The Monument to the Unknown Bureaucrat

Yes, there actually is one. It’s in Reykjavík. And here’s why it’s worth pondering.

Working away in anonymity, a cadre of civil servants keeps the machinery of government working.  There’s actually a monument in Reykjavík, Iceland to these public servants. It shows someone in a business suit carrying a briefcase — or more specifically, the lower half of the person, with the upper half replaced by a block of basalt. According to a local website, “the block of rock is a perfect metaphor for how everyday life crushes down on us, while at the same time depicting the narrative of the faceless official who is only a cog in the wheel, and never a person to most of us.”

Most bureaucrats are practically anonymous. A few, like Anthony Fauci, are household names. That’s also been true of higher-level bureaucrats like cabinet officers.

People tend to overestimate the power of the lower-level bureaucrats who staff the civil service. The “unaccountable faceless bureaucrat” is often a target of complaint, blamed for an over-expansive regulatory state. Major decisions, such as significant regulations, are generally under the supervision of the White House and and are always made by presidential appointees.  The people making important policy decisions are rarely anonymous in any literal sense, given that they’re prominently listed on government websites, usually with their photos. Their decisions, however, are assisted by, and later implemented by, squadrons of relatively unknown career government employees.

There’s actually a downside to the visibility of many key policymakers, which is that it makes policy more personalized. The ideal behind the notion of the faceless bureaucrat is that decisions should be based on professional knowledge and established rules and policies, not on the individual characteristics of the decision makers.  Impersonality can seem cold and off-putting. But personalized decision making also means being at the mercy of the personal qualities of the decision maker.

For similar reasons, in many countries, judicial decisions are issued in the name of the tribunal with no indication of the vote or signed opinions. The decisions are supposed to represent the views of “the court” as an institution rather than the personalized views of individual judges. We seem to have lost that idea in the U.S., at least in the federal courts.

That’s part of what I think is a broader problem. We seem to have lost our sense of the value of institutions as opposed to individual decision makers. We seem to have lost track of the role of institutional practices and culture. We’ve also sometimes forgotten that there are benefits to impersonality, uniformity and continuity, traits of institutions more than of individuals.

So here’s to the unnamed bureaucrat. If I ever get to Reykjavík, I’ll leave flowers by the monument.

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Reader Comments

3 Replies to “The Monument to the Unknown Bureaucrat”

  1. Very well stated, as far as it went, but you, and your culture keep proving that it is far easier to describe the problems, and point fingers, than it is to prevent, solve and fix increasingly out of control problems like global warming, pandemics and variants, the overthrow of our democracy, violence and death by misinformation (we have obviously forgotten the WWII lesson about “If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it”), etc.

    So yesterday, we reached the edge of the cliff where a UN Chief announced: “We’re on track for catastrophic temperature rise.”

    Thus we have most tragically run out of time and the world is in chaos because, once again, our politicians and intellectuals are failing to meet the challenges of change, one more (last?) time.

    1. UC Berkeley just topped the list of the world’s best public universities and remained the fourth-best university overall in U.S. News & World Report’s 2022 global universities rankings.

      Historians like the Durants concluded that political or intellectual leaders have made the difference in the past when a civilization declines, and today our democracy is gravely threatened by the failures of our politicians in Washington. So our survival is up to our intellectual leaders.

      Berkeley scholars and leaders like Christ, Farber and Reich, and many others are our best and last resort to solve and fix increasingly out of control threats to our survival.

  2. The issue is whether government can be made to work more effectively.
    Obviously, as this article notes, low level bureaucrats dont decide policy and are not the problem. I add that the civil servant system works fairly well.
    The problem – contrary to this article – is that at the top of the Agencies policy deliberations and actions are not transparent, they are conducted and managed by short term political appointees of the Executive to make or break an Agency. For example the Trump Administration, more blatant than most Executives, appointed notorious industry hacks as reported in the media to break the Agency, e.g., Sonny Perdue at Dept. of Agriculture, and Bill Wherum at EPA.
    what can be done? Assume that the applicable statutory provisions are unambiguous, clear and express, with mandated action deadlines, see Chevron, what else can Congress and legislature do to support rule of law?
    Thats the question. Agencies cannot function effectively if they continue to be the easy prey of party politic.

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About Dan

Dan Farber has written and taught on environmental and constitutional law as well as about contracts, jurisprudence and legislation. Currently at Berkeley Law, he has al…

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