The Philosocrats Are Coming! The Philosocrats Are Coming!

A new generation of philosopher-bureaucrats is being trained to think up new rationales for government meddling


The general public is not aware that a new order of bureaucrats is at this moment being pieced together in the Frankensteinian laboratories of academe and government. And if it is, it is surely not aware that this new order is even more voracious of individual rights, more intrusive into private affairs, more resistant to counterattack, than even the giant, many-tentacled monster that was spawned in the '60s and '70s out of environmentalist excesses and government-induced shortages of energy. If the news media are aware, they are not saying anything.

Indeed, to go by the news media, bureaucracy would seem to be almost on the brink of extinction. The Reagan administration's stern promises to "reduce the rate of growth" of bureaucracy and even to lop off various of its parts are duly reported on television and in the newspapers—along with piteous accounts of poor would-be bureaucrats finding the job-cupboard bare and tales of horror presented by spokesmen for "threatened" programs.

Surely, one wants to say, bureaucracy's sudden, fission-like mushrooming is over. Perhaps the harassed citizenry can even expect some diminution in its gigantic size and power and appetite!

Unfortunately, I have to repeat it: a new order of bureaucracy is being gestated in multitudinous wombs. In fact, in view of its already rapid embryonic growth, its imminent emergence into the actual world—that is, its being baptized with some sort of governmental acronym and given cabinet rank—is quite predictable. Prenatal sounds are already detectable.

These apocalyptic utterances are sure to be met with cold stares and skepticism. Let me, therefore, now clothe them in hard, clear-cut evidence. Since this evidence rests on personal contact and observations, I shall present it just as it chronologically revealed itself.

The first inkling that I myself was given of our monster's embryonic existence was three summers ago. I was playing golf by myself and happened to pick up a partner who was also by himself. In the usual way we introduced ourselves and, between lungings at the ball, talked of one thing and, another. I forget the gentleman's name. I do remember, however, that he was in his early '30s and had not too many years before graduated from some university with a master's degree in philosophy. Since then, he had been working in a branch of the bureaucracy regulating land use.

When he indicated that his philosophical training had come in very handy in his work I was, as a university teacher of philosophy, curious. I had never heard of any call for philosophy or philosophical training on the part of bureaucracies or bureaucrats. I could not imagine philosophy's having any application to bureaucracy, unless it were to level some sort of destructive attack upon the institution, or the latter having any interest in philosophy, unless it were to quash it underfoot. What I mean is: philosophy almost by definition is free and unrestricted thought and argumentation. The bureaucratic mode, by definition, is a proceduralized, routinized method of handling huge masses of "information bits," "inquiry bits," "decision bits," and so on, with the aim of eliminating the very need for original or even independent thought. "Just how," I asked, trying to mask my skepticism, "do you apply philosophy in your bureau or whatever it is of land use?"

My golfing partner explained that he had taken a couple of courses in ethics and that what he was doing was applying value theory to the decisions and policies generated by the administrators of the office of land use to which he was attached. As he elaborated: having promulgated various broad decisions and policies, these gentry had been made aware that they had unwittingly involved themselves in certain questions of value and ethics. Having had some courses in ethics and value theory, he had been selected and assigned by his superiors to review their pronouncements, decisions, and directives and to patch up their ethical gaps and loose ends. I gathered from my new-found acquaintance's further comments that he was devoting his full time to just that labor of Platonic love and making a great success of it.

I do not believe that, as I listened to my informant, I more than very dimly perceived the momentous implications of his confidences. If I had, I should have shuddered a lot more than I did.

Not very long after, I was "awakened from my dogmatic slumbers." Several of my academic colleagues let it be known that they meant to propose the establishment and funding of a new branch of the philosophy department. This new branch was to devote itself to—lo and behold!—the study and application of philosophical ethics and value theory to governmental policy and decisionmaking and their offspring in business, medicine, and elsewhere.

One could detect an immediate, almost electric, interest. Although I heard no one, including the prime movers of the proposal, mention the job possibilities that such a venture opened up for both graduate students and faculty in philosophy, everyone certainly had to be aware of those possibilities.

Other disciplines—economics and sociology, for instance—had long straddled academe and government and in the rich pastures of the latter had fed their hungry flocks of new-born Ph.D.s and M.A.s, as well as the "doctor-fathers" themselves. To judge from myself, the philosophic fraternity had gazed with envious eye on the yearly migrations of these scientifico-humanisticos from academe to government. No one had to be told that the newly proposed venture at last provided philosophers a passport to the same rich pastures.

On the other hand, it had to be plain to anyone who cared to think about it that this proposal contemplated the prostitution of philosophy and philosophers. Bureaucracy could not and would not tolerate divisions of opinion in its operatives' utterances, for these had to have the look of single-minded law or science. But, while one philosopher might give an unequivocal answer to a question of value theory or philosophical ethics, two were sure to disagree.

