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The Great Government Philosophers

George Fripley remembers four forgotten gurus of government.

Many great thinkers have spent years studying government and how it should work, but to find the origins from which modern political theory has grown we need to look back at the ancient civilizations of Rome, Greece and China. Four little-known philosophers from these periods have provided great guidance to government over the last two millennia. These are Obstrucius, Burocrates, Futilius and Dillayus.

Obstrucius – The First and Greatest

Not many people have heard of the great philosopher Obstrucius. He lived from 550 BC to 470 BC, at a time when China was still politically fragmented. He had many ideas about how governments should be run. There is no record of the death of Obstrucius, and it is widely rumoured that he is immortal and continues to run governments all over the world.

Although his guide for bureaucrats is now lost, some of his quotes remain. The list is extremely lengthy. However, I have included a selection of some of the more pertinent ones a new government employee should become familiar with:

• ‘By three methods may we run government: First, by obstruction, which is noblest; second, by procrastination, which is easiest; and third by out-sourcing, which is dearest.’

• ‘To be able to practice the five principles everywhere in government constitutes perfect virtue: Delay decisions, watch your back, show no initiative, don’t communicate, and remain anonymous.’

• ‘He who speaks without jargon will find it difficult to achieve promotion in government.’

• ‘The will to confuse, the desire to delay, the urge to reach complete anonymity: these are the keys that will unlock the door to public service excellence.’

Burocrates – The Greek Perspective

The pre-eminent Greek political philosopher was Burocrates. Born in 450 BC, Burocrates studied early democracy and saw government in a holistic manner. He regarded it as a form of art, and viewed public servants as artists whose job was to provide aesthetically-pleasing processes and outcomes in a manner that was not rushed by the mere inconvenience of time. He was a contemporary of Socrates, and it is rumoured that these two philosophers spent many hours discussing the relative merits of democracy and royal rule over large amounts of wine. He met his death in 385 BC when he found himself in an argument with another contemporary, Aristophanes, who accused him of having all the characteristics of the popular politicians he studied: a horrible voice, bad breeding, and a vulgar manner. They both died during the quarrel when their brains dribbled out of their ears due to the banality of their arguments.

Unfortunately Burocrates is not widely known, and few, if any, academics have seriously studied his work. Consequently very little is known about him. However, he leaves us with some notable quotes, including:

• ‘The pure art of government should be unsullied by the ticking of the clock.’

• ‘Where the path appears straight and without danger, extra care should be taken and your pace slowed.’

• ‘The vote is a precious thing, its value priceless. Never have so many people been kept happy by such a futile act.’

• ‘Let a politician announce decisions and keep him happy for a day. Let a politician think he made the decisions, and keep him happy for a whole term of government.’

Futilius – The Study of Committees

Ancient Rome had a philosopher who made a career out of investigating the process of committees – Futilius. Futilius carried out his work in the time of Lucius Cornelius Sulla, Gaius Julius Caesar and Augustus. He was born in Rome in 99 BC and died shortly after Julius Caesar in 40 BC. Invited to chair a committee, he decided to put his theories to the test, but was brutally stabbed to death by the committee’s executive officers after only three weeks. As with Burocrates, Futilius developed a great deal of advice that has stood the test of time, but has received little if no recognition for his work. Five of his best-known quotes are included here:

• ‘Chairs should every night call themselves to account. What decision have they delayed today? What proposals opposed? What innovation resisted? What public servant frustrated? Projects will abort of themselves if they be brought under this discipline.’

• ‘Be extremely vague, even to the point of deferral. Be extremely mysterious, even to the point of confusion. Thereby you can be the director of the public servant’s descent into insanity.’

• ‘All public servants servicing the Board pass through three stages. First, they are ridiculed. Second, they are violently opposed. Third, it is accepted that they are too difficult to change, and they are ignored.’

• ‘All Board meetings are based on procrastination. There is no place where the brakes are not applied. Offer the public servants hope to lure them in, and then trap them in a cage of frustration.’

• ‘Where no policy exists, ask for a new one; where a policy does exist, ask for a new one; where there is no need for a policy, insist on a new one.’

Dillayus – Out of the Shadow of Futilius

At the same time Nero was striding through the corridors of Rome, Dillayus was contemplating the complex area of government decision-making. He was born in Rome in 5 AD and grew up reading much of the work of Futilius. He identified areas that Futilius had not spent much time researching, and ended up specialising in the study of emergency situations where decisions appeared imminent.

He is perhaps not as well known as Futilius, and might not have the same standing. However he did produce a large body of work that remains relevant. He died in 64 AD when he was trapped in the great fire that swept Rome, after finding himself distracted by Nero’s fiddle playing and unable to decide on the best course of action. His gems of wisdom include:

• ‘If in doubt, employ an outside expert to review all information.’

• ‘The pure joy of procrastination is unrivalled by other experience in government.’

• ‘When all other means of obstruction have been exhausted, all that is left is public consultation, the mother of all delaying tactics.’

• ‘There is never enough information to make a decision. Those who disagree are not in possession of all the facts.’

• ‘When all is lost and a decision is inevitable, take solace in the fact that you did everything possible to prevent it.’

© George Fripley 2009

George Fripley lives in Australia and works for the government.

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