• The Political Forum

Immigration, Bureaucracy, and Dehumanization

Updated: Jun 30, 2018


Over the course of the last couple of weeks, the opposition to President Trump has morphed into opposition to the entire federal immigration bureaucracy. Department of Homeland Security employees have been warned to expect public harassment or confrontations. Their boss, Kristjen Nielsen, was chased from a Mexican restaurant by an organized mob of Democratic Socialists. And perhaps most notably, Democratic politicians and candidates have begun calling for the abolition of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency (ICE), insisting that it and its agents are a big part of the problem. This last trend reached a new highpoint last night, when a sitting U.S. Senator and presumed presidential hopeful, Kristen Gillibrand, joined the fray, telling CNN, “I believe that ICE has become a deportation force … and that’s why I believe you should get rid of it, start over, reimagine it and build something that actually works.”


Part of this, of course, is the Left’s intellectual tradition, it’s affinity for the Rousseauvian tenet that original sin is a destructive myth. Men are born perfect, Rousseau wrote, but his social and political institutions fail him. Or, as he put it in Emile, “Everything is good as it comes from the hands of the creator; everything degenerates in the hands of man.”


In practice, this means that the Left is always trying to perfect the institutions of government and society more generally. If we can just fix this bureau…or expand that agency…or get more money for that program…we’ll be able to solve the problem – ALL the problems. When Kristen Gillibrand says that ICE should be replaced by “something that actually works,” she is embracing Rousseau wholeheartedly, blaming the institutions and demanding their perfection or “reimagining.”


A bigger part of the Left’s current urge to purge, however, is the fact that the immigration crisis has forced it to confront an eternal truth, one that the Right has been shouting about for decades: Big Government is a threat to liberty and dignity. And it’s a threat not because it costs too much or necessitates raising taxes, but because it’s inherently flawed. The Problem with Big Government is Big Government.


The Left seems to acknowledge this problem tacitly, at least where immigration is concerned, but fails to grasp the larger significance. The “Resistance” insists that it is justified in targeting individual government employees because “I was just following orders” is not a valid excuse. Yet it is incapable of understanding why this is so and what it means for government more generally.


The problems with bureaucracy as an organizational structure are many, and conservatives complain about most of them. In this case, though, the issue is “dehumanization.”


Dehumanization generally takes one of two forms, animalistic or mechanistic. Animalistic dehumanization is by far the better known of the two. It is characterized by the scapegoating an “out” group. The out-group's humanity is denied. It's members are defined by the in group as less than human -- often likened to vermin.


We see this type of dehumanization all the time in expressions of ideology or in preparation for war or countless other situations. We saw it most obviously and most horrifyingly in what the Nazis did to Europe's Jews, whom they considered sub-human. The Left also believes that it sees it in the behavior of Donald Trump, conservatives, and ICE toward illegal immigrants. This is why the Left keeps using Nazi analogies to explain what is happening at the Southern border. The Left honestly believes that the administration and its supporters see immigrants as sub-human and thus unworthy of human rights or human dignity.


But in this the Left is flat wrong. Instead, what we are witnessing at the border are the effects of mechanistic dehumanization, which works much differently and thus suggests far different remedies.


As with animalistic dehumanization, mechanistic dehumanization is a process by which human characteristics are denied to a specific subset of people, only in the mechanistic case, the members of the target population are likened to machines, to automatons. These targets too are denied their basic humanity, but in a way that makes them more efficient, more calculating, less emotional than normal humans. This is precisely the effect that big bureaucracies have on bureaucrats, as the godfather of Sociology, Max Weber, explained:

From a purely technical point of view, a bureaucracy is capable of attaining the highest degree of efficiency, and is in this sense formally the most rational known means of exercising authority over human beings. It is superior to any other form in precision, in stability, in the stringency of its discipline, and in its reliability. It thus makes possible a particularly high degree of calculability of results for the heads of the organization and for those acting in relation to it. It is finally superior both in intensive efficiency and in the scope of its operations and is formally capable of application to all kinds of administrative tasks.

