Book Review: Our Wonderland of Bureaucracy

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Our Wonderland of Bureaucracy, published in 1932, was written by former Congressman and Solicitor General of the United States, James M. Beck. The book is heavy reading, complete with statistics and tables, but occasionally lightened up with humor, keen observations, and examples.

Beck’s observations are striking because they were written before the New Deal, before Social Security, before Medicare, Medicaid, government health care, and before a 15 trillion dollar national debt.

“Bureaucracy within bounds…is essential to any form of government,” Beck says. But the general welfare clause is the Achilles’ heel of the Constitution. The power of appropriation is sinking our ship, he claims. Federal bureaus are immortal and fecund. Imagine: “The Federal Government appropriated in 1800 approximately $11 million or roughly $2 per person for the expenses of the government; in 1850, the appropriations were approximately $45 million, or about $1.93 per person; and in 1930, the appropriations were $4,710,377,376, which approximated $38.42 for every man, woman, and child, according to the 1930 census return.” “Government is something to live under, and not to live on.” If our author could see current numbers, he would roll over in his grave.

The author’s best illustration is about the grave; and since otherwise it may not again see the light of day, I will reproduce his brilliant example here:

The one hundred and fifty bureaus now existing almost cover the life of man from his cradle to the grave. Happily the final exit of the citizen from this mortal life gives the author his illustration for--as far as we know--there is as yet no morticians’ bureau in any Federal department. How this escaped the attention of the Bureaucracy is a mystery. It seems so obvious that if the Federal government must supervise the manner of birth, the conduct of life and the maintenance of health, it should also give its paternal care to the final exit of the over-governed citizen…

The bureau will begin its mortuary activities in this fashion: Some ambitious, but none too busy mortician, will feel that his ancient and honorable profession has been neglected. Perhaps he will have aided some Congressman or Senator in the final rites of a relative and gained his good will by his professional sympathy. He will suggest to the Congressman or Senator the inexcusable omission of the Federal Government to guide the citizen in his final exit to the grave. The Congressman--possibly a member of the all powerful Committee on Appropriations--will insert a modest item in the next Deficiency Bill for an appropriation of $25,000 to study the subject of sanitary internments. While the ordinary rule of the Government is to appoint to the head of each department and bureau some one, who knows little or nothing of its work, yet gratitude for the opportunity to create a new bureau will secure for the mortician the appointment. The bureau begins by the mortician--now called the United States Chief Mortician--appointing a first and second assistant Chief Morticians and a secretary for each of these exalted functionaries, and at least three stenographers and a messenger.

The problem now is to justify the creation of the Bureau. This requires considerable ingenuity. A scientist is selected to study the process of putrefacation and a half dozen historians are dispatched to foreign lands to make a study of Egyptian embalming, the Etruscan methods of burial and the Roman methods of cremation. The possibility of such mortuary inquiries gradually widens and soon a series of monographs are issued by the Public Printer, and find their grave in the office of the Superintendent of Documents. Then a scientist is employed to study the kinds of wood that may be used in the construction of coffins, and the best stone for use in cemeteries.

Fearful that the States are incompetent to control the methods of burial, the Bureau, now costing $200,000 a year, procures federal aid subsidies, whereby each State receives a grant of money, if it will match it in amount, and subjects its domestic laws to the Federal Mortuary Bureau.

Then the Chief Mortician--swollen with the pride of office--employs the radio for a twenty-minute nation-wide broadcast, in which after some orchestral music and a song…the Chief Mortician in the dulcet tones of the best “Bed Time Story Teller” implores the people of the United States to enlist in the great crusade, whose slogan is:

“More and better funerals,”
“If eventually, why not now?”

Beck goes on to mention various bureaus which disseminate useless information and cost the American taxpayers very much. He recommended that the tax burden be distributed more evenly, to make Americans “tax-conscious.” “Less than 400,000 citizens paid in 1928, 97% of the federal income tax. Why should the remaining 120,000,000 care?” he asks. Unless we stop increasing our expenditures, Beck warned, we will increasingly become socialistic.

We need to stand for our principles. “The founders of this Republic,” he says, “waged a 7-year war in protest against a two penny tax on a pound of tea, because it involved a principle. The Americans of this generation are apathetic when literally billions of dollars are taken from the public treasury for the benefit of special classes or sections, because they have either lost appreciation of the principle involved or are too indolent to fight for these principles.”

Congress, he says, should be the guardians of the public money and keep appropriations and taxes to a minimum. But, they seem to find “too many new ways to spend money and not enough ways to get it.” Beck harshly criticized government interference in business and undue regulation. He castigates the states for selling “their birthright for a mess of pottage…[The federal government] bribes the States by federal subsidies to acquiesce in greater federal powers and the consequent surrender by the States of their reserved power.”

The author agrees with William Penn that “Governments, like clocks, go from the motion men give them, and, as governments are moved by men, so by men they are ruined too. Therefore governments rather depend upon men, than men upon governments.” He also agrees with Franklin, who said, “There is no form of government but may be a blessing to the people if well administered for a course of years, and can only end in despotism…when the people shall become so corrupted as to need despotic government, being incapable of any other.” According to the author, the only remedy is an ever-vigilant people. We must preserve society--that “noble compact between the dead, the living, and the unborn” (Edmund Burke);--but, as Beck sadly reports, “We live in the day, forgetful of yesterday, and altogether indifferent to the morrow. If any proposal is made that seems to offer a present advantage, the people enthusiastically support it, without considering its possible conflict with all the collective wisdom of the past, and its inevitable effect upon the future.”

James Beck expressed pessimism as to the future of liberty in our country, concluding that if “Each generation of Americans, to gain some immediate and practical advantage, will sacrifice some remaining principle of the Constitution…that noble edifice will one day become as the Parthenon, beautiful in it ruins, but nevertheless a useless and deserted temple of Liberty.”

I’m glad I unearthed this old book of timeless observations. If only the voice of the author, crying in the wilderness 80 years ago, had been heeded!


  1. Wow! How prophetic! But you stole my thunder on how we revolted over the tea tax yet now seem content to accept a much larger burden with only mild grumbling (I was thinking about that for my blog). Reminds me of the frog in the frying pan. ;)

  2. ...or was that boiling water. Either way, we're getting cooked! ;)