Saturday, March 11, 2017

Thoughts on the nature of bureaucracy

This is the transcript of the podcast I did this afternoon, but for those who prefer to read than listen, I offer it herewith:

Clearly, most people have a strong aversion to bureaucracy.

But there are certain types of people who seem to be comfortable with it. Some of them are on the end that provides whatever it is that the bureaucracy in question offers, and some are on the receiving end.

Have you ever, when dealing with someone in a bureaucratic organization, asked yourself, What kind of person can tolerate doing this for a living? I know I couldn’t. 

Have you noticed how they respond to pretty much everything you have to say?

It’s with this clipped little, “Mmmm-hmmm.”

“Your organization left me a message saying I hadn’t paid my latest bill, but my bank shows that my check for it cleared.”


“Your organization’s website didn’t recognize my password, and I know that it’s my password.”


“The technological service I get from your organization gets interrupted frequently.”


I’ve even gotten the “mmm-hmmm” treatment from organizations that are hitting on me for something. Recently, a book-promotion outfit called me regarding a novel I’d had published by a print-on-demand house eleven years ago. Wanted me to sign on to some deal where my book would get featured prominently in the outfit’s booth at some big trade show in New York. The lady who called me asked me what I’d like to see happen with my book.

“Well, I’ve always thought it would lend itself to treatment as a play.”


“You know, the curtain going up on the opening scene to show a very atmospheric street scene in the late 1940s lined with nightclubs. Neon lights. Guys in pinstripe suits and fedoras.”


“Since you called me on the basis of the particular appeal of my novel, I assume you understand what I envision.”


Needless to say, I did not do business with this organization.

And they always have to pound away on their keyboard for a good minute after you give them some new nugget of information, however miniscule. And then stare at their terminal screen for a while.

And there’s always the boilerplate, and the jargon exclusive to their organization.

You know what? I think a job like that appeals to people who need safety, people who are naturally predisposed to impersonal interactions even in their private lives. People who are afraid to take responsibility for how productive the exchange is turning out to be.

I will confess that a few times - usually in a tech-support situation, but sometimes having to do with matters of billing -  I’ve been responsible for things deteriorating to the point where the exchange cannot be saved.

“Mr. Quick we’re not going to get anywhere if you yell.”

One time a guy even hung up on me.

And part of me feels bad about these instances. But you know what? I’ve also considered it from the perspective that it was a breakthrough. I’d finally gotten the other person to go off-script, to engage in genuine interaction with me.

I also think that faceless bureaucrats are afraid of their own dreams. They don’t want to take charge of too much of their own destinies.

And what’s really scary is that bureaucracy is so pervasive in our society as to be ubiquitous.

It’s always been a feature of civilization. It’s customarily been used to give certain people and groups of people advantages over others. The whole notion of licensing goes back to the trade guilds of a few centuries ago, for instance.

The first wave of the progressive movement, in the early 20th century, spearheaded by the likes of Thorstein Veblen, Richard T. Ely, Charles Beard, Herbert Croly, John Dewey, and Woodrow Wilson gave us the notion that American government ought to have a far larger role than that envisioned by James Madison, that modern industrialized, urban society was so complex that the executive branch ought to have on its payroll “experts” in various areas such as  health care, stewardship of natural resources, workplace conditions, and the quality of citizen’s lives in the post-work years.

And as government grew, so did corporations and labor unions. And a good many people maneuvered through revolving doors between these sectors, as well as the universities where the “experts’” proposals were hatched. The great James Burnham saw what was happening and alerted us about it in his seminal 1941 work, The Managerial Revolution.

The civil-rights movement got bogged down in bureaucracy after its initial strides. I remember those locally produced television shows that used to air on Sunday afternoons in the 1970s, with names like “Urban Focus,” on which somebody from some agency would get asked by the host about some new program the agency was getting going, and the interviewee would say, “Well, yes, we obtained a grant under Title Such-and-Such and additional funding from the Commission for This and That, and qualified individuals can fill out our eleven-thousand page form.”

The countercultural types that have been with us since the 1950s have seemingly put up a resistance to the stultifying conformity that characterizes large bureaucratic organizations, but ultimately have cast their lot with them, calling on government to impose draconian regulations on matters ranging from energy use to human sexuality.

Which brings us to the current impasse over health care in America. You know the basic lay of the land: The “Affordable” Care Act was rammed through the 2009 Congress in the dead of night without a single Republican vote, and Republicans of a conservative stripe have been promising its repeal ever since. There had always been some excuse for it not being feasible though.

“We only have the House. We need the Senate.”

“We have both houses, but we need the executive branch.”

And now it’s that they only have 51 votes in the Senate, and that, in the House, only certain provisions of it pertaining to matters of funding can be dealt with using reconciliation.

But, at a time of their maximum power, this latest round of excuses reeks of flimsiness. These are rules that could be change, if the will could be mustered.

And so we get this soggy cookie that Paul Ryan wants everybody to get on board with. But several lawmakers, including Mike Lee, Ted Cruz, Rand Paul, and Tom Cotton, as well as the country’s most principled pro-freedom activist groups, such as Heritage Action, Americans for Prosperity and Freedom Works, give it a big thumbs-down.

And the reason is quite basic: It is still predicated on some kind of necessity for bureaucracy.

And that’s the only reason on God’s green earth why any of this is “complicated.”

Freedom is always elegantly simple.

You offer a product or service to particular organizations or people you've determined most likely to be interested in it. (This is your market.)

When interested parties approach you, you have a conversation and arrive at an agreement as to what the product or service is worth.

You provide the product or service.

You get paid.

You cover your costs, and put your profit in the bank, or spend it however you wish.

The above scenario covers every type of economic transaction in which human beings engage.

But freedom requires a bit of courage. All those who have made careers out of saying “mmmmm-hmmm” and letting loose with a flurry of keystrokes after your every utterance are going to have to find something meaningful to do with their lives. They’re going to have to ask themselves the big, deep questions about what they see as their true mission in this world.

Mediocrity gets squeezed out of a truly free society.

This can be a pivotal moment for this country, and for Western civilization. We could really humanize ourselves, really come alive. It’s going to require a leap of faith, though. We will have tossed away the script. We’ll have to learn to put actual thought, not to mention listening skills and compassion, behind what we say. 

We’ll have to have some original ideas.

But how about it? We have nothing to lose but our forms and our jargon.

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