Quote of the Day: Frank Herbert on Government and Bureaucracy

 

Most think of Frank Herbert’s Dune series as stories of prescience and the spice, of waring Fremen charging out of the desert.  The second trilogy, however, has some interesting perspectives on government and its excesses.  These quotes on bureaucracy are from the final Dune novel, Chapterhouse Dune.*

“Surely you know bureaucracies always become voracious aristocracies after they attain commanding power.”

“A top-heavy bureaucracy the electorate cannot touch always expands to the system’s limits of energy. Steal it from the aged, from the retired, from anyone. Especially from those we once called middle class because that’s where most of the energy originates.”

Power attracts the corruptible. Absolute power attracts the absolutely corruptible. This is the danger of entrenched bureaucracy to its subject population. Even spoils systems are preferable because levels of tolerance are lower and the corrupt can be thrown out periodically. Entrenched bureaucracy seldom can be touched short of violence. Beware when Civil Service and Military join hands!

“These are political questions,” Odrade said. “They demonstrate how motives of bureaucracy are directly opposed to the need for adapting to change. Adaptability is a prime requirement for life to survive.”

He also includes some good advice for governance.

“We should grant power over our affairs only to those who are reluctant to hold it and then only under conditions that increase the reluctance.”

*Note that the books by Brian Herbert are so awful that they don’t qualify as part of the Dune series.

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  1. The Reticulator Member
    The Reticulator
    @TheReticulator

    Never heard of the author before, but those points are very good. I see that it was written in 1985. I doubt any of us would have argued with them back then, but I almost wish we didn’t understand those points as well as we do now.

    • #1
  2. Clavius Thatcher
    Clavius
    @Clavius

    The Reticulator (View Comment):

    Never heard of the author before, but those points are very good. I see that it was written in 1985. I doubt any of us would have argued with them back then, but I almost wish we didn’t understand those points as well as we do now.

    Dune, the first book in the series, is a good read even if you don’t usually read science fiction.

    And his comments are prescient.

    • #2
  3. Mark Alexander Coolidge
    Mark Alexander
    @MarkAlexander

    Clavius (View Comment):

    The Reticulator (View Comment):

    Never heard of the author before, but those points are very good. I see that it was written in 1985. I doubt any of us would have argued with them back then, but I almost wish we didn’t understand those points as well as we do now.

    Dune, the first book in the series, is a good read even if you don’t usually read science fiction.

    And his comments are prescient.

    Reti doesn’t do fiction. Of course, the best of sci-fi presages non-fiction.

    • #3
  4. Randy Webster Member
    Randy Webster
    @RandyWebster

    Clavius: “We should grant power over our affairs only to those who are reluctant to hold it and then only under conditions that increase the reluctance.”

    The problem is that those who are reluctant to hold power rarely go to the effort to run for office.

    • #4
  5. Clavius Thatcher
    Clavius
    @Clavius

    Randy Webster (View Comment):

    Clavius: “We should grant power over our affairs only to those who are reluctant to hold it and then only under conditions that increase the reluctance.”

    The problem is that those who are reluctant to hold power rarely go to the effort to run for office.

    Yes, this does suppose some sort of system where people are selected to serve rather than volunteering, which creates its own problems.

    • #5
  6. Franco Member
    Franco
    @Franco

    Passages like this are why some books don’t translate well into films because you lose so much background. I still am hoping for the new film to be good.

    • #6
  7. Gumby Mark (R-Meth Lab of Democracy) Thatcher
    Gumby Mark (R-Meth Lab of Democracy)
    @GumbyMark

    Also from Children of Dune:

    “When I am Weaker than you, I ask you for Freedom because that is according to your principles; when I am Stronger than you, I take away your Freedom because that is according to my principles.”

    • #7
  8. DaveSchmidt Coolidge
    DaveSchmidt
    @DaveSchmidt

    Gumby Mark (R-Meth Lab of Demo… (View Comment):

    from Children of Dune:

    “When I am Weaker than you, I ask you for Freedom because that is according to your principles; when I am Stronger than you, I take away your Freedom because that is according to my principles.”

    I am adding this to my collection of quotes.  

