Fighting the Bureaucracy

Modern civilization is plagued by many evils, but the most common, in everyday life, is paperwork. By “paperwork” I mean basically all bureaucratic overhead, all of the accounting, regulation and compliance enacted in the past century.

Paperwork is the devil.

David Graeber gets it: 

… as early as the 1970s, formerly leftist parties from the US to Japan made a strategic decision to effectively abandon what remained of their older, working-class base and rebrand themselves primarily as parties representing the interests and sensibilities of the professional-managerial classes. This was the real social base of Clintonism in the US, Blairism in the UK, and now Macronism in France. All became the parties of administrators. …

Whereas the core value of the caring classes is, precisely, care, the core value of the professional-managerials might best be described as proceduralism. The rules and regulations, flow charts, quality reviews, audits and PowerPoints that form the main substance of their working life inevitably color their view of politics or even morality. These are people who tend to genuinely believe in the rules. They may well be the only significant stratum of the population who do so. If it is possible to generalize about class sensibilities, one might say that members of this class see society less as a web of human relationships, of love, hate, or enthusiasm, than, precisely, as a set of rules and institutional procedures, just as they see democracy, and rule of law, as effectively the same thing. …

For most care-givers, however, these people are the enemy. If you are a nurse, for example, you are keenly aware that it’s the administrators upstairs who are your real, immediate class antagonist. The professional-managerials are the ones who are not only soaking up all the money for their inflated salaries, but hire useless flunkies who then justify their existence by creating endless reams of administrative paperwork whose primary effect is to make it more difficult to actually provide care.

I call these people “lizards” because they do not seem to have human souls.

Some amount of paperwork, of course, is necessary to keep track of things in a modern, industrial economy in which food for 320 million people has to get from farms to tables every single day. The expansion of paperwork beyond its necessary domain is essentially the auto-cannibalization of society, a metastatic cancer of bureaucrats and paper-pushers.

If we want to fight bureaucracy, we have to know what feeds bureaucracy.

Bureaucracy grows because people don’t trust each other to do the right thing. It grows because people over-graze the commons, because they dump toxic waste into rivers, because they build cheap apartments that turn into flaming death traps, because they take bribes and cover up incompetence, because they discriminate against minorities or hand out sinecures to their friends.

The demands for paperwork are generally demands that you prove that you have or can do the right thing–that you will not pollute, that you have car insurance, that your products are not dangerous or defective, that your medicines aren’t poisons and your experiments don’t involve giving people syphilis.

The more people do not trust each other to do the right thing, the more layers of bureaucracy they institute. If I am afraid that police officers are taking bribes, then I propose more oversight and agencies to ensure that they do not take bribes. If I am concerned that mining companies are paying off the EPA to let them dump toxic metals in the groundwater, then my response is to demand another agency come and clean out the EPA and enforce tougher restrictions on dumping. If I don’t trust you, then I hire someone to watch you.

The problem with this approach is that adding more untrustworthy people to a system doesn’t start making them trustworthy. If I can bribe one person, then I can bribe the person who is supposed to make sure that no one gets bribed. In the end, we just end up with more people to bribe.

And that’s if you’re lucky. If you’re unlucky, people are “ethical” and the whole thing grinds to a halt. To get your new building built you first need authorization from the wetlands licensing committee, and the lady from the licensing committee wants thirteen forms in triplicate proving that your building won’t impact the mating habits of a rare toad that you are pretty sure doesn’t even live in your state. To get your study on the efficacy of a survey your clinic already hands out to patients approved by the ethics board of your local institution you first have to prove that you will not be collecting personal data from at-risk patients, but you can’t know if they are “at risk” until after you collect their data. Or maybe the guy who is supposed to send you the form you have to fill out simply isn’t returning your phone calls and you can’t figure out from the website where his office is located.

The more you try to fight bureaucracy with more bureaucracy, the more bureaucracy wins, and the bureaucracy does not care if you starve to death, you Kulak.

To the bureaucracy, you are always a Kulak.

There are two ways to break a bureaucracy. One, total system collapse. This happened to the Soviet Union. It takes a long time, it’s not fun, and you can starve to death in the meanwhile. The replacement system may not be much better.

The other is to increase trust so that people don’t advocate for more bureaucracy in the first place. True, this doesn’t get rid of what you’ve got, but at least it contains the spread.

Trust is hard to get, though. You could do a thousand year breeding experiment. You could try to brainwash children. Or you could look at how the incentives are set up in your society and try to align them with the outcomes you want to achieve. (We can try, at least.)

