Civil(?) Servants, and a handbook for aliens

I recently picked up again one of my favorite books, How to be an Alien by George Mikes. (It’s online, without the wonderful illustrations, here. If you look for it online, don’t be fooled by the inferior “Penguin Readers” version, which is… well, for aliens.)

Mikes was a Hungarian writer who moved to England in 1938. One of the chapters, on Civil Servants, immediately reminded me of some of our discussions in the Schumpeter Roundtable. In Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy (CSD), Schumpeter sometimes idolizes those experts who know how to run things rationally. Contrast that with these words from Mikes:

There is a world of difference between the English Civil Servant and the continental. On the Continent (not speaking now of the Scandinavian countries), Civil Servants assume a certain military air. They consider themselves little generals; they use delaying tactics; they cannot withdraw armies, so they withdraw permissions; they thunder like cannons and their speech is like machine-gun fire; they cannot lose battles, they lose documents instead. They consider that the sole aim of human society is to give jobs to Civil Servants.

If a former continental Civil Servant thought that this martial behaviour would be accepted by the British public he would be badly mistaken. The English Civil Servant considers himself no soldier but a glorified businessman. He is smooth and courteous; he smiles in a superior way; he is agreeable and obliging. If so – you may ask – how can he achieve the supreme object of his vast and noble organization, namely, not to transact any business and be left in peace to read a good murder story undisturbed? There are various, centuries-old, true British traditions to secure this aim.

1.All orders and directives to the public are worded in such a way that they should have no meaning whatever.
2. All official letters are written in such a language that the oracles of Delphi sound as examples of clear, outspoken, straightforward statements compared with them.
3. Civil Servants never make decisions, they only promise to ‘consider,’ – ‘consider favourably’ – or – and this is the utmost – ‘reconsider’ certain questions.
4. In principle the British Civil Servant stands always at the disposal of the public. In practice he is either in ‘conference’ or out for lunch, or in but having his tea, or just out. Some develop an admirable technique of going out for tea before coming back from lunch.

On the Continent rich and influential people, or those who have friends, cousins, brothers-in-law, tenants, business associates, etc., in an office may have their requests fulfilled. In England there is no such corruption and your obedient servant just will not do a thing whoever you may be. And this is the real beauty of democracy.

That last sentence actually connects with Schumpeter’s CSD in a bit of an unexpected way. I remember reading in CSD something about an opinion some might hold that the less well government works, the better it is. Well, it is then proven yet again that the British are at the cutting edge. Mikes is a master, so read the whole thing—but here is just one bit from the tour de force chapter entitled “How to be rude:”

It is easy to be rude on the Continent. You just shout and call people names of a zoological character.

On a slightly higher level you may invent a few stories against your opponents. In Budapest, for instance, when a rather unpleasant-looking actress joined a nudist club, her younger and prettier colleagues spread the story that she had been accepted only under the condition that she should wear a fig-leaf on her face.