Weber and the Politics of the Covid-19 Crisis

Koen Bartels

Now our wonderful Polish cleaner can no longer come by, we are cleaning our house ourselves. While I was cleaning downstairs last weekend, I was listening to my favourite Dutch radio programme. The Dutch Minister of Culture, Sports and Education was being interviewed. The presenter asked her how difficult she finds it to do politics at this time of crisis. She replied that she’s doing very little politics actually because people don’t want politics, they want action and problem-solving.

‘That makes sense’, I found myself thinking while dusting my bookshelves. Doing politics is too time-consuming. Right now, we need governments to act fast. We should not distract those in charge with too much unnecessary debate.

But then I laid eyes on book by Max Weber. His over a century-old work on bureaucracy continues to shape our understanding of modern government. A key element of which is that politics and administration are fundamentally different activities and should be kept separate based on a strict division of roles and responsibilities. Politics is about thinking, debate, making decisions, the public interest, values. Administration is about doing, following rules, rational expertise, efficiency. As Woodrow Wilson on the other side of the pond declared around the same time as Weber: “Administration lies outside the proper sphere of politics. Administrative questions are not political questions” (Wilson, 1887, p. 210).

It was this politics-administration dichotomy that the Minister was invoking and which has resounded across the globe during the Covid-19 crisis. Political leaders shun responsibility for decisions because everything they do is informed by ‘science’. Emergency interventions and safety nets from governments are ‘the most optimal solutions in a bad situation’. Nobody can challenge their noble intentions and expertise when all they are doing is ‘protecting the most vulnerable’.

Yet, the politics-administration dichotomy is a fallacy. And a dangerous one at that. Already in 1900, Frank Goodnow argued that the distinction between politics and administration was analytically possible, but non-existent in practice. One of the most widely accepted insights in our field nowadays are that public managers operate in a political environment. Another is that even bureaucrats working at the front line are significant policy-makers. Ignoring or trying to suppress the politics of administration is not just inaccurate, it is deceitful.

Weber developed the dichotomy as a heuristic. That is, a sense-making device for studying the actual behaviour and relationships of politicians and bureaucrats. Weber argued that the very core of how government works is determined by how bureaucrats balance the formal rationality of their organisation (adhering to hierarchical orders and formal procedures) and its substantive rationality (making decisions about what public values to pursue). Weber’s central purpose was to reveal how this balancing act translated into the ways in which authoritative organisations dominate society and limit individual freedom.

So let’s remain aware that all responses to the current crisis are political. Each and every decision and intervention is based on certain values and a consideration of interests. Who is considered ‘eligible’ for state support or who counts as ‘vulnerable’ are political decisions. Procedures and criteria drawn up under great pressure are bound to fail those whose needs are the largest and most complex.

In the crisis management literature, the politics of it all is a key premise. Crisis are highly complex and uncertain. The imperative to act quickly means those in charge fixate on short term interests and rely on dominant values. Structural causes of the crises and long term implications for equality and justice, not so much of a concern. The shocking disproportionate  Covid-19 related death rate of the African-American population in the USA is a case in point. Poverty, poor housing and insufficient infrastructure all serve to weaken health and increase exposure.

Politics is about who gets what, when and how, as Harold Lasswell famously declared in 1936. Also, or especially in a time of crisis. Our cleaner, for instance, gets little to none now. In Weber’s spirit, therefore, we need to put public values and power at the heart of our responses to the Covid-19 crisis.


Koen Bartels joined INLOGOV in October 2018 as Senior Lecturer in Public Management. He holds a BSc and MPhil in Public Administration from Leiden University (the Netherlands) and a PhD in Politics from the University of Glasgow. His research focuses on public encounters between front-line workers and citizens in an urban context. He teaches courses in leadership, performance, participation, and public management. He is also co-convener of the ECPR Standing Group on Theoretical Perspectives on Policy Analysis and editorial board member for Administrative Theory & Praxis.



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