Qin dynasty China, a presidential assassination and post-Covid Sweden: They all have lessons on administrative reform for the European Union

A statue of the 20th U.S. President, James A. Garfield stands inside the Capitol Rotunda as sunlight shines through the window. (Mark Wilson/Getty Images)


To dispel the concerns of any reader that this will turn out to be a lengthy piece on the subject of bureaucracy, I begin with an assassination.

US President James A. Garfield was shot and killed by Charles J. Guiteau in July 1881, less than four months into his presidency. The assassin had written a speech for the President that Garfield never used, but Guiteau – who also suffered from mental illness – believed that he should be rewarded for his efforts with either a consulship in Vienna or, as a second choice, Paris.

Guiteau neither spoke German nor French, but he understood the language of the so-called “Spoils System” which prevailed in the United States at the time.

In this system, all positions were awarded based on proximity to the President, and the unfortunate assassin saw his chance for a lucrative post simply by grabbing the chief executive’s attention.

The crisis triggered by the President’s murder ultimately led to the adoption of the Pendleton Act in 1883, which stipulated that public administration posts should henceforth be awarded based on qualifications rather than political affiliation.

Although the Pendleton Act has somewhat fallen into oblivion over the past 140 years, it was nonetheless an important step in reforming a cumbersome system after the occurrence of a crisis event. Had the assassination not taken place, the necessary reform may never have occurred. 

History is full of examples where existential crises facilitated necessary state reforms.

The modern Chinese state is largely attributable to the reforms of Shang Yang, who laid the groundwork for the emergence of the powerful Qin Dynasty (221-206 BCE) by recognizing that blood relation to the emperor alone was not a sufficient qualification – especially in the military sector.

An effective administration and military command must be based on merit, not connections, especially in anarchic international system where states struggle for primacy with each other ruthlessly.

The Qin Dynasty arose precisely out of such a system, a period often referred to as the “Period of Warring States”, in which the territory of contemporary China was a battleground for competing states.

The ideas of Shang Yang replaced a system of nepotism with one of professional qualification, enabling the Qin Emperor to defeat all other rivals and unite China under one state for the first time.

As a sidenote, it should perhaps be mentioned that Shang Yang’s successes did not protect him from the vengeance of the emperor’s kin, and he was killed after a successful intrigue.

But reformers in Europe also had their challenges. Many know the Athenian Themistocles and his role in the Greeks’ victory over the Persians at Marathon and Salamis, but few are aware that he was forced into exile at the end of his life. He fled to Persia, whose ruler gratefully took the former adversary into his service.

It is often considered a given that European global dominance in the 19th century was a consequence of imperialism and colonialism. This might be partially true, but it omits a crucial part of the West’s success story.

In their 2015 book The Fourth Revolution: The Global Race to Reinvent the State, authors Adrian Wooldridge and John Micklethwait argue that one reason for European expansion was an efficient administrative system that coped surprisingly well with industrialisation and population growth.

Europeans discovered what Shang Yang preached 2,000 years earlier, namely the separation of personal politics and an effective administration.

It is no coincidence that the two authors published a follow-up book in September 2020 titled The Wake-Up Call in which they describe how the pandemic has revealed the growing problems of Western bureaucracies.

For example, the myth of the efficient administrative apparatus in Austria and Germany was entirely discredited when it was exposed that German epidemiologists were exchanging infection data via fax machines and that in Austria, after years of announcements, almost nothing has happened in terms of digitalisation of the health sector.

The crisis caused by the Corona virus could have been one of those events facilitating overdue reforms.

Smaller countries like Denmark and Sweden have been doing better, because they did not endlessly postpone reforms in the years leading up to the pandemic.

Denmark, for instance, implemented a municipal reform in 2007 that reduced municipalities from 271 to 98, ensuring no municipality had fewer than 20,000 residents. Copenhagen also created requirements that make it almost impossible to become the mayor of a city without any certification of management skills.

Similarly in Sweden: After a severe economic crisis in 1991 which nearly bankrupted the country, subsequent governments implemented reforms that secured the welfare state but made it more efficient and transparent.

The politics is consensus-oriented and guided by economic realisme. The Swedish pension system, for example, is linked to life expectancy and economic performance. This means that as people get older, they have to retire later, and pensions can be cut in times of economic distress and raised during times of economic growth. 

It remains a frustrating fact that apart from the occasional small success story, most European countries and the European Union itself seem to steadfastly refuse to learn from previous crisis and enact the broad reforms that are needed.

Adaption and reform as a consequence of a changing environment was once a strength of Europe, and it would behoove the old continent to remember.