Enduring Bureaucracy

Enduring Bureaucracy

Surely, a sector of the Inferno is reserved for bureaucrats. Bound together with unburnable paper chains, they shuffle along, hopeless, exhausted, in an endless, hell-girdling queue with neither head nor tail. Unworthy of Satan’s attention, their computerized torments are inflicted randomly by incompetent programmers.

A central theme in conservatives’ attack on government (it takes your money; restricts your freedom; acts, like Tolstoy’s Napoleon, in ignorance it mistakes for knowledge) is the scorn of “distant bureaucrats.” Nearby bureaucrats are not more admired. Anarchists’ hostility to government exceeds that of conservatives: as George Woodcock puts it in Anarchism, “government must die before freedom can live.” The confidence in government that liberals and socialists share emphasizes the goals of public programs, but often disregards the humdrum realities of their administration and maladministration, upon which the programs can stumble. Former vice president Al Gore’s efforts at “reinventing government” would have been more convincing if they had led not merely to fewer employees but to demonstrably better services.

Bureaucracy is endemic; its ills and aggravations are as rife in private as in governmental affairs. The magical market cannot eradicate the very plague it spawns. Its symptoms reflect the size of an organization, the workload of frontline clerks, the difficulty of monitoring (let alone changing) their conduct, the greater devotion to profit than to customer satisfaction, the emphasis on gross quantifiable measures of performance. If similar conditions produce similar effects in most organizations, hapless citizens will encounter similar aggravations wherever they turn. Postindustrial bureaucracy is no more responsive than industrial bureaucracy; it may be more insufferable because more automated.

Though I live half an hour from the Pentagon, the Social Security Administration, and other vast government bureaucracies, I grapple more often with private than public bureaucracy and cannot decide which is worse. Perhaps private, because you have, or feel you have, less recourse. Fortunately, the typical bureaucratic impasse, injustice, or folly is frustrating but not life threatening. You can’t devote your life to rectifying it. An attempt to do so can generate so many additional aggravations that you are better off trying to forget the one you have. Frustrations of this order are the hair shirt of life, worn in all nations and economies—agrarian or industrial; autocratic or democratic; feudal, capitalist, or communist.

Being so common, so much a part of everyday life, they seldom become political issues. Friends with whom I discuss them quickly lose interest. They get exercised about global warming, affirmative action, elections, Israeli or Russian affairs, but regard the crimes and misdemeanors of bureaucracy as inescapable facts of life, like sparrows and weather.