Nassim Nicholas Taleb summed up in a simple aphorism what most of us instinctively know about bureaucracies:

Bureaucracy is a construction designed to maximize the distance between a decision-maker and the risks of the decision.

When something goes wrong, the bureaucrats play the blame-shifting game. Musical chairs will begin, and some poor fool will be stuck without a chair. When something goes right, of course, executive management will take credit. Your job as a bureaucrat is to be an implicitly political creature; to make your boss look good and, for yourself, to evade blame.

Bureaucracies become much worse when they are divorced from the profit motive. At least a large corporation must theoretically serve its customers in some positive manner, or they won’t remain in business for long. So while the internal politics of a large corporation are likely to suck like a Hoover, the external face of the company is often still somewhat pleasant for the customer.

With government bureaucracy, even that small consolation is lost. Go to the DMV, or any large government bureau. Long lines, smelly ‘customers’, and agents with extremely unpleasant attitudes abound. The motive is not to serve citizens well, or even to serve them quickly, but rather to meet the bare minimum necessary to avoid blame – and sometimes not even that.

Blame games now extend to the customer. You can offload risk to the average citizen. If you run out of money, it’s not because anybody in the government did anything wrong, it’s because the citizens did not part with enough of their wealth.

Within most bureaucracies, there are a few hard-working, talented people who keep the machine limping along. A committee of two dozen people will decide what that one poor productive person is actually going to do. Naturally, if he does not perfectly satisfy all two dozen, the blame is on him.

This is why I’ve long distrusted top-down approaches to almost anything. Beyond the waste; the useless people drawing down salaries, the incentives are all wrong. Decision makers are insulated from the consequences of their decisions. Productive people are commanded by committee. Political considerations outweigh results. As Taleb would say, none of these people have skin in the game.

We are frequently told that bureaucracies are wiser than us; that they understand better than we do how our lives should be lived. Indeed, we must ask them permission for various activities. We must explain ourselves to them, justify our needs and desires. Yet wisdom is not their trade. Knowledge is not their purpose.

Risk management and blame shifting is why they exist. And Leftists wonder why we are skeptical of their claims of wisdom. I see them as tools; political shields, only. Otherwise they have little use.

I submit that no man is free if he must explain himself to a bureaucrat.

 

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