    • #8
  9. Randy Webster Member
    Randy Webster
    @RandyWebster

    Clavius (View Comment):

    Randy Webster (View Comment):

    Clavius: “We should grant power over our affairs only to those who are reluctant to hold it and then only under conditions that increase the reluctance.”

    The problem is that those who are reluctant to hold power rarely go to the effort to run for office.

    Yes, this does suppose some sort of system where people are selected to serve rather than volunteering, which creates its own problems.

    I read a sci-fi story once (maybe by Vonnegut) where the chief executive was chosen by lot.  Couldn’t be much worse than what we have now.

    • #9
  10. Clavius Thatcher
    Clavius
    @Clavius

    Randy Webster (View Comment):

    Clavius (View Comment):

    Randy Webster (View Comment):

    Clavius: “We should grant power over our affairs only to those who are reluctant to hold it and then only under conditions that increase the reluctance.”

    The problem is that those who are reluctant to hold power rarely go to the effort to run for office.

    Yes, this does suppose some sort of system where people are selected to serve rather than volunteering, which creates its own problems.

    I read a sci-fi story once (maybe by Vonnegut) where the chief executive was chosen by lot. Couldn’t be much worse than what we have now.

    Shades of the WF Buckley quote:

    “I would rather be governed by the first 2,000 people in the telephone directory,” he said, “than by the Harvard University faculty.”

    • #10
  11. Percival Thatcher
    Percival
    @Percival

    Randy Webster (View Comment):

    Clavius (View Comment):

    Randy Webster (View Comment):

    Clavius: “We should grant power over our affairs only to those who are reluctant to hold it and then only under conditions that increase the reluctance.”

    The problem is that those who are reluctant to hold power rarely go to the effort to run for office.

    Yes, this does suppose some sort of system where people are selected to serve rather than volunteering, which creates its own problems.

    I read a sci-fi story once (maybe by Vonnegut) where the chief executive was chosen by lot. Couldn’t be much worse than what we have now.

    I remember that one too. The protagonist got a letter in the mail that said “Greetings from the US Government” that went on to tell him that he was President.

    • #11
  12. Paul Stinchfield Member
    Paul Stinchfield
    @PaulStinchfield

    • #12
  13. Paul Stinchfield Member
    Paul Stinchfield
    @PaulStinchfield

    • #13
  14. Skyler Coolidge
    Skyler
    @Skyler

    Frank Herbert writes very well, and is very engaging.  He convinced me to read through, I think, three and a half volumes of “Dune.”  At that point, however, I realized it was never going to make sense, was never going to have a point, and was never going to have any consistency at all.  

    I wonder if his political ruminations are as beguilingly empty.

    • #14
  15. Clavius Thatcher
    Clavius
    @Clavius

    Skyler (View Comment):

    Frank Herbert writes very well, and is very engaging. He convinced me to read through, I think, three and a half volumes of “Dune.” At that point, however, I realized it was never going to make sense, was never going to have a point, and was never going to have any consistency at all.

    I wonder if his political ruminations are as beguilingly empty.

    Having been through all six Dune books many times (I first read Dune as a college freshman in 1978), I like the whole arc of the story even without the political philosophy.  But on my last pass through earlier this year, I found his political commentary, which is incidental for the most part to the plot, to be relevant to today’s politics.

    Its relevance for you or for any of us is our own to judge.  But I see a truth in his observations.

     

    • #15
  16. Al Sparks Thatcher
    Al Sparks
    @AlSparks

    Herbert didn’t just comment on government, but ecology too.  Dune is riddled through comments about ecology, and I’ve no doubt he would have been in the middle of the present climate change debate.  He probably would have agreed that there was human caused climate change.  After all, the Dune novels include the premise that humans can affect a planet’s ecology, since the fictional planet, called Dune is turned from a desert planet to one that has abundant water, reducing the amount of desert the planet had.

    That might mean he would have been an advocate of geo-engineering and he might also be an advocate of globalism to achieve it.  In his lifetime, he had some comments of the politics of the time.  He opposed the Vietnam War, and he was against the Nixon Administration during Watergate.  If anything, his partisan inclinations seemed to tend towards the Democrats.  Dune seems to advocate a dictatorship, well an empire actually, to end war.

