Acton Institute Powerblog

Bureaucracy and Institutional Evil

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It’s a truism that progressive Christians emphasize the pervasiveness of structural or institutional evil, often at the expense of individual or personal sin. The structures of the world are broken and they, not individuals, are responsible for the enduring injustices in the world.

But how come this perspective is never (or rarely) aimed at the bureaucracy of government? Sure, when the government does something political progressives don’t like, they’re quick to condemn the institution itself. But why isn’t the broken bureaucracy of public education or public welfare, for instance, ever to blame?

Lord Acton: “Bureaucracy is undoubtedly the weapon and sign of a despotic government, inasmuch as it gives whatever government it serves, despotic power.”

Jordan J. Ballor Jordan J. Ballor (Dr. theol., University of Zurich; Ph.D., Calvin Theological Seminary) is a senior research fellow and director of publishing at the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion & Liberty. He is also a postdoctoral researcher in theology and economics at the VU University Amsterdam as part of the "What Good Markets Are Good For" project. He is author of Get Your Hands Dirty: Essays on Christian Social Thought (and Action) (Wipf & Stock, 2013), Covenant, Causality, and Law: A Study in the Theology of Wolfgang Musculus (Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2012) and Ecumenical Babel: Confusing Economic Ideology and the Church's Social Witness (Christian's Library Press, 2010), as well as editor of numerous works, including Abraham Kuyper Collected Works in Public Theology. Jordan is also associate director of the Junius Institute for Digital Reformation Research at Calvin Theological Seminary.


  • Ken

    I saw a bumper sticker today that said “Voldemort Was a Republican.” Yeah, whatever. After McCain and Voinovich and Specter and Schwarzenegger and Bushes, Elder and Younger I have abandoned faction.

    It is because the “Christian” left have successfully stood words on their heads, and made evil good and good evil.

    Back to the Voldemort bumper sticker. It did inspire me to coin another bumper-sticker aphorism:

    Saruman Was a Progressive.

  • What is puzzling is why bureaucracy remains unquestioned. I’ve been struggling with this for forty years. The world credit crisis perhaps changes the situation.
    The difficulty appears to lie in introducing an alternative. Provided we do not try to impose a contrived solution the answer is simple. All organisations exist to deliver a purpose; normally that of the parent enterprise. Its purpose is enabled by the coming together of interactive resources. This coming together is intrinsic: the transition is simply to identify this resource interaction as ‘learning systems’ to effect change. Bear in mind that an organisation cannot change as a whole; it can change only system-by-system. Mary Parker Follett almost cracked this a hundred years ago with her: ‘No one is boss – the law of the situation is boss’.
    Provisionally I have called the alternative theory Systocracy (rule by purpose, enabling function and resource interaction) and developed an organisation learning methodology I call systemic learning, which is the control of the intrinsic organisation change process.
    There is confusion in the use of the term democracy. Democracy is deciding where we are going bureaucracy or systocracy is how we get there.
    There is also one other problem: defining purpose. Many organisations have no clear agreed purpose; purpose becomes a question of opinion. It’s no surprise that that is the opinion of the boss – hence bureaucracy.

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