Since being coined, the word bureaucracy has developed negative connotations. Bureaucracies have been criticized as being inefficient, convoluted, or too inflexible to individuals. The dehumanizing effects of excessive bureaucracy became a major theme in the work of German-language writer Franz Kafka and are central to his novels The Trial and The Castle. The 1985 dystopian film Brazil by Terry Gilliam portrays a world in which small, otherwise insignificant errors in the bureaucratic processes of government develop into maddening and tragic consequences. The elimination of unnecessary bureaucracy is a key concept in modern managerial theory and has been an issue in some political campaigns.
Others have noted the necessity of bureaucracies in modern life. The German sociologist Max Weber argued that bureaucracy constitutes the most efficient and rational way in which one can organize the human activity and that systematic processes and organized hierarchies are necessary to maintain order, maximize efficiency, and eliminate favoritism. On the other hand, Weber also saw unfettered bureaucracy as a threat to individual freedom, with the potential of trapping individuals in an impersonal "iron cage" of rule-based, rational control.
The term "bureaucracy" is French in origin and combines the French word bureau – desk or office – with the Greek word κράτος (Kratos) – rule or political power. It was coined in the mid-18th century by the French economist Jacques Claude Marie Vincent de Gournay and was a satirical pejorative from the outset. Gournay never wrote the term down but was later quoted at length in a letter from a contemporary:
The late M. de Gournay... sometimes used to say: "We have an illness in France which bids fair to play havoc with us; this illness is called bureaumania." Sometimes he used to invent a fourth or fifth form of government under the heading of "bureaucracy."
The first known English-language use dates to 1818. Here, too, the sense was pejorative, with Irish novelist Lady Morgan referring to "the Bureaucratie, or office tyranny, by which Ireland has so long been governed." By the mid-19th century, the word was being used in a more neutral sense, referring to a system of public administration in which offices were held by unelected career officials. In this sense "bureaucracy" was seen as a distinct form of management, often subservient to a monarchy. In the 1920s, the definition was expanded by the German sociologist Max Weber to include any system of administration conducted by trained professionals according to fixed rules. Weber saw the bureaucracy as a relatively positive development; however, by 1944 the Austrian economist Ludwig von Mises noted that the term bureaucracy was "always applied with an opprobrious connotation," and by 1957 the American sociologist Robert Merton noted that the term "bureaucrat" had become an epithet.