    There are comments about how much softer the populace of the planet has become, including less warlike, but also less resilient, and more decadent.

    Mostly, I would say that Herbert was suspicious of human government, and probably did not believe in democracy over totalitarianism.  He was cynical of religion too.

    As a political conservative, I wouldn’t hang my hat on Herbert as a political philosopher overall.

    • #16
  17. Clavius Thatcher
    Clavius
    @Clavius

    Al Sparks (View Comment):

    Herbert didn’t just comment on government, but ecology too. Dune is riddled through comments about ecology, and I’ve no doubt he would have been in the middle of the present climate change debate. He probably would have agreed that there was human caused climate change. After all, the Dune novels include the premise that humans can affect a planet’s ecology, since the fictional planet, called Dune is turned from a desert planet to one that has abundant water, reducing the amount of desert the planet had.

    That might mean he would have been an advocate of geo-engineering and he might also be an advocate of globalism to achieve it. In his lifetime, he had some comments of the politics of the time. He opposed the Vietnam War, and he was against the Nixon Administration during Watergate. If anything, his partisan inclinations seemed to tend towards the Democrats. Dune seems to advocate a dictatorship, well an empire actually, to end war.

    There are comments about how much softer the populace of the planet has become, including less warlike, but also less resilient, and more decadent.

    Mostly, I would say that Herbert was suspicious of human government, and probably did not believe in democracy over totalitarianism. He was cynical of religion too.

    As a political conservative, I wouldn’t hang my hat on Herbert as a political philosopher overall.

    I would not “hang my hat” on Herbert as a political philosopher.  I think he created a future to comment on it. He did create the greatest totalitarian of all time — Leto, the God Emperor, but regardless of if it was advocacy or not, it was thoughtful reflection.

    He presented ideas in the midst of what I find a good story.  The ideas are challenging, but in no way do I thing that Herbert presents a way forward.  He does reflect on the consequences of our choices, and takes a very long view. That long view is the prerogative of the science fiction writer.

    • #17
  18. The Reticulator Member
    The Reticulator
    @TheReticulator

    Al Sparks (View Comment):
    As a political conservative, I wouldn’t hang my hat on Herbert as a political philosopher overall.

    How about stealing the currency out of his wallet?

    • #18
  19. Paul Stinchfield Member
    Paul Stinchfield
    @PaulStinchfield

    Al Sparks (View Comment):
    Herbert didn’t just comment on government, but ecology too.

    See Frank Herbert’s essay “Dune Genesis” in the July 1980 issue of Omni Magazine, in which he discusses the book’s major themes and how he came to write it:

    “I conceived of a long novel, the whole trilogy as one book about the messianic convulsions that periodically overtake us.
    . . .
    This, then, was one of my themes for Dune: Don’t give over all of your critical faculties to people in power, no matter how admirable those people may appear to be. Beneath the hero’s facade you will find a human being who makes human mistakes. Enormous problems arise when human mistakes are made on the grand scale available to a superhero. And sometimes you run into another problem.
    It is demonstrable that power structures tend to attract people who want power for the sake of power and that a significant proportion of such people are imbalanced-in a word, insane.
    . . .
    I had already written several pieces about ecological matters, but my superhero concept filled me with a concern that ecology might be the next banner for demagogues and would-be-heroes, for the power seekers and others ready to find an adrenaline high in the launching of a new crusade…”

    • #19
  20. Old Bathos Moderator
    Old Bathos
    @OldBathos

    Randy Webster (View Comment):

    Clavius: “We should grant power over our affairs only to those who are reluctant to hold it and then only under conditions that increase the reluctance.”

    The problem is that those who are reluctant to hold power rarely go to the effort to run for office.

    Funny how the more centralized power is, the more likely it is that you will get a Joe Stalin, Saddam Hussein or Liz Warren at the top instead of a Mother Teresa or Mr. Rogers.

    • #20
  21. Saint Augustine Member
    Saint Augustine
    @SaintAugustine

    Power corrupts. Fame corrupts. Money corrupts.  Any of the three coming from the government comes braided together with the other two, dragging extra corruption behind them.

