Beat Bureaucracy

Our favorite quotations about bureaucracy and red tape

“Every revolution evaporates and leaves behind only the slime of a new bureaucracy.”  ~ Franz Kafka

“Bureaucracy is the epoxy that greases the wheels of progress.” ~ James Boren

“Bureaucracy — the giant power wielded by pygmies.” 
~ Honoré de Balzac

“Bureaucracy, the rule of no one, has become the modern form of despotism.”  ~ Mary McCarthy

"To get the attention of a large animal, be it an elephant or a bureaucracy, it helps to know what part of it feels pain. Be very sure, though, that you want its full attention." ~ Kelvin Throop aka R.A.J. Philips

“The only thing that saves us from the bureaucracy is its inefficiency.”  ~ Eugene McCarthy

“Bureaucracy is the art of making the possible impossible.”  ~ Javier Pascal Salcedo

"Bureaucracy expands to meet the needs of the expanding bureaucracy.” ~ Oscar Wilde.

“If we could ever make red tape nutritional, we could feed the world.” ~ Robert Schaeberle

“You will never understand bureaucracies until you understand that for bureaucrats procedure is everything and outcomes are nothing.”  ~ Thomas Sowell


Collected quotations on bureaucracy 


Excerpts from books about bureaucracy

The great books about bureaucracy share a number of themes:

Bureaucrats fear their superiors and try desperately to impress them.
Bureaucrats suppress their humanity and sense of decency.
Bureaucrats praise their own accomplishments in order to obscure their cruelties.
Bureaucracies protect and hide the incompetent.


A. Bureaucrats fear their superiors and try desperately to impress them

Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift

“The emperor holds a stick in his hands…while the candidates (for office) sometimes leap over the stick, sometimes creep under it backwards and forwards several times…Whoever performs his part with most agility and holds out the longest in leaping and creeping is rewarded with the blue-coloured silk…”

Something Happened by Joseph Heller

“In the office in which I work there are five people of whom I am afraid. Each of these five people is afraid of four people (excluding overlaps), for a total of twenty, and each these twenty people is afraid of six people, making a total of one hundred and twenty people who are feared by at least one person. Each of these one hundred and twenty people is afraid of the other one hundred and nineteen, and all of these one hundred and forty-five people are afraid of the twelve men at the top who helped found and build the company and now own and direct it.”

The Gulag Archipelago by Alexander Solzhenitsyn

“A district Party conference was under way in Moscow Province. It was presided over by a new secretary of the District Party Committee, replacing one recently arrested. At the conclusion of the conference, a tribute to Comrade Stalin was call for. Of course everyone stood up (just as everyone had leaped to his feet during the conference at every mention of his name). The small hall echoed with ‘stormy applause, rising to an ovation.’ For three mines, four minutes, five minutes, the (applause) continued. But palms were getting sore and raised arms were already aching. And the older people were panting from exhaustion. It was becoming insufferably silly even to those who really adored Stalin. However, who would dare to be the first to stop? The secretary of the District Party Committee could have done it. He was standing on the platform, and it was he who had just called for the ovation. But he was a newcomer. He had taken the place of a man who’d been arrested. He was afraid! After all, NKVD (secret police) men were standing in the hall applauding and watching to see who quit first! And in that obscure, small hall, unknown to the Leader, the applause went on—six, seven, eight minutes! They were done for! Their goose was cooked! They couldn’t stop now till they collapsed with heart attacks! At the read of the hall, which was crowded, they could of course cheat a bit, clap less frequently, less vigorously, not so eagerly—but up there with the presidium there everyone could see them? The director of the local paper factory, an independent and strong-minded man, stood with the presidium.  Aware of the falsity and all the impossibility of the situation, he still kept on applauding! Nine minutes! Ten!  In anguish he watched the secretary of the District Party Committee, but the latter dared not stop. Insanity. Every one of them. With make-believe enthusiasm on their faces, looking at each other with faint hope, the district leaders were just going to go on and on applauding till they fell where they stood, till they were carried out of the hall on stretchers. And even then those who were left would not falter…. Then, after eleven minutes, the director of the paper factory assumed a businesslike expression and sat down in his seat. And oh, a miracle took place. Where had the universal, uninhibited, indescribable enthusiasm gone? To a man, everyone else stopped dead and sat down. They had been saved….

“That, however, was how they discovered who the independent people were. And that was how they went about eliminating them. That same night the factory director was arrested. They easily pasted ten years on him on the pretext of something quite different. But after he had signed Form 206, the final document of the interrogation, his interrogator reminded him: ‘Don’t ever be the first to stop applauding.’”


B. Bureaucrats suppress their humanity and sense of decency

The Castle by Franz Kafka

“Regarding night interrogations: the night is less suitable for negotiations with applicants for the reason that by night it is difficult or positively impossible completely to preserve the official character of the negotiations. This is not a matter of externals, the forms can of course, if desired, be just as strictly observed by night as by day…the official power of judgment suffers at night. One tends involuntarily to judge things from a more private point of view at night, the allegations of the applicants take on more weight than is due to them, the judgment of the case becomes adulterated with quite irrelevant considerations of the rest of the applicants’ situation, their sufferings and anxieties. The necessary barrier between the applicants and the officials, even though externally it may be impeccably maintained, weakens, and where otherwise, as is proper, only questions and answers are exchanged, what sometimes seems to take place is an odd, wholly unsuitable changing of places between the persons.”