Aligning incentives requires doing something hard: admitting that humans are human. Communism keeps failing because of “wreckers,” aka ordinary humans. Humans will lie, cheat, and steal if it benefits themselves; this is why we have police. Humans will also fall in love, have sex, and make children. We will then cheat and steal to feed our children, if need be, because we love them.

Accept human nature and align incentives accordingly. (Easier said than done, of course.)

Here is an entertaining example:

For simplicity’s sake, I’ll quote the rest:

The mafia backed company actually had good, fresh food! Most of the mobsters’ kids went to those schools (several I went to school with saw their dads go down). The sandwiches were real hoagies on good bread, there was fresh fruit, juice, etc. All local.

Then, overnight, all their food was gone, and their vending machines too. And they were replaced by the corporate equivalent. And we were excited too! National brands, etc! Now the good stuff! Nope.

The corporate food was shite. No more local, fresh ingredients. The portions were smaller. All the food was overly processed and overpriced. It was just nasty. I remember my dad and others laughing bitterly about it.

At the time, I was struck by how these unintended consequences were the most visceral ones. Later in life, I came to realize that this was the norm: that the unintended consequences of any major political change are often the ones with the greatest impact.

But it was also my first inkling that the real world differences between the literal mafia, and the even greater power of modern corporations, were not as black and white, or clear cut, as those who benefitted from the latter would have any of us believe. Fin/

I knew and dreaded Aramark as a kid. When people, whether kids or prisoners, don’t have a choice about the food they eat, the quality tends to suffer. By contrast, when you are feeding your own children (or the children of mobsters), cooking quality tends to be decent.

The same dynamic as at work in children’s electronics. Electronics that are marketed solely to kids, like the LeapFrog system, tend to be bad (often very bad) because the buyer (parents) tends not to be the users (kids), and kids often don’t have enough experience with electronics to realize they’re being ripped off. (Every augmented reality devices I have bought has been similarly bad to awful.) The only good kids’ electronics systems I have encountered also have significant adult fanbases, like Nintendo.

Capitalism, of course, is the classic case of aligned incentives. Invisible hand and all that. It’s not perfect (corporations will eat you for breakfast if they can get away with it,) but it’s pretty good. People are more likely to protect the commons when they have an expectation of future gain from the commons.

Reputation also helps align incentives. People care about what others think of them. The internet has both expanded our ability to interact with total strangers who have no reputations and to create reputations, with interesting effects. Sites like Amazon and Yelp allow small, previously unknown sellers to build up their reputations, making people more confident about what they’re buying.

By contrast, the recent kerflufle over Youtube, trying to make it more kid-friendly via increased regulation, has done nothing of the sort. None of the things parents want to protect kids from have actually been addressed because bureaucracy just doesn’t work that way, but if you don’t like Youtube, you already have the very easy option of using literally any other content service.

Incentives matter.

10 thoughts on “Fighting the Bureaucracy

  1. This post is exactly right and hits on what I think is the major, and most difficult, problem for western countries today. I’ve spent some time working in or dealing with some parts of corporate and government bureaucracy. What makes it worse is that the deleterious effects of bureaucracy *by its nature* are hard to see and hard to prove, especially for someone with zero incentive to believe that bureaucracy is deleterious.

    For one, it’s hard to prove bureaucracy-as-evil-in-itself with “studies” (of the kind policy/administrative-type people love). Go and try to quantify and illustrate the myriad subtle ways marginal complexity and market distortion e.g. in health care, or tax code, or labor regulation creates real hardship. It’s “unseen”, dispersed, and hidden in unpredictable ways (e.g., with higher operating costs I don’t necessarily fire anyone, but I sub-contract new jobs to a temp company, or buy a cheaper health plan, or don’t offer a raise I would have otherwise, or hire worse quality workers… POOF! INCREASED BUSINESS COSTS DON’T COST JOBS!!).

    For another, people deep in their bureaucratic silos really believe (be it because it’s their livelihood, or out of sincerity) fear the chaos of their specific department, processes, rules, not existing or being very different. I’ve seen this attitude in corporate strategy departments, military commands, and regulatory agencies.

    And no amount of logical argument or counterfactuals will avail you. So I don’t know how to go about it; maybe the bureaucracy just needs to collapse, or be forcibly rolled back? I think that’s one thing people hoped for from Trump (and got it a least partially – he might have slowed the growth some, by a couple of years – maybe).

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Wanted to also add: “incentives matter” is one thing that the more enlightened of the bureaucratic class love. They think they can micro-manage people, in a top-down way, by aligning the incentives *just so*. This presupposes, hubristically, that they understand the workings of lesser mortal minds; and it might create better outcomes in isolated circumstances than if they didn’t use incentives *at all*, but still incentive alignment in a micro way doesn’t help solve the bureaucracy problem at the macro level.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. The problem of government is a hard one. Methinks complete transparency and no authority without skin in the outcome is the right direction

    However it also comes down to the question of power. Bureaucracy grows because it is supported by state power, and in turn bureaucracy supports the power of the state

    People in general are afraid to make decisions and take responsibility for them, especially when doing so puts you in conflict with the Moloch of the state.

