Like what you've read?

On Line Opinion is the only Australian site where you get all sides of the story. We don't
charge, but we need your support. Here�s how you can help.

  • Advertise

    We have a monthly audience of 70,000 and advertising packages from $200 a month.

  • Volunteer

    We always need commissioning editors and sub-editors.

  • Contribute

    Got something to say? Submit an essay.

 The National Forum   Donate   Your Account   On Line Opinion   Forum   Blogs   Polling   About   
On Line Opinion logo ON LINE OPINION - Australia's e-journal of social and political debate


On Line Opinion is a not-for-profit publication and relies on the generosity of its sponsors, editors and contributors. If you would like to help, contact us.


RSS 2.0

The great government philosophers

By George Fripley - posted Wednesday, 30 July 2008

Many great thinkers have spent years studying government and how it should work. These individuals are often overlooked, but they provide important insights into how bureaucratic systems work. As far back as the classical civilisations we can find the origins from which modern government has grown.

We need to look back at the ancient civilisations of Rome, Greece and China. There are four little-known philosophers from this period who have provided great guidance to government during the last two millennia. These are Obstrucius, Burocrates, Futilius and Dillayus.

Obstrucius - the first and greatest

Not many people have heard of the great government philosopher Obstrucius. He lived from 550BC to 470BC in a time when China was still fragmented. He is an often forgotten philosopher who had many ideas about how governments should be run.


The view that he eventually came to was that every employee within a bureaucracy could probably use the same advice. Unfortunately his guide for bureaucrats is now lost, but some of his quotes remain. The list is extremely lengthy, however I have included a selection of some of the more pertinent ones that the new government employee should become familiar with. 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.

  • 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 paradigms everywhere in government constitutes perfect virtue: delay decisions, cover one’s arse, 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.
  • A public servant who commits a mistake and doesn’t correct it should follow government paradigm number two.

Burocrates - the Greek perspective

The pre-eminent Greek philosopher was Burocrates. Born in 450BC, 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 385BC 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.

During the quarrel they both died 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 of his 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.
  • A quick decision is like a premature ejaculation. It deprives the bureaucrat of respect and leaves him feeling unsatisfied.
  • 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 bureaucratic process of committees - Futilius. Futilius carried out his work in the time of Lucius Cornelius Sulla, Gaius Julius Caesar and Augustus and studied the public service of the day.

He was born in Rome in 99BC and died shortly after Julius Caesar in 40BC only three weeks after he was himself asked to chair a committee as he seemed to know so much about it. He decided to put his theories to the test and was brutally stabbed to death by the committee’s executive officer, who insisted that he had done the world a favour.

As with Burocrates, he developed a great deal of advice that has stood the test of time but received little, if no recognition for his work. Five of his best known quotes are included below.

  1. Pages:
  2. Page 1
  3. 2
  4. All

Discuss in our Forums

See what other readers are saying about this article!

Click here to read & post comments.

13 posts so far.

Share this:
reddit this reddit thisbookmark with Del.icio.usdigg thisseed newsvineSeed NewsvineStumbleUpon StumbleUponsubmit to propellerkwoff it

About the Author

George Friplely has worked in the public service for more than eight years, and in that time has risen to the dizzying heights of managing an agency (for a brief period of time). He has a great deal of experience in dealing with the day-to-day decision-making processes and has a wealth of knowledge about government process. He is currently in hiding among the stacks of files in his government department, hoping that his revelations do not cause him to become the subject of an ASIO investigation, or worse still, that somebody realises that he actually exists and sends some work his way! George blogs at and George's thoughts on government and bureaucracy are now available in the definitive government employees manual, You Can't Polish A Turd - the Civil Servant's Manual, published by Night Publishing. His next book provisionally titled The Dregs of History is due for release in 2011.

Other articles by this Author

All articles by George Fripley

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

Article Tools
Comment 13 comments
Print Printable version
Subscribe Subscribe
Email Email a friend

About Us Search Discuss Feedback Legals Privacy