    • #21
  22. Clavius Thatcher
    Clavius
    @Clavius

    Paul Stinchfield (View Comment):

    Al Sparks (View Comment):
    Herbert didn’t just comment on government, but ecology too.

    See Frank Herbert’s essay “Dune Genesis” in the July 1980 issue of Omni Magazine, in which he discusses the book’s major themes and how he came to write it:

    “I conceived of a long novel, the whole trilogy as one book about the messianic convulsions that periodically overtake us.
    . . .
    This, then, was one of my themes for Dune: Don’t give over all of your critical faculties to people in power, no matter how admirable those people may appear to be. Beneath the hero’s facade you will find a human being who makes human mistakes. Enormous problems arise when human mistakes are made on the grand scale available to a superhero. And sometimes you run into another problem.
    It is demonstrable that power structures tend to attract people who want power for the sake of power and that a significant proportion of such people are imbalanced-in a word, insane.
    . . .
    I had already written several pieces about ecological matters, but my superhero concept filled me with a concern that ecology might be the next banner for demagogues and would-be-heroes, for the power seekers and others ready to find an adrenaline high in the launching of a new crusade…”

    Excellent!

    • #22
  23. Paul Stinchfield Member
    Paul Stinchfield
    @PaulStinchfield

    Clavius (View Comment):

    Paul Stinchfield (View Comment):

    Al Sparks (View Comment):
    Herbert didn’t just comment on government, but ecology too.

    See Frank Herbert’s essay “Dune Genesis” in the July 1980 issue of Omni Magazine, in which he discusses the book’s major themes and how he came to write it:

    “I conceived of a long novel, the whole trilogy as one book about the messianic convulsions that periodically overtake us.
    . . .
    This, then, was one of my themes for Dune: Don’t give over all of your critical faculties to people in power, no matter how admirable those people may appear to be. Beneath the hero’s facade you will find a human being who makes human mistakes. Enormous problems arise when human mistakes are made on the grand scale available to a superhero. And sometimes you run into another problem.
    It is demonstrable that power structures tend to attract people who want power for the sake of power and that a significant proportion of such people are imbalanced-in a word, insane.
    . . .
    I had already written several pieces about ecological matters, but my superhero concept filled me with a concern that ecology might be the next banner for demagogues and would-be-heroes, for the power seekers and others ready to find an adrenaline high in the launching of a new crusade…”

    Excellent!

    Note that the essay was written in 1980, 15 years after the first Dune novel was published. It seems likely that there are other, earlier printed records of his thoughts: Science fiction writers (and readers and editors) tend to be a talkative lot. Other Ricochet members may recall such sources or even have copies.

    • #23
  24. Stad Coolidge
    Stad
    @Stad

    Clavius (View Comment):

    Skyler (View Comment):

    Frank Herbert writes very well, and is very engaging. He convinced me to read through, I think, three and a half volumes of “Dune.” At that point, however, I realized it was never going to make sense, was never going to have a point, and was never going to have any consistency at all.

    I wonder if his political ruminations are as beguilingly empty.

    Having been through all six Dune books many times (I first read Dune as a college freshman in 1978), I like the whole arc of the story even without the political philosophy. But on my last pass through earlier this year, I found his political commentary, which is incidental for the most part to the plot, to be relevant to today’s politics.

    Its relevance for you or for any of us is our own to judge. But I see a truth in his observations.

     

    I liked the first three books.  The last three kinda petered out for me . . .

    • #24
  25. Paul Stinchfield Member
    Paul Stinchfield
    @PaulStinchfield

    Stad (View Comment):
    I liked the first three books.  The last three kinda petered out for me . . .

    By then the themes were pretty much mined out and the books seemed more like just endless tales of plots within plots.

    • #25
  26. C. U. Douglas Thatcher
    C. U. Douglas
    @CUDouglas

    Herbert’s distrust of institutions spans across his works. In his ConSentiency universe (which includes short stories and two novels), the galaxy-spanning government has the Bureau of Sabotage. A Saboteur’s job is to throw a wrench into the works of whatever government or institution is planning. Both novels, Whipping Star and The Dosadi Experiment are interesting books and lack some of the philosophical baggage of the Dune series.