Would this not mean that philosophers in government would have to pretend to agree when they did not? Would there not have to be a boss-philosopher to whom all subordinate philosophers would have to defer in their philosophical utterances, and would not the boss-philosopher himself have to defer to the ambitions of government and bureaucracy? Could the boss-philosopher, for instance, so interpret the nature of value as to convey away from government some decisionmaking authority that it had gathered to itself? Would his superiors in the bureaucracy tolerate any such attack upon their prerogatives and power? Obviously, they would not. Hence, up and down the line, would not governmental philosophers, as a matter of self-preservation, prostitute themselves and philosophy?

I could see no other termination of the proposal, and I so let it be known. I also pointed out that what was being advocated was absolutely calculated to increase and expand the size and power of bureaucracy. The prime movers of the proposal were not unfriendly to the theories of Karl Marx and so, presumably, were opposed to bureaucracy. Might they not have second thoughts?

Although I did some talking to this effect and although it was listened to politely enough, I might as well have been addressing a stone wall. It is not academically "nice" to divulge what goes on in departmental meetings, but it certainly can be told what was the outcome of the meeting finally devoted to the proposed venture. In a nutshell, our department declared itself as now in the business of producing philosophizing bureaucrats or bureaucratized philosophers!

Self-styled "The Center for the Study of Values and Social Policy"—a title that ingeniously conveys the impression that mere philosophizing has somehow turned into science (one thinks of things like "The Center for the Study of Atmospheric Disturbances"), our department's new business venture shows signs of promising vigor and appetite. A "distinguished" professor of decisionmaking theory (I suppose it can be called) was hired at some expense to provide a semester's seeding-seminar in the discipline (since none of our own staff was what could be called a specialist in the field and its burgeoning jargon). A small faculty and several candidates for advanced degrees were scraped up. A rather small trickle, to be sure. It was soon clear, however, that this first trickle would very quickly become a flood. It was not long, for example, before a couple of substantial grants from the federal government's academic helpmate, the National Endowment of the Humanities, had been tendered the center. Undoubtedly, this horn of plenty for all politically agreeable projects and projectors will tender even more lavish grants in the future.

The only possible hitch is that it now looks as if a good many other departments of philosophy—a good many too many—are trying to compete for a piece of this decision-theory "action." Perhaps reflecting this concern, or perhaps merely as a display of its own "expertise," our own Center for the Study of Values and Social Policy issued a memorandum in the spring of 1981 touching on the gross, unphilosophical subject of jobs. In this memorandum, lay members of the department were told that the center "will provide philosophers with training appropriate to the current job market, both academic and nonacademic…employment." Under the subheading "nonacademic employment," the authors of the memorandum spell out their whys and hows:

Our society faces critical choices in a number of areas, choices that will presuppose a variety of values. Leaders in government and industry have become increasingly aware of the need for an analytical and critical approach to value questions, as they arise in making social policy. What we have lacked in the past is the focus on policy issues and the training that would allow us to work with people with more technical backgrounds. Our programs are designed to prepare philosophers to join other policy professions in policy research groups in federal and state agencies, in business, in citizens' organizations, and in "think tanks."

There are several things in this pronouncement that merit the most careful examination. There is, for instance, the weighty, sermonizing tone in which the authors speak. "Our society faces critical choices in a number of areas," we are gravely informed, "choices that will presuppose a variety of values." Insofar as this momentously uttered pronouncement does not consist of mere bromide, what does it consist of?

In a certain metaphorical manner of speaking it can be said, I suppose, that any society is confronted with choices and that these involve a variety of values. One might say metaphorically, for example, that the American people were confronted in the middle of the 19th century with the choice of either engaging in civil war or not engaging in it. A variety of values, I suppose too, could be said to have been involved. On the face of it, though, no one needs to be told such simple truths. What, then, can the authors really mean to be telling us?

Patently, they seem to think of themselves as sounding some sort of ringing alarm. Presumably, something new has taken place that demands extraordinary, unheard-of measures. Their memorandum refers to "the need for an analytical and critical approach to value questions, as they arise in making social policy," and it promises (or threatens) to "prepare philosophers to join other policy professions." To believe these assertions, there is now something properly called "the profession of policymaking." The members of this profession, moreover, are to be responsible for the most important decisions of federal and state agencies, of business, of "think tanks," and of citizens' organizations. They need, however, in "their research groups," to be joined by philosophers.

Certainly one has never heard of these wonders before, unless in the pages of utopian treatises or science fiction. For centuries, governments and businesses and even "citizens' organizations" have functioned, sometimes even very successfully, without any thought or need of an "analytical and critical approach to value questions." They have simply pursued the various values that they have pursued. Nor in the past have governments or businesses seemed to find it necessary to hire "professional policymakers."

