Why the Managers are Not Great
A few thoughtful readers responded to my post on the managerial menace, its rise and its causes with the suggestion that modern bureaucratic growth may not be all that bad, or at least that there may be more optimistic ways to view the phenomenon. Of course some degree of breaucratisation is inevitable and necessary in highly specialised economies, and elaborate bureaucracies are a luxury through which wealthy states express their power. It is also important to note that the theorists of mangerialism like James Burnham were not overtly critical of the phenomenon. For them, the rise of the managers was a blunt fact of modern society, like mountains are a feature of geography – a force to be observed and understood rather than attacked.
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Perhaps we could agree that the managers are not always and everywhere a malign force. They arose as an organic response to the increasing complexity of mass society, and some of them obviously play crucial roles in overseeing universities, companies and the various arms of the state. Here I think it is the dose that makes the poison. Yale, a university which in 2021 had 4,937 faculty, does not need 5,066 administrators, and we should expect this glut to have negative consequences in excess of its expense. Proliferating managers make institutions top-heavy and difficult to control; so many people are involved in making decisions at Yale, that it is hard even to understand why it acts as it does. Everything Yale does is moreover subject to enormous inertia; it’s hard for the institution to stop doing obviously stupid things even after everyone realises that what it’s doing is stupid. Moreover, because the managerial focus is recursive to the institution itself, a big part of being a Yale professor or a Yale student is now consumed not with teaching and researching, but with talking about Yale, serving on committees that address various aspects of Yale and satisfying the inward-looking managerial requirements of Yale.
These four things – illegibility, the diffusion of authority, inertia and institutional recursiveness – are what I see as the primary pathologies of managerial society. I’ll expand a little more on each of them and their implications.