    • #26
  27. Dbroussa Coolidge
    Dbroussa
    @Dbroussa

    Clavius (View Comment):

    The Reticulator (View Comment):

    Never heard of the author before, but those points are very good. I see that it was written in 1985. I doubt any of us would have argued with them back then, but I almost wish we didn’t understand those points as well as we do now.

    Dune, the first book in the series, is a good read even if you don’t usually read science fiction.

    And his comments are prescient.

    I put Dune and Starship Troopers by Robert Heinlein as two of my top 10 must read books for everyone.  Their philosophical points are quite deep and resonate through time.

    • #27
  28. Dbroussa Coolidge
    Dbroussa
    @Dbroussa

    Randy Webster (View Comment):

    Clavius: “We should grant power over our affairs only to those who are reluctant to hold it and then only under conditions that increase the reluctance.”

    The problem is that those who are reluctant to hold power rarely go to the effort to run for office.

    Part of the collective mythos of our nation is that George Washington is cast as a parallel to Cincinnatus, and it is an apt parallel.  Ever since Washington, we have romanticized the ideal of Cincinnatus and looked to Generals and others that would step into a leadership role, eschewing their private lives for the greater good and, when no longer needed, return to their farms.

    Alas, the reality is that, even by our second President, the professional politician was born and with a few exceptions, has maintained their viselike grip on power, usually with our consent.  In many ways, the election of the neophyte Obama and then the completely non-politician Trump show that the people are tired of the ruling class, the ruling class is NOT tired of ruling us.

    • #28
  29. Dbroussa Coolidge
    Dbroussa
    @Dbroussa

    Al Sparks (View Comment):

    Herbert didn’t just comment on government, but ecology too. Dune is riddled through comments about ecology, and I’ve no doubt he would have been in the middle of the present climate change debate. He probably would have agreed that there was human caused climate change. After all, the Dune novels include the premise that humans can affect a planet’s ecology, since the fictional planet, called Dune is turned from a desert planet to one that has abundant water, reducing the amount of desert the planet had.

    Maybe, but maybe not.  After all, given the massive technological advancements in his future the terraforming of Arrakis was taking a very long time.  It’s not that he might think that anthropomorphic global warming was a thing (at his time it was cooling anyway), but that terraforming was considered possible on a massive and long term scale.  There is a certain conceit that humans have that we can bend nature to our will.  Look at Kim Stanely Robinson’s Mar series, or even in Aliens where Weyland-Yutani is terraforming LV-426 over hundreds of years.  Herbert shared in that conceit, but he also saw it as something so massive that it took the entire population of the world focused on a single goal in a religious sense to accomplish it.

    There are comments about how much softer the populace of the planet has become, including less warlike, but also less resilient, and more decadent.

    This is a major theme in the book.  The Sardaukar and the Fremen are the villians and heroes of the longer story arc as both are forged in the harshness of Salusa Secondus and Arrakis as part of their training to make them into the vicious and effective fighters they become, and how victory weakens them.  That is a common historical theme that sees the introspection of empires that leads to their decline and fall.  Herbert wants to examine that from two lenses.  One is the harsh nature that creates the Fremen and Sardaukar and how it strips away their humanity, and the other is how when they attain their goals, and Dune becomes a paradise, that it weakens the harsh edge that made the Fremen so strong.  Other works focus on how House Corrino kept Salusa Secundus a wasteland to be able to maintain their edge regardless of the human cost.

    He was certainly cynical of jihad as it plays a massive role in the backstory (The Butlerian Jihad) and the Fremen Jihad that made Paul Emperor.   Paul battles the future attempting to avoid the jihad that would engulf the galaxy in war and kill billions or trillions, but he can find no alternative (that doesn’t also lead to his and his families death). Maybe that was Paul’s greatest weakness, but House Atredies’ greatest strength was supposed to be their honor.

    • #29
  30. BDB Coolidge
    BDB
    @BDB

    Clavius: *Note that the books by Brian Herbert are so awful that they don’t qualify as part of the Dune series.

    WORD.

    Ostensibly written by Brian Herbert.  Some hack glommed onto him and Dad’s notes.

    • #30