Are the authors of this memorandum simply hoodwinking the public in their suggestions of a new human condition demanding new and terribly expensive treatment? Or, in fact, has something new in the human condition arisen that calls, at least theoretically, for the panaceas they describe so feelingly and would like to sell the public?

However inconsistent it may appear, I think the answer to both questions is "yes." A condition has undoubtedly been brought about where, theoretically at least, there is needed something that could only be called "professional policymaking" or some such thing, along with, not just a philosophy of value (these are a dime a dozen), but an actual science of value.

What my confreres fail to tell the public, however, is that this condition has arisen solely as a result of the government's usurpation of individual decisionmaking in areas where only individual decisionmaking can effectively function. And what they fail to mention is that the remedies they propose—professional policymaking, a science of values, and so on—are all as bogus as the famous philosophers' stone. In fact, they are not merely bogus but, if clothed in anything like political reality, toxins of frightening virulence.

As an instance of the government's usurpation of rightful individual decisionmaking and the consequences thereof, we can do no better than to return to my golfing partner's office of land use. Still on a small and restricted scale but nonetheless on a real and growing one, government is now dictating the use of, not just public land, but private land. Need it be added: the agencies involved are pulling every political and judicial string in their grasp to totalize this newly acquired government power. By no very large stretch of the imagination we can envision their soon succeeding. Consider, then, what must eventuate when their usurpation of this area of individual decisionmaking has been completed.

We might begin by noting how the management of private lands differs from, say, the management of a police force. What the duties of a policeman are and how carried out are properly matters of fairly confined definition and homogeneous complexion. A policeman, for instance, is properly supposed to enforce the law. In addition, the action of one policeman is rather linearly locked into the action of another. One might say that their actions are simply compoundable—witness the convergence of police actions where a riot is occurring.

Now homogeneity and simple compoundability of activity lend themselves to blueprinting and thus either to scientific formulization (given certain additional factors, for example, quantifiable causal relations) or to bureaucratization and thus to governmental decisionmaking. Thus, police activity—or, more properly, the management of police activity—can fall within the compass of governmental competence.

In contrast, the uses of private land are not homogeneous, and their relations are not simply compoundable. Imagine that I own 300 acres of farmland here in Boulder County, Colorado. On this hypothetical 300 acres I can grow wheat, milo, alfalfa, vegetables (with irrigation), and so on; I can raise cattle, hogs, or sheep; I can mix these various enterprises or an indefinite number of others in all sorts of ways; I can even, as a speculation, decide to turn my land into an airfield or an amusement park, or if I have an independent income and like birds enough, I can or might turn it into a bird sanctuary. My next-door neighbor can use his land in these or many other sorts of ways. In short, the uses of private land are not only non-homogeneous; they are not open to confined definition.

Moreover, even where their uses are homogeneous, they are not simply compoundable. Two different farmers planting 300 acres of wheat each do not plant simply 600 acres of wheat. One may grow 20 bushels an acre; the other, 50. This sort of indeterminate variance resists blueprinting. Indeed, a blueprint levels out what is most important to keep socially and economically prominent—individual efficiency versus individual inefficiency—and makes prominent what is not important in the dynamics of production: an "over-all" or lump sum.

Even taken in isolation—as just this 300 acres—my land's uses are not blueprintable with respect to productive results. I may decide: "200 acres of milo." Whether there will be 200 acres of milo, however, will depend on many indeterminate factors: weather, insects, breakdowns or absence of breakdowns of machinery, and so on.

Now if all that is demanded is my deciding how to use these 300 acres and taking the consequences, good or bad, I and anyone else can certainly do that. And I or he can do so with greater or less competence and success, depending on luck, experience, shrewdness, common sense, and skill—period. At the level of individual, proprietary decisionmaking, deciding what to do with land is within a normal person's competence. Thus, individual, proprietary decisionmaking is functional in determining land use, and its degree of competence rests on such nonquantifiable, nonblueprintable, and hence nonscientific bases as luck, skill, experience, shrewdness, and imagination.

If, though, one is deciding on the use of private land from a governmental dais, one cannot simply decide individual cases in isolation, as proprietors can and do. There are, first of all, myriad cases to be simultaneously decided: is Tom's land to be used for wheat, Dick's for raising hogs, Harry's for hybrid corn experiment, and so on.

Furthermore, there must be some over-all structure of "fairness" given these decisions. The government decisionmaker is not supposed, for example, to enrich Tom at the expense of Dick.

