From the very beginning, bureaucracy was a dirty word. The eighteenth-century economist, merchant, and official, Jacques-Claude Marie Vincent, Marquis de Gournay (also credited with coining the term laissez faire), complained that free trade in grain was being impeded by over-regulation. This “illness” of French government, he was later reported to have wittily remarked, was a kind of bureaumanie—the inevitable result of bureaucratie.1 Despite the efforts of sociologists and historians, “bureaucracy” as an analytical—or even descriptive—term has never quite escaped its polemical origins. (Late antique scholars might think here of “paganism” or “barbarians.”) A feeling of unease—and a sense that bureaucracy needs defending both as a useful category and as a positive institution—frames the best contributions to the excellent new collection, Empires and Bureaucracy in World History, edited and thoughtfully introduced by Peter Crooks and Timothy Parsons. The immediate interest for readers of Studies in Late...

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