Megan writes a compelling post on the function of bureacracies: to manage risk.
It is far more compelling than The Nation article that inspired it:
At a time when the press failed to check a reactionary Administration, when the opposition party all too often chose timidity, it was the lowly and anonymous bureaucrats, clad in rumpled suits, ID badges dangling from their necks, who, in their own quiet, behind-the-scenes way, took to the ramparts to defend the integrity of the American system of government.
Good thing we had all those bureaucrats; otherwise we would have gotten into a war in Iraq . . . um, wait . . . .
This one paragraph alone is ample target for a day's worth of potshots. In what mental universe is George "No Child Left Behind" Bush a reactionary? And when a Democrat administration is thwarted by the bureaucracy, what will The Nation have to say?
More prosaically, Bobvis makes a good comment:
When a bureaucrat or law writer decide that people are starting the wrong kinds of businesses in the wrong areas or aren't buying big enough homes and the like, he isn't protecting a public good. Rather, he is using his own superior knowledge of what should be happening to affect the changes he wants to see despite the preferences expressed by the people government presumably serves. You are right that it isn't because he maliciously wants to wield his power. It is because he, like you, believes that he honestly knows what's best. Again: good for water, bad for commerce.
And for my two cents: let's be carefully before we bow before the prophetic bureaucrat who predicted Bad Thing X. One feature of bureaucracies is that they have LOTS of bureaucrats predicting LOTS of things. Given enough time and bureaucrats, EVERY eventuality is predicted by somebody, and most of these predictions are wrong.
Update: And we haven't even addressed the issue of bureaucratic featherbedding. Helpfully, Trumwill does:
It's more than that the road to hell is paved with good intentions, it's that no one believes that it's in the government's best interest that they lose their job, be more closely scrutinized, take a paycut, or whatnot. People will always be able to convince themselves that what is best for them is best for the nation.