Finally, the decision's effects have to be related to such indeterminable and opaque ends as "the common good," "the maximization of economic well-being," and so on. Yet the effects are themselves impossible to determine, due to the vagaries of weather, human response (Dick thinks my decision was made to enrich Tom and he therefore drags his plow), and innumerable other opaque factors. Say that I have to decide how, in just Boulder County alone, all private farm land is to be used for "the common good." On the face of it, mere experience, shrewdness, common sense, will not help me or anyone else in obtaining a "right" answer.

Thus, if I were one of the authors of our departmental memorandum I could truthfully say, insofar as government decisionmaking has replaced individual, proprietary decisionmaking with respect to the use of land, "We need to have what we have never had before: professional decisionmakers who base their decisionmaking on science." That would indeed be our need.

For reasons already gone into, however, it is inconceivable that there should exist the science called for. Needless to say, there does not in fact exist such a science. Where, though, there is the outward semblance of a science—that is, a system of organized concepts—that semblance has to be philosophy.

Now there does in actuality exist philosophy—or, more accurately, philosophies, for the systems are numerous—which give the specious appearance of dealing in a scientistic manner with values and decisionmaking in every imaginable area. Thus, even if government did no more than arrogate to itself individuals' right to decide what to do with their own land, we can see how a condition would be created in which it would seem necessary to call for professional decisionmakers and, in addition, an adjunct bureau of philosophers. So, what the writers of our memorandum said is, superficially taken, true enough.

Indeed, when one considers the massive invasions of government into all the remaining areas of properly individual decisionmaking—personal health, safety, the education of children, and so on and so on—the urgent and sermonizing tone of those writers hardly seems urgent and sermonizing enough. Anyone acquainted with the history and nature of these topics and questions has to know, however, that the entire humanistico-scientifico proposal being promoted is either plain foolishness or plain fraud. Every knowledgeable philosopher has to be aware that decisionmaking in these remaining areas can be no more scientific and hence professional than in the area of land use. The same indeterminate connections and perceptions pervade them as pervade the uses of land.

What look like scientific adjudications—for example, the answer of this particular theory of aesthetics to such-and-such a question concerning the nature of beauty—are no more than the expressions of particular philosophers' conclusions, and these have ever been, and continue to remain, in a state of irreconcilable, mutual opposition. Knowing this, the knowledgeable philosopher who promotes the "philosophication" of bureaucratic policymaking has to be engaged in deliberate fraud. When promoted with serious intent by people who do not know what the knowledgeable philosopher knows—for example, members of the public and beginning students of philosophy—the promotion is foolishness.

If this were all that there was to the affair, one should not have to be concerned. One might even be amused. But as is made clear by my golfing partner's confidences and by the myriad "centers of value study" that are springing up everywhere in academe, this is not, today, all there is to the affair: a mere, fanciful proposal of either scheming or forgetful or unknowledgeable philosophers. The proposal in question is being clothed in the realities of bureaucratic and governmental fiat and power. It is being clothed in the make-believe vestments of a science by myriad philosophy departments in academe.

Thus, all the signs point to the philosophication of bureaucratic policymaking mushrooming explosively and maximizing itself throughout government. And this means that to every office and branch of the already vast bureaucracy will be added a layer of "professional policymakers" and to that new layer a still further layer of "research" philosophers. The contemplation of this dawning state of affairs, this ship of state with superstructure upon superstructure reared upon its already bulging decks, may delight those who intend to be part of its operating crew. It must certainly horrify everyone else.

One already sees the once finely machined, marvelously quick American industrial engine so enmeshed in bureaucratic red tape and regulations and deliberate sabotage that its wheels either barely turn or fail to turn at all. Imagine, then, what these obstructions will come to when bureaucracy not only expands horizontally, as it has in the past, but vertically, adding a new order or layer to its present structure (the self-styled professional policymakers) and then a further order or layer to that one (our analytic philosophers)!

One might perhaps hope that as the inevitable resultant further slowing down of the economy begins to pinch unmercifully, the public will awaken to the true causes of its misery and throw off the offending bureaucracies. When one considers the case of Russia, however, and the deprivations that its populace suffers year after year with no seeming awakening, one can hardly be optimistic on this score. If paper, typewriters, and printing presses are still available, will not the public be told that the stubborn, selfish, uncooperative forces of greed have sabotaged the brave new world that our professional decisionmakers and their associated philosophers were on the very verge of creating—and that hard, harsh measures against these forces need to be taken? Will not the public, infatuated with the scientific-sounding jargon in which these alarms and fulminations will be couched, probably assent?

What is to be done? One can hardly strike an optimistic note. On the other hand, wholesale pessimism is not called for either. No one can meet philosophers on their own ground but other philosophers. If this new aggression of bureaucracy is to be thrown back, it will take philosophers to do it. It is all a question whether there are enough honest philosophers to be a match for the dishonest ones. It is only as the coming battle-lines are drawn that this last question will be answered.

John Nelson is a professor of philosophy at the University of Colorado, Boulder.