Administrative Evil

While philosophical underpinnings are important
It is the things that can happen as a result that are more so.

Here’s the full quote from Keynes,

“…the ideas of economists and political philosophers, both when they are right and when they are wrong, are more powerful than is commonly understood. Indeed the world is ruled by little else. Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influences, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist. Madmen in authority, who hear voices in the air, are distilling their frenzy from some academic scribbler of a few years back. I am sure that the power of vested interests is vastly exaggerated compared with the gradual encroachment of ideas. Not, indeed, immediately, but after a certain interval; for in the field of economic and political philosophy there are not many who are influenced by new theories after they are twenty-five or thirty years of age, so that the ideas which civil servants and politicians and even agitators apply to current events are not likely to be the newest. But, soon or late, it is ideas, not vested interests, which are dangerous for good or evil.” (my emphasis)

Barbour and Adams, and others
Write extensively on administrative evil.
While the term may sound a bit provocative and extreme,
It is worth keeping.

It refers to the situation
In which decision makers are so far removed
From the impact or consequences of their decisions
That they are immune to the human suffering those decisions may cause.

“The common characteristic of administrative evil is that people can engage in acts of evil without being aware that they are doing anything at all wrong.”
— Guy Adams

Much research has been done on the Holocaust in this regard.

More recently, Ken Loach’s film “I, Daniel Blake”
Captures the essence of this administrative evil admirably.
The rules are the rules, not matter the human indignity they may cause.

The true story of Stephen Smith just drives the point home…

As a middle manager,
You are just far enough away
From the consequences of the decisions
For it to be possible to be an inadvertent perpetrator of such evil
But also close enough to see the consequences.

You are also in an ideal situation to experience
What Hannah Arendt terms “moral inversion”.
This occurs when we are confronted with an immoral situation
But rationalise it away through dehumanising the impact.
“I was just doing my job / obeying orders” or
“The system says…” are common examples.

This puts the emphasis on administration
Rather than leadership.

Once again, administration not leadership.

Middle managers need to know about how their organisations work
Now, more than ever.

In large part because that is where the power and influence lie.

On the face of it,
(and a very superficial face it is)
The smooth, political operators seem to wield the power.

But the truth is that power is held by the technocrats
Those who create the underlying business rules,
Those who set up the systems.

Because systems drive behaviour.

In an organisation, this is your Corporate Services
They set the culture, the rest is just fluff
Or, as a colleague once said
The “foam on the cesspool”.

It is the hidden workings that hold the power
Not the charismatic leaders, the people people.
In other words,
If you don’t understand how the system works,
You are the foam.

As a middle manager you understand this
To be able to navigate your way through the myriad conflicting
Messages and statements that come from
On high
From each side
From below

Listen to those coming up from below
They are where the truth can be found

Management is a craft
It holds together leadership and administration

The technocrats (Corporate Services) have shown
That it is perfectly possible to run large organisations
Without charismatic leadership
The machine just keeps turning.

Lenin called those who acted on ideas
Without understanding them, “useful idiots”.
Hayek expressed the same sentiment to the founder of think tanks
With his recommendation to “peddle second-hand ideas”.

Best not to be one of those…

Middle managers don’t have that luxury
They are subject to the whims of those leaders

The key to combatting the technocrats
Lies with understanding the administration.

Everyone of us who works in an organisation
Is subject to the thinking done elsewhere.
The harm done by those who write the software
Has been described by Jesse Dillard
In his paper, “Enterprise resource planning systems: A physical manifestation of administrative evil”

It behooves us to have at least a cursory understanding of the thinking behind it.

A personal note, if I may.
I find that unless I understand why,
It is very difficult to follow an order or instruction
(I was never a very good naval officer because of this)
But it has taken me several decades to understand why this was the case.


To really understand why,
It is necessary to understand the thinking framework in use.
To this end, the only reason I did an MBA,
And later a Certificate in Company Direction,
Was to try to understand the thinking
Being taught to managers and directors.

Turns out it’s the same and it turns out
That it is underpinned by this technical rationality
Of which we have been speaking.

Trouble is, no-one tells you that so you either just accept it – not always easy – or you go through life with a vague sense of unease.

To continue on this path, that’s all you need,

A vague sense of unease.