    Power needs to be in the hand of agents who can handle it without surrendering it in exchange for handouts. That will be new tech aristocracy I believe.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Great post. I would like to add an additional cause of bureaucracy – centralization and complexity of systems. In ye olde days, ye Lord Doctor or Lawttorney, Esq could manage all the affairs of a small and local government in their spare time. When the scope of government expands, the aristocrat-governor must be forced out by a full time specialist in rule-management – the bureaucrat. The aristocrat is aligned to incentives in that they are often a significant local land and business owner. Bureaucracies attract a cohort which becomes and can only remain middle class through the labor income of their bureaucracy, and thus feeding their own and securing the future of theirs means an ever expanding bureaucracy. Bureaucrats are often likened to eunuchs because they have no dynasty, so their tribal loyalties align with the bureaucratic system, not a family. These days, they are predominately middle class childless urban women.

    A second driver of bureaucratization is centralization. Centralization removes unique, localized knowledge from the system. A far mandarin, aristocrat or eunuch, can’t tell that Uncle Joe is just a sad drunk who needs a dunk in the tank and not prison, and other quirks of locality. The result is that the only thing they can do is propose rules executed without discretion, because you can’t have meaningful discretion sans knowledge.

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  5. Great article! :)

    >”There are two ways to break a bureaucracy. One, total system collapse… The other is to increase trust.”

    There’s a third way that you’re missing.

    To get to this third way, you have to view bureaucracy as a process instead of a static institution… a bureaucracy gets more complicated over time, it starts general and gets increasingly specific as it ages. For example, the legal code starts with “don’t kill people”, and then when the judges are examining specific cases they have to make detailed rulings that get recorded “you’re justified killing people in this specific situation, but not in this other one.” Procedural bloat is the sign of an increasingly matured bureaucracy.

    When this gets too over-complicated it becomes like your example of having to fill out paperwork in triplicate and talk to five different people just to build a building. The problem isn’t necessarily the system (having a society where people build buildings is fine) or the trust (buildings should always be regulated), it’s the level of complexity that has crept up over time until there’s so many moving parts that it impedes the functioning of the whole. One moving part fails and all the sudden you’ve been stuck waiting in line for 4 hours at the DMV.

    I’d call the third way to break a bureaucracy “Hard Reform”, or “Imposed Simplicity.” Basically, an external force imposes its will on the bureaucracy and forces it to simplify itself with an eye for function and efficiency. Extraneous case law gets thrown out, redundant offices get merged together, the “procedure” gets reduced into something that actually, uh, lets people get where they’re going. It’s like forceably de-aging the system. The problem with this approach is it requires external control over the bureaucracy that can put it’s foot down and say… well, this is how it has to be. Imagine the results-focused nurse dictating terms to the hospital administrators.

    If you want a good example of this approach, look up the Emperor Justinian’s reforms of the Eastern Roman Empire’s legal code. When Justinian started to rule the system was bogged down by a thousand years of incredibly convoluted case law that basically made enforcing the law impossible. Rooms full of books of detailed legal minutia etc. He solved this by basically throwing most of that out and creating a single, intelligible, functional set of laws from some of the old stuff. De-scaling, simplifying. It’s hard to do, but easier than throwing the whole society in the rubbish bin or changing human nature.


  6. I’ve ranted before that bureacracy is evil, period, full stop. It isn’t a necessary evil, it’s just evil. It destroys nations, and is in the process of destroying this one.

    I remembered reading various things about China, and about Korea during the Korean-Japanese war: With China you had what looks to me like a golden age in their “bad old days” that came to an end when the Mandarins took over. Art stopped, exploration stopped, trade was severely curtailed. All the fun inventions were from their “dark times”. For the next 1000 years, you had nothing but grinding poverty except among senior bureaucrats. 1000 years of stasis!: When a barbarian invasion or total destruction of your civilization looks preferable (hey Europe recovered from the fall of Rome in ~800ish years), you know you’re dealing with something transcendently horrible.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Not surprising to see the leftist parties go that way. If you look at Marx’s ancestors and in-laws (Prussian nobles were turned into bureaucrats by Fredrick the Great) you see highly educated government servants, (Karl didn’t make it because of his politics.) The alliance with the proletariat was strategic, like Machiavelli called for the Prince to make with the burgers to surround the nobility.

    Liked by 1 person

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