What this means in practice, then, is that a bureaucracy adheres to specific tenets, which Weber outlined in his “ideal type.” And chief among these is the principle of detachment, which is to say an obligation that both the bureaucracy and individual bureaucrats remain personally indifferent to their task and its clients. Again, as Weber put it:

When fully developed, bureaucracy stands . . . under the principle of sine ira ac studio (without scorn and bias). Its specific nature which is welcomed by capitalism develops the more perfectly the more bureaucracy is ‘dehumanized,’ the more completely it succeeds in eliminating from official business love, hatred, and all purely personal, irrational and emotional elements which escape calculation. This is the specific nature of bureaucracy and it is appraised as its special virtue.

As Weber notes, there are immeasurable benefits to this sort of mechanistic dehumanization in the context of bureaucratic administration. But there are also immeasurable detriments as well.


Perhaps the best known and widest read expert on the dangers and crushing effects of mechanistic dehumanization is Hannah Arendt, who, in her later works addressed the topic in great detail, spelling out the unspeakable horros that lurk in the bureaucratic apparatus and in the mind of the bureaucrat himself.


In her Reflections on Violence, Arendt noted the effect of bureaucratization on government. She also acknowledged that, in the end, this effect leads nowhere good. She wrote:

These definitions coincide with the terms which, since Greek antiquity, have been used to define the forms of government as the rule of man over man — of one or the few in monarchy and oligarchy, of the best or the many in aristocracy and democracy, to which today we ought to add the latest and perhaps most formidable form of such dominion, bureaucracy, or the rule by an intricate system of bureaux in which no men, neither one nor the best, neither the few nor the many, can be held responsible, and which could be properly called the rule by Nobody. Indeed, if we identify tyranny as the government that is not held to give account of itself, rule by Nobody is clearly the most tyrannical of all, since there is no one left who could even be asked to answer for what is being done….
The greater the bureaucratization of public life, the greater will be the attraction of violence. In a fully developed bureaucracy there is nobody left with whom one could argue, to whom one could present grievances, on whom the pressures of power could be exerted. Bureaucracy is the form of government in which everybody is deprived of political freedom, of the power to act; for the rule by Nobody is not no-rule, and where all are equally powerless we have a tyranny without a tyrant.

In her far better known and far more controversial work, Eichmann in Jerusalem, Arendt addressed the ultimate end of the mechanistic dehumanization created by the adoption of a belief in the “scientific” – and therefore unerring – nature of bureaucratic administration. Bureaucrats, who want nothing more than to be part of the team, to be one of those cogs in the machine, tend, by and large, to follow their directives, even, in many cases, if those directives are utterly depraved. This, Arendt famously wrote, is the utter “banality of evil.” It is not monsters and devils who carry out monstrous and devlish acts, but mere functionaries. To wit:

The trouble with Eichmann was precisely that so many were like him, and that the many were neither perverted nor sadistic, that they were, and still are, terribly and terrifyingly normal. From the viewpoint of our legal institutions and of our moral standards of judgment, this normality was much more terrifying than all the atrocities put together….
Of course it is important to the political and social sciences that the essence of totalitarian government, and perhaps the nature of every bureaucracy, is to make functionaries and mere cogs in the administrative machinery out of men, and thus to dehumanize them.

Arendt was wrong about Eichmann. He was an evil man who did evil things of his own accord. But she is not wrong about the causes and effects of mechanistic dehumanization. It is a very real and very serious flaw in the technocratic, bureaucratic, Big Government model of governance.


Now, none of this is not to say that ICE employees are doing evil or that the American bureaucracy is capable of the horrors inflicted on Europe’s Jews. That’s ridiculous and unhelpful hyperbole.


It is, however, to say that the rules by which large bureaucracies are compelled to operate sometimes lead to less-than-ideal outcomes. Sometimes, bureaucracies do things that individual bureaucrats would never dream of doing.


The problem here is that bureaucracy is what it is. There is simply no other way for large, rational organizations to operate efficiently and effectively. And that means that Senator Gillibrand and the others wanting to abolish ICE are dealing in fantasies, not reality. Either the country maintains some semblance of a national border or it doesn’t. And if it does, any organization created to enforce the border will fall victim to bureaucratic inevitabilities, including mechanistic dehumanization.


Rousseau too dealt in fantasies, and no amount of tinkering on the margins will perfect Big Government and its attendant bureaucracies. As Cassius put it: "The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, But in ourselves….”