Brad DeLong Asks ‘Doesn’t Anybody Read Max Weber Anymore?’

Brad DeLong asks, 'Doesn't Anybody Read Max Weber Anymore?' by which he means many things, all interesting but not, perhaps, all equally correct.

That the crew in charge thinks history is bunk, and Weber some damforeigner is all too likely. That tangled lines of command for the military are a bad thing, we can all agree. Whether this is quite as true for civilians in all cases, I'm not as sure; sometimes having criss-crossing lines can be an efficient way to move information around an organization.

But I'm least sure that I am prepared to say that either history or present experience teaches us to adopt the Roman, or British, proconsular model. In an era of modern communications, it's not necessarily wrong to have lines of authority run to HQ, nor is it necessarily wrong not to have the military report to the local viceroy. And it would be especially wrong, I think, to decide that the proconsul must be a military officer in order to unify the commands. Weber also taught us about bureaucratic virtues and there are more to them than clear lines of command and obeying orders, and while the Army has quite a few of these virtues, some of the ones that a civilian reconstruction project ought to care about are likely to go out the window in a theater of operations.

The root problem with the CPA was not, is not, that it lacks the ability to order troops around. The problem with the CPA is its (in)competence, the lack of planning before it started operations, and the very small number of officials who speak the local language or know the local culture.

If we are going to draw lessons from the British Empire — a very very mixed model if you were to ask me, or ask any number of colonized peoples, then the example I would choose to emulate is that of the district magistrate, oxford trained, fluent in three of the local languages.

While this is not time for humor, I can't resist repeating a joke that my father likes to tell about cross-cultural communication, even if it somewhat undercuts my own point:

The story goes that between the wars, the British Ambassador to China was being driven around the Chinese countryside in his shiny Bentley, when the driver got lost. But, no problem, the Ambassador had a double First in Oriental languages from Oxford, so he directed the driver to stop by a rice field where two peasants were working.

The Ambassador rolled down his window, and in his best Mandarin addressed the first Peasant.

“Pardon me, my good man, but could you be so kind as to tell me the way to Tientsin.”

The Peasant, knowing full well that foreigners cannot speak Chinese, ignored the noise from the car and went on working.

“Excuse me, sir, but could you kindly tell me the road to Tientsin?”

No reaction.




Still they went on working quietly.

Fustrated, the Ambassador rolled up his window and told his driver to drive on.

As he drove off, the second peasant turned to the first and said, “You know, if I didn't know better, I could have sworn that that foreigner was asking us how to get to Tientsin.”

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2 Responses to Brad DeLong Asks ‘Doesn’t Anybody Read Max Weber Anymore?’

  1. Brad DeLong says:

    Because we are dealing with a core function of the state–the selective application of violence in the interest of control–and because the results of violence tend to be… irreversible, unity of command and not requiring that everything go through bureaucratic trench warfare in Washington is important, modern communications or no modern communications.

    In this context it is very interesting that Maj. Gen. Conway took a look at the situation in Fallujah, decided that indirect rule was the way to go–and essentially ignored his complicated matrix chain of command…

    But I do want to focus on the idea that John Churchill had much more command over people-with-guns in eighteenth century Belgium than Gen. Abizaid does, and that the disconnect between Bremer promising he’ll find out what happened to your son and MI’s ignoring Bremer’s requests is truly remarkable.

    Smart people working cooperatively can substitute for unity of command. Like many things in bureaucracy, it is only a necessity when the people filling the positions are sub-par…

  2. Brett Bellmore says:

    Are you open to the possiblity that not everyone agrees with Webber?

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