“Bureaucracy is the death of all sound work.”
– Albert Einstein
Bureaucracy irritates me, I mean REALLY <blanky> irritates me. All my friends hate bureaucracy. All my family hates bureaucracy. In fact, everyone I’ve ever mentioned the word bureaucracy to hates bureaucracy! If so many of us (seemingly all of us) hate bureaucracy, then why is it thriving? What is really going on here?
I believe the answers are critical elements to us building a better future with a sustainable economic system and hanging onto an atmosphere that you can actually breathe.
Increasing bureaucracy is not some benign quirk we should simply tolerate. Increasing bureaucracy is a tell-tale sign of bloated, inefficient systems (economies) that are simply not sustainable.
It’s worse than it looks… We’re not just talking about your classic text-book definition of bureaucracy here. What we’re seeing today is the momentous rise of an unproductive sector which I loosely categorize as “bureaucracy” and define as the parasitic drag affecting the REAL production and distribution of REAL essential goods.
My list of parasites includes administrators, accountants, salespeople, middle-men, traders, speculators, bankers, marketers, lawyers, CEOs and all those employed in non-essential government sectors. Basically if you don’t actually produce anything of value you’re on my list as a parasite!
Right now, some readers are nodding their heads in agreement while others are taking offense. That’s where it gets complicated. What is “essential”? What is “value”? As a society, we don’t really know anymore. It’s become a subjective matter because the issue has become incredibly complex. A couple of hundred years ago, to determine whether or not someone was a parasitic drag, we would have asked the simple question, “Did you contribute to putting food on the table or building the barn or fixing the wagon?”. With the exception of entertainers (for which we’ve always had a soft spot), if you answered no, then you hadn’t “earned your keep”.
Today that simplicity is gone. Mechanization, fueled by cheap, non-renewable fossil fuels has freed us from productive manual labor, allowing us to increase in complexity (specialization), pursue consumerism and wallow in the creation of non-sustainable, non-productive jobs! (See consumerism and sustainable job creation). Critically, it is that cheap energy which has allowed us to “afford” bureaucracy and tolerate the inefficient use of labor.
“Government machinery has been described as a marvelous labor saving device which enables ten men to do the work of one.”
– John Maynard Keynes
The “growth of complexity” is a recognized phenomenon of evolving systems like societies. Biological evolutionists describe blind variation and selective retention as tending to produce increases in both structural and functional complexity of evolving systems.
The trouble with societal evolution is that there is someone guiding the process. There is questionable “intelligence” manipulating things. The bureaucrats are at work. The “blind” variation is not so blind, the selective retention is skewed. Both forces have been railroaded by narrow self interest that ultimately leads to more centralized bureaucracy and more poor decisions. It’s a cancerous rot that is difficult to combat.
Here’s a true case that illustrates why bureaucracy thrives and why it’s so hard to combat… Selective retention at it’s worst…
Karen owned her own business. Gradually the profit margins dwindled under the ever-increasing administrative loads, taxes, and costs of compliance with new rules and regulations dreamed up and imposed by centralized bureaucracy.
She sold out (in more ways than one). And quickly landed a fairly cushy government job. Her thinking was, “If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.” Ambitious, she climbed the ladder within her department until she reached managerial status with a great perks package.
One day the news filtered down that the bloated department was to be rationalized. The razor gang was trimming all dead wood. Karen’s ENTIRE branch was earmarked for pruning. What does a bureaucrat do in that situation? One finds a palatable solution!
Karen immediately contacted a few close confidantes in adjacent branches and on the main trunk. A plan was hatched and Karen was able to quietly reassure her underlings that all was not lost – accept your massive redundancy packages – We have a plan…
The generous redundancy packages were quickly tucked away and phase two kicked in… Karen’s public service buddies began pulling the required strings, nodding, winking and lobbying the appropriate people. In no time at all it was determined that a new branch should be created.
Of course, the new branch wouldn’t do exactly the same things as the old branch (nobody was too sure what that was anyway). What they did know for sure was that the new branch presented new challenges and the rates of pay would need to be adjusted upwards! The new branch is now thriving at great expense to the taxpayer and society in general.
The story is unfortunately all too common and illustrates the vicious circle behind expanding bureaucracy; Bureaucrats naturally don’t want to give up their jobs so will do anything in their power to keep them (forget efficiency and ideals like the collective good – it’s every man for himself!) and secondly, crushed by the sheer weight of bureaucracy everyone on the “outside” sees “joining ‘em” as an attractive option.
While we’re bagging bureaucracy let’s continue with another quick illustration of the stupidity of centralized governments and bureaucratic bungling…
Nobody really knows the full story because nobody has owned up yet. A few years back, a brand new police station was built in the village of Carinda (population 194) in Walgett shire, NSW. The sheer size of the station mystified locals, after all with a population of just 194 crime was practically non-existent. Somehow, the construction of this “overly large” police station received approval, passed inspection and was put into service in the wrong town! The police station was actually meant to be built at Quirindi, a town of 2500, many miles away. The oversized police station has become a tourist highlight and testament to the stupidity of centralized government.
I could go on with examples of monumental blunders at local, state and federal level; the rainwater tank fiasco, the septic tank fiasco, grey water policy confusion etc. Bureaucrats get it wrong over and over again and expect society to foot the bill.
Our centralized bureaucracies have no “common sense”, they’re inefficient and we can no longer afford them.
Joseph Tainter, in “Complexity, Problem Solving, and Sustainable Societies” points out that while a certain level of complexity is beneficial for the sake of efficiency, at some stage, societies hit the point of diminishing returns on complexity… Further investment in complexity becomes a counter-productive burden and alienates the society it was meant to serve…
“diminishing returns make complexity less attractive and breed disaffection. As taxes and other costs rise and there are fewer benefits at the local level, more and more people are attracted by the idea of being independent. The society “decomposes” as people pursue their immediate needs rather than the long-term goals of the leadership.”
I would say that we reached the point of diminishing returns on increasing complexity a long time ago. It’s my guess we reached that point in the late 1960′s, perhaps the 1970′s. The mind-boggling growth of complexity since then is just pushing on a string. Despite all the gadgetry and “stuff”, I just can’t see the evidence of any real improvement in our quality of life in the last 40 years, in fact, I’d argue that the social dysfunction we’re now seeing is evidence of society “decomposing”.
One thing is clear; complexity, bureaucracy and other non-productive parasitism has grown to unsustainable levels. What happens when cheap fossil fuel energy runs out? And cheap alternatives cannot be found? Again, Tainter speculates…
“One often-discussed path is cultural and economic simplicity and lower energy costs. This could come about through the “crash” that many fear — a genuine collapse over a period of one or two generations, with much violence, starvation, and loss of population. The alternative is the “soft landing” that many people hope for – a voluntary change to solar energy and green fuels, energy-conserving technologies, and less overall consumption. This is a utopian alternative that, as suggested above, will come about only if severe, prolonged hardship in industrial nations makes it attractive, and if economic growth and consumerism can be removed from the realm of ideology”
It’s little wonder that voluntary simplicity and self-sufficiency are gaining popularity. I’m firmly convinced that relocalization – creating self-sufficient communities – and decentralization is the path we need to take to engineer a soft landing.