The Gulag Archipelago by Alexander Solzhenitsyn

“I did not move in one stride from being a student worn out by mathematics to officer’s rank. Before becoming an officer I spent a half-year as a downtrodden soldier. And one might thing I would have gotten through my thick skull what it was like always to obey people who were perhaps not worthy of your obedience and do it on a hungry stomach to boot. Then for another half-year they tore me to pieces in officer candidate school. So I ought to have grasped, once and for all, the bitterness of service as a rank-and-file soldier and remembered how my hide froze and how it was flayed from my body. But did I? Not at all. For consolation they pinned two little stars on by shoulder boards, and a third, and then fourth. And I forgot every bit of what it had been like….

“Pride grows in the human heart like lard on a pig. I tossed out order to my subordinates that I would not allow them question, convinced that no orders could be wiser. Even at the front, where, one might have thought, death made equals of us all, my power soon convinced me that I was a superior human being. Seated there, I heard them out as they stood at attention. I interrupted them. I issued commands. I addressed fathers and grandfathers with the familiar, condescending form of address—while they, of course, addressed me formally, I sent them out to repair wires under shellfire so that my superiors should not reproach me. (Andreyashin died that way.) I ate my officer’s ration of butter with rolls, without giving a thought to why I had a right to it and why the rank and file soldiers did not.”

Pickwick Papers by Charles Dickens

The Circumlocution Office was (as everybody knows without being told) the most important Department under Government. No public business of any kind could possibly be done at any time without the acquiescence of the Circumlocution Office. Its finger was in the largest public pie, and in the smallest public tart. It was equally impossible to do the plainest right and to undo the plainest wrong without the express authority of the Circumlocution Office. If another Gunpowder Plot had been discovered half an hour
before the lighting of the match, nobody would have been justified in saving the parliament until there had been half a score of boards, half a bushel of minutes, several sacks of official memoranda, and a family-vault full of ungrammatical correspondence, on the part of the Circumlocution Office….

Numbers of people were lost in the Circumlocution Office. Unfortunates with wrongs, or with projects for the general welfare (and they had better have had wrongs at first, than have taken that bitter English recipe for certainly getting them), who in slow lapse of time and agony had passed safely through other public departments; who, according to rule, had been bullied in this, over-reached by that, and evaded by the other; got referred at last
to the Circumlocution Office, and never reappeared in the light of day. Boards sat upon them, secretaries minuted upon them, commissioners gabbled about them, clerks registered, entered, checked, and ticked them off, and they melted away….

'The Department is accessible to the--Public,' Mr. Barnacle was always checked a little by that word of impertinent signification, 'if the--Public approaches it according to the official forms; if the--Public does not approach it according to the official forms, the--Public has itself to blame'….

'I want to know,' said Arthur Clennam, who had made up his mind to persistence in one short form of words, 'the precise nature of the claim of the Crown against a prisoner for debt, named Dorrit.'

‘Look here! Upon my SOUL you mustn't come into the place saying you want to know, you know!'


C. Bureaucrats praise their own accomplishments in order to obscure their cruelties

Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift

“It was a custom introduced by this prince and his ministry…that after the court had decreed any cruel execution, either to gratify the monarch’s resentment or the malice of a favourite, the Emperor always made a speech to his whole council, expressing his great lenity and tenderness, as qualities know and confessed by all the world…nor did anything terrify the people so much as those encomiums on his Majesty’s mercy, because it was observed, that the more these praises were enlarged and insisted upon, the more inhuman was the punishment and the sufferer more innocent.”

The Trial by Franz Kafka

“You can’t go out, you are under arrest.”
“So it seems,” said K. “But for what?”
“We are not authorized to tell you that. Go to your room and wait there. Proceedings have been instituted against you, and you will be informed of everything in due course. I am exceeding my instructions in speaking freely to you like this…. If you continue to have as good luck as you have had in the choice of your warders, then you can be confident of the final result.”


D. Bureaucracies protect and hide the incompetent

Catch-22 by Joseph Heller

“Major Major had been born too late and too mediocre. Some men are born mediocre, some men achieve mediocrity, and some men have mediocrity thrust upon them. With Major Major it had been all three. Even among men lacking all distinction he inevitably stood out as a man lacking more distinction than all the rest, and people who met him were always impressed by how unimpressive he was.”

Something Happened by Joseph Heller

“There is one typist in our department who is going crazy slowly and has all of us afraid of her.  Her name is Martha. Our biggest fear is that she will go crazy on a weekday between nine and five. We hope she’ll go crazy on a weekend, when we aren’t with her. We should get her out of the company now, while there is still time. But we won’t. Somebody should fire her; nobody will. Even Green, who actually enjoys firing people, recoils from the responsibility of making the move that might bring about her shattering collapse, although he cannot stand her, detests the way she looks, and is infuriated by every reminder that she still exists in his department…. I think that maybe in every company today there is always at least one person who is going crazy slowly.”