George Lucas’ Star Wars saga may have been inspired by ancient myths, World War II, and old samurai movies, but this space opera also contains insights about how bureaucracies operate.
This December, Star Wars concluded the Skywalker saga, which gave me the perfect excuse to re-watch all 9 movies. What you might not have noticed, mixed in with the action and adventure, is an example of the inherent weaknesses in bureaucracies. Bureaucratic management reduces innovation and fosters groupthink, which prevents the adoption of new ideas and hampers the performance of the organization.
In the much-maligned prequel trilogy, the Jedi, defenders of the Republic, are defeated and driven into hiding by the evil Sith. While the Jedi appeared much more powerful, by the prequels they had ossified into a bureaucracy, which helps explain their failures.
First, let’s look at how bureaucracies function in our galaxy. Private firms are guided by profit and loss to make decisions, but organizations that do not operate in a market cannot rely on those signals. Lacking that performance metric, bureaucracies use other methods.
Within bureaucracies, management limits the discretion of employees to ensure that their goals are reached. Procedure becomes codified and performance is measured by adherence to procedure. Employees are rewarded for complying with rules and carrying out the will of supervisors, “no matter how unreasonable or contrary to what is intended,” according to the economist Ludwig Von Mises. That’s why the DMV will not accept your birth certificate if there is an extra space in your name that doesn’t appear on your social security card.
The length of the procedure reduces the ability to respond to sudden changes or innovation. For instance, NASA’s procurement cycle was so long that new technology became obsolete by the time they could approve it. Building new infrastructure takes years of permitting applications, environmental impact studies, rounds of bidding, and other procedural hurdles to begin construction, even if the need is immediate.
Predictably, this management style encourages conformity within the organization and destroys incentives to innovate. Procedure remains the same, even if old methods become obsolete. To illustrate, 63 percent of the acquisition personnel polled in the US military are not confident that reform efforts will succeed in overcoming the administrative roadblocks which decelerate the process.
But how does the Jedi order of the prequels exemplify a bureaucracy? It had existed in its modern form for over a thousand generations. During that entire period, the Jedi Code provided a structure within which the Jedi could function and maintain peace and justice in the galaxy. The code represented the culmination of all the knowledge gained through the past experiences of the Jedi, remaining largely unchanged until their defeat.
Unfortunately, this stability came at the expense of adapting, or learning from new experiences. Instead, the Jedi clung to their old dogmas despite significant changes in the galaxy and their enemies.
The Jedi code placed strict limits on what force powers the Jedi could use, a policy which could be detrimental when battling a Sith who would use any power necessary to win. Not only did they forbid using certain powers, they forbade their study entirely. It was this ban on studying the nature of the dark side of the force that opened the door for Anakin Skywalker’s temptation.
In The Phantom Menace, Qui-Gon Jinn did not conform to Jedi orthodoxy, which made him practically a heretic. By opening himself to the will of the Living Force rather than solely following the will of the Jedi Council, Qui-Gon was able to see more clearly than the other Jedi. However, as is often the case in a bureaucracy, his refusal to align with the wishes of the council and strictly adhere to the Jedi Code resulted in conflicts with the council. Obi-Wan Kenobi, his Padawan, told him as much, saying “If you’d just follow the code you’d be on the council.” Clearly, only those who adhered to the code—i.e. followed procedure—would advance in the order. For most Jedi, deference to the council was absolute.
Despite the prophesy that he would bring balance to the force, the Council initially refused to allow Anakin to be trained because he was older than their standard. Policy must be adhered to absolutely, from Jedi training to the DMV, despite the potential gain. Had the Jedi Council not acquiesced to Qui-Gon’s dying wish to train Anakin, the Jedi would not have been ultimately victorious. In this case, following procedure would have worsened the outcome, despite the best intentions. When the realities facing the Jedi changed as the Clone Wars raged, they did not adapt their procedures, refusing to promote Anakin to master because he had not met all the prerequisites.
The Sith took the opposite approach, completely redesigning their order after their defeat in the Great Sith War. Under Darth Bane, the Star Wars universe’s ultimate entrepreneur, they changed their structure to the Rule of Two seen in the saga to overcome their flaws and exploit the Jedi’s weaknesses. They were eventually successful, defeating the Jedi and establishing an empire under their control.
While they may have existed a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, the Jedi Order of the prequels provides a great example of some of the shortcomings of bureaucracy. While American bureaucracy is unlikely to lead to the formation of an evil galactic empire, it does have inherent flaws. It is important to remember these flaws when we find ourselves designing a public policy that requires bureaucracy for its implementation.
Catalyst articles by Conor Norris