Bureaucratic Politics of Pesach

The paradigm I am most capable of applying to a situation is bureaucratic politics – it was my dissertation after all and has also been a focus of my more recent work.

It is fundamentally about how policy is shaped by the push and pull of actors (heavily shaped by their institutional affiliations). It has only limited explanatory power, but it is not negligible. From a personal standpoint it is appealing because so much political science focuses on big structural forces while bureaucratic politics is, fundamentally about people. Studying it has helped imbue me with critical empathy – a healthy respect for the man in the arena.

Graham Allison, who wrote one of the sacred texts of bureaucratic politics, began with this quotation from the great Alexis de Tocqueville:

I have come across men of letters who have written history without taking part in public affairs, and politicians who have concerned themselves with producing events without thinking about them. I have observed that the first are always inclined to find general causes, whereas the second, living in the midst of disconnected daily facts, are prone to imagine that everything is attributable to particular incidents, and that the wires they pull are the same as those that move the world. It is to be presumed that both are equally deceived.

As I sat through Seder and heard the story of Passover, of the Jewish people’s redemption from slavery, my mind drifted to bureaucratic politics. Certainly the story lends itself to theology and philosophy (the redemption from Egypt and the later revelation of the Torah, the great human quest for freedom and self-government and the balance between liberty and responsibility.) It also lends itself to more traditional IR power political analyses. But, when you have a hammer, every problem is a nail…

Notes on Reading the Bible
In thinking about bureaucratic politics and the story of Exodus we must wrestle with the question of how true is the Bible? Did everything happen exactly literally as it was described? Or is it based on true stories that over time have become myth. It is also entirely possible that the Bible is entirely fantastic and untrue. This does not diminish it, false stories can reveal deep truths. Nonetheless, I am inclined to take the middle path, that something extraordinary happened. I don’t believe in miracles, but I believe in the miraculous. I don’t believe in lighting coming from heaven, but rather that incredibly unlikely things occur. I view the founding of Israel in this light. There was nothing supernatural. It was merely very unlikely, yet it happened and – who knows – in 300 years Ben-Gurion will be seen as a wizard and miracle-worker. Maybe he was…

Marc Chagall: Moses and Aaron Before Pharaoh from the Jewish Museum

So in that vein, something incredible happened in Egypt a few thousand years ago. But let’s dispense with outright magic. Did Moses part the Red Sea, perhaps not. But he knew a place where the waters were low and a band of refugees could safely cross. Perhaps an advance guard of the pursuing army was trapped in the mud and massacred and drowned.

Putting aside the fundamental theological argument that Exodus is a precise, literal transcription of what occurred, this view reduces the fundamental wonder of it all. People crave wonder, religion is based in wonder. Personally, I think there is an astounding amount of wonder in the world as it is. But a realist version of the Exodus story has some advantages for making the text make sense.

The “negotiation” between Hashem/Moses and Pharaoh always seemed problematic. A plague occurs, Pharaoh relents, and then Hashem “hardens” his heart and another terrible plague occurs. It seems cruel, and why ten times? Why at all? All powerful Hashem could have brought the Jews from Egypt without effort.

The general answer to the endless plagues, rather than a single overwhelming miracle, is that Hashem needed to demonstrate his great power to the world. But the bureaucratic politics interpretation, in which Moses – using asymmetries of information and maybe some clever early biological warfare – in attempting to leverage a weak position to his advantage, actually makes the story more compelling.

The story of Pesach is the beginning of humanity’s quest for freedom and effort to come to terms with that freedom. If Moses is a bureaucratic politics David, outwitting Pharaoh’s Goliath (an anachronism) it puts humanity front and center in the story – which only strengthens the story of how we obtain the freedom Hashem grants us.

I won’t tell the entire bureaucratic politics version of the story here. But, like the story of Joseph, I think it would make an amazing novel. But let’s at least take a look at the players.

Moses as Policy Entrepreneur
Could anyone have had a better resume for liberating the Jewish people than Moses? First, he was born into a leading Jewish family. His brother (Aaron!!!) was the High Priest. So he had credibility within his community. But he was raised in Pharaoh’s house. He knew the ins and outs of the place. He had, as do most policy entrepreneurs, blended knowledge that included substantial expertise and tacit knowledge of process.

But, Moses was exiled to the desert – where he married into a leading clan. While he was off tending flocks he was learning the ways of the desert and making contacts among the tribes – gaining critical information needed for his people to survive their Sinai sojourn. Was there manna from heaven? Or was Moses calling in favors from Jethro’s kinfolk? How did he know just where to cross the Red Sea when the water would be low?

By the end of The Ten Commandmants (if not from the beginning) Moses is kind of a handsome dull Dudley DoRight. No doubt, no initiative, just faith, stoicism, and tenacity. But in this light he is clever, adaptable, and creative. It makes Moses a much more compelling figure who brings real agency to the story.

Pharoah: Standing Where He Sits
The expression “hardened Pharaoh’s heart” has always troubled me. But with the bureaucratic politics paradigm, it makes more sense, he was being pulled in a lot directions. He was a tyrant, but a weak one, who (as the weak often do) feared appearing weak. When the Hebrew slaves agitate he is prepared to set them free. Moses (and Aaron!!!) make a good case and the slaves are proving to be more trouble than they are worth. But then his security advisors warn that the release of the slaves makes him look weak. Moneyed interests remind him of the value of this free labor. Pharoah goes back and forth.

Pharoah too, becomes more human, although no less monstrous for it. He is not the austere tyrant who imagines himself a god. Rather he is a man, limited, overwhelmed, and outplayed. He has, like most tyrants, been riding a tiger and knows only that when he stops riding he will be devoured.

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