation and make sure that the schools are somehow getting and serving healthier food?

I think you know the answer to this. No, of course not.

Which means what? Who is going to make sure the schools are getting the funding to change food service providers in order to start serving the healthier lunch food? Who indeed?!

Welp, my friends this is where bureaucracy comes into play. Congress, in writing a law, must also create a government agency to translate that law into administrative action. Otherwise, the law is meaningless. And, in addition to creating the agency to implement the newly written law, Congress must also fund the agency so that it is able to do what it was created to do.

Get that?

This means that, every single time Congress writes a new law, a new agency must either be created or added to in order for that new law to be translated into reality. Which also means that more money must be spent in order to fund the agency tasked with implementing the new law.

Ok, back up a second. The president is tasked with executing the law, right? But the president alone can’t realistically enforce every single law written. So, Congress creates executive agencies to be under the president and help him see that the laws be faithfully executed.

This should remind you about how much power Congress Constitutionally possesses. Congress creates courts and bureaucratic agencies. Which means, if Congress can create them, Congress can also eliminate them.

If you are struggling a bit to imagine what kinds of agencies actually make up our current government’s bureaucracy, take a look at this website. Scroll through all the agencies/departments/quasi-agencies etc and then consider why they exist. They exist because we, the people, demanded that Congress fix a problem or give us something. Congress acquiesced by making a new law and therefore a new agency.

The president’s cabinet is made up of fifteen appointed leaders of fifteen of these Congressionally created bureaucratic agencies, specifically called executive departments (e.g. Department of Agriculture; Department of Education; Department of Defense etc).

Bureaucracy and the Law

So, here’s the challenge of making law, especially federal law. The legislators do not know what will fix the problem. Make sense? They have to theorize about the best remedy for the problem that the people are demanding they fix. They have no clue if their theorized remedy will actually work and many times, their theory does not work or makes things worse (e.g. The No Child Left Behind Act). What happens then when legislators come up with a theory about how to fix a problem? The theory is usually vague.

Let’s go back to my previous example of making school lunches healthier (remember though, nowhere in the Constitution is the federal government given the ability to make law about education. Many Congressional laws about education end up being implemented by federally funded state bureaucracy—just an FYI).

The people see a problem. School lunches are not healthy. They are angry and demand that Congress fix this problem (again, notice that they are going to the federal government rather than the state government). Congress then has to figure out the best way to fix the problem and please their constituents. But, remember, every legislator represents a different set of constituents with a different idea of healthy food, with a different set of resources and a different set of schools. This mix of preferences and viewpoints, in combination with the theoretical aspect of the solution, makes it much more difficult to create and pass highly detailed or specific law.

And so, Congress ends up passing very vague, general legislation and leaves it up to the agencies created to implement the law, to also define the law. For example: if Congress passes a law about making food healthier for school lunches, who defines healthy food? Who decides what companies will provide the food? Or how it should be given out? Or the punishment on the schools if they fail to follow the law and use the healthy food?

Well, normally, the bureaucratic agency who is tasked with implementing the law is also tasked with making the decisions about how all the specifics of the law are to be defined and carried out. And what does this mean? This means that the bureaucracy, in effect, makes far more law than Congress ever makes. It means that most every regulation that you run into on a daily basis is not made by someone you vote for, but rather by someone in the bureaucracy. These specifics of the law are what we call rules. And these rules carry the weight of law; meaning, in effect, they are law. The bureaucracy is known for its colossal amount of rule-making. I don’t have time to get into all the specifics of rule-making on this post, but if you’d like to see a few examples, check out this website.

Here’s the kicker and the point that most Americans either don’t know or refuse to see. These rules and regulations only grow in number and get more restrictive the more the people demand for Congress to make law. The more that we see Congress as the remedy for all our problems—rather than the protector of our private property and enforcer of the laws that are necessary and proper to do the few defined jobs they were given to do in the Constitution—the more laws Congress will make. And the more laws Congress makes, the more agencies must be created to implement those laws. The more agencies that are created, the more money must be spent and the more red tape and rules are made. And the more money that must be spent to enforce all the laws demanded by the people, the higher our taxes must increase to pay for all that we demanding.


It’s a vicious cycle and we are the primary perpetrators. We are reaping what we sow. We want more government, so we’re getting more government—and all the red tape, rules, regulations and taxes that come with that. Yet, the same people who are demanding more government are also the people who complain about all the rules, regulations, red tape and taxes. You see the disconnect? Do you see where you can help educate and enlighten your fellow Americans about their psychological disconnect? Believe me, even those who are in favor of larger government, still complain about taxes, rules and regulations, all the while never realizing that their own desire for a bigger government is why there are more regulations, rules and taxes!

And I have not even touched on the violation that bureaucratic law is to Locke’s theory of delegated power. If we the people have delegated the power to make law to a group of people who represent us, it is a gross violation for that group of people to then pass off the power we gave them to make law to another group of people who are not tied to us, and therefore not concerned about making laws that we like or don’t like.

I hope this has been an educational, enlightening post for everyone. I find this topic to be absolutely fascinating. It really is pretty simple and yet so many people have never put two and two together. How different could and would America be today if Americans just simply got a hold of this?

The Liberty Belle

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