No Comment, Quotation — July 18, 2009, 8:05 am

Weber – ‘Official Secrets’ and Bureaucratic Warfare

v-weber-proclamation

Diese Überlegenheit des berufsmäßig Wissenden sucht jede Bürokratie noch durch das Mittel der Geheimhaltung ihrer Kentnisse und Absichten zu steigern. Bürokratische Verwaltung ist ihrer Tendenz nach stets Verwaltung mit Ausschluß der Öffentlichkeit. Die Bürokratie verbirgt ihr Wissen und Tun vor der Kritik soweit sie irgend kann… Allein weit über diese Gebiete rein sachlich motivierter Geheimhaltung wirkt das reine Machtinteresse der Bürokratie als solches. Der Begriff des „Amtsgeheimnisses“ ist ihre spezifische Erfindung und nichts wird von ihr mit solchem Fanatismus verteidigt wie eben diese, außerhalb jener spezifisch qualifizierten Gebiete rein sachliche nicht motivierbare, Attitude. Steht die Bürokratie einem Parlament gegenüber, so kämpft sie aus sicherem Machtinstinkt gegen jeden Versuch desselben, durch eigene Mittel (z.B. das sogenannte „Enquêterecht“) sich Fachkenntnisse von den Interessen zu verschaffen: ein schlecht informiertes und daher machtloses Parlament ist der Bürokratie naturgemäß willkommener—soweit jene Unwissenheit irgendwie mit ihren eigenen Interessen verträglich ist.

Every bureaucracy strives to increase the superiority of its position by keeping its knowledge and intentions secret. Bureaucratic administration always seeks to evade the light of the public as best it can, because in so doing it shields its knowledge and conduct from criticism… The pure interest of a bureaucracy in power, however, stretches far beyond those areas where purely professional interests might justify the demand for secrecy. The concept of the “official secret” is the specific invention of bureaucracy, and nothing is so fanatically defended by the bureaucracy as this attitude, which cannot really be justified beyond these specifically qualified areas. In facing a legislature, the bureaucracy, motivated by a pure lust for power, will battle every attempt of the legislature to gain information by means of its own experts or from interest groups. The so-called power of legislative oversight is but one means by which a legislature can seek such information. But bureaucracy inherently welcomes a poorly informed and hence a powerless legislature—at least in so far as ignorance somehow coincides with a bureaucracy’s own interests.

Max Weber, Wirtschaft und Gesellschaft, ch ix, pt 2, pp. 730-31 (1918) (S.H. transl.)


The struggle of the forces of bureaucracy to maintain their precious secrets is a steady element of the Washington political environment, as it indeed figures in the political life of all modern democratic states. But today this struggle has taken center stage. Guarding their secrets is essential to the nation’s security, the guardians of the state tell us. Expose them, and we’ll all be at risk. This argument has its historical antecedents, of course, and none more powerful than the experience of Germany in the years up to and during the Great War. Germany’s nascent democratic institutions were strangled by a national security bureaucracy that steadily assumed dictatorial powers in the country. But Max Weber, the brilliant student of these developments, showed clearly that beyond the narrow confines of legitimate state secrets–involving diplomatic and military tactical matters–secrecy played an altogether destructive role. More often than not, secrecy was invoked to protect bureaucrats from disclosure of facts that would embarrass them by demonstrating that they had acted foolishly, corruptly, or even criminally. Secrecy effectively subverted the democratic process, avoided the checks of democratic institutions and the exposure and correction of mistakes. Consequently it was evident that the German national security state’s obsession with secrecy actually undermined the security of the state and contributed to a failed war effort, and ultimately to the state’s collapse and demise. There is a role for secrecy in government, Weber acknowledges, but more often than not the claim of “official secrets” cloaks a raw struggle for power and authority between the institutions of a democracy. Too much secrecy means the triumph of the bureaucratic state, and is the death knell for democracy. And in America today, the pendulum has swung dangerously in favor of unsustainable claims of secrecy.

Share
Single Page

More from Scott Horton:

Context, No Comment August 28, 2015, 12:16 pm

Beltway Secrecy

In five easy lessons

From the April 2015 issue

Company Men

Torture, treachery, and the CIA

Six Questions October 18, 2014, 8:00 pm

The APA Grapples with Its Torture Demons: Six Questions for Nathaniel Raymond

Nathaniel Raymond on CIA interrogation techniques.

Get access to 165 years of
Harper’s for only $45.99

United States Canada

CATEGORIES

THE CURRENT ISSUE

September 2015

Weed Whackers

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Tremendous Machine

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

A Goose in a Dress

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Genealogy of Orals

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content

FEATURED ON HARPERS.ORG

Article
New Television·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“In Season 5 of Louie (FX), Louie is a new kind of superhero. Like Wonder Woman, the canonical superhero he most resembles, Louie’s distinctive superpower is love.”
Illustration by Demetrios Psillos
Article
Romancing Kano·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

On a Friday evening in January, a thousand people at the annual California Native Plant Society conference in San Jose settled down to a banquet and a keynote speech delivered by an environmental historian named Jared Farmer. His chosen topic was the eucalyptus tree and its role in California’s ecology and history. The address did not go well. Eucalyptus is not a native plant but a Victorian import from Australia. In the eyes of those gathered at the San Jose DoubleTree, it qualified as “invasive,” “exotic,” “alien” — all dirty words to this crowd, who were therefore convinced that the tree was dangerously combustible, unfriendly to birds, and excessively greedy in competing for water with honest native species.

In his speech, Farmer dutifully highlighted these ugly attributes, but also quoted a few more positive remarks made by others over the years. This was a reckless move. A reference to the tree as “indigenously Californian” elicited an abusive roar, as did an observation that without the aromatic import, the state would be like a “home without its mother.” Thereafter, the mild-mannered speaker was continually interrupted by boos, groans, and exasperated gasps. Only when he mentioned the longhorn beetle, a species imported (illegally) from Australia during the 1990s with the specific aim of killing the eucalyptus, did he earn a resounding cheer.

Article
The Prisoner of Sex·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“It is disappointing that parts of Purity read as though Franzen urgently wanted to telegraph a message to anyone who would defend his fiction from charges of chauvinism: ‘No, you’ve got me wrong. I really am sexist.’”
Illustration by Shonagh Rae
Article
Gangs of Karachi·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“In Karachi, sometimes only the thinnest of polite fictions separates the politicians from the men who kill and extort on their behalf.”
Photograph © Asim Rafiqui/NOOR Images
Article
Weed Whackers·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“Defining 'native' and 'invasive' in an ever-shifting natural world poses some problems. The camel, after all, is native to North America, though it went extinct here 8,000 years ago, while the sacrosanct redwood tree is invasive, having snuck in at some point in the past 65 million years.”
Photograph by Chad Ress

Percentage of Britons who cannot name the city that provides the setting for the musical Chicago:

65

An Australian entrepreneur was selling oysters raised in tanks laced with Viagra.

A tourism company in Australia announced a service that will allow users to take the “world’s biggest selfies,” and a Texas man accidentally killed himself while trying to pose for a selfie with a handgun.

Subscribe to the Weekly Review newsletter. Don’t worry, we won’t sell your email address!

HARPER’S FINEST

Subways Are for Sleeping

By

“Shelby is waiting for something. He himself does not know what it is. When it comes he will either go back into the world from which he came, or sink out of sight in the morass of alcoholism or despair that has engulfed other vagrants.”

Subscribe Today