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Co-dependant bureaucracies

By Bruce Walker
web posted July 1, 2002

The proliferation of regulations, programs, court decisions, and statutes are correctly perceived as creating more bureaucracy and less clarity in the federal government. Like some helpless victim in a Franz Kafka story, increasing numbers of people find themselves guilty of behavior that is inherently innocent. Violating the edicts of one federal agency may be required to fulfill the demands of another federal agency.

Millions of quietly, desperately frustrated, people yearn for change, but how does one end a federal agency? How does one stop the flow of federal dollars to addicts hooked on this fiscal opium? How can federal system be saved before it suddenly implodes like the First Foundation in Isaac Asimov's famous trilogy? How can the supernova be slowed without creating the gravitational tug that yanks all matter into a singularity?

Without being too pessimistic, there may be no hope. But understanding the true nature of the beast, the real roots of the overgrowth, is essential to any solution. Knowledge of the mechanics of compulsory inefficiency provides the only chance to fix the mess which gets messier every day.

The federal bureaucracies connected with useless programs are massive, but these are only the tips of the iceberg. The vast majority of these programs have constituent state government administering agencies, each of which has a separate bureaucracy. Many of these state programs superintend the implementation of federal mandates at the local government level.

The multiplier effect is not just in numbers of employees who have become dependant upon irrational rules, but these employees work at different levels of government creating pressure not only in Congress, but in statehouses and in city halls to keep the program alive.

Moreover, these bureaucracies are co-dependant on one another. State agencies responsible for, say, literacy training have no incentive in reporting to federal agencies in Washington that the problem of illiteracy has been substantially solved, but they also has no incentive for saying that the literacy training program does not work. Social problems remain suspended in a bureaucratic emulsion. Likewise, local programs have no reason to say that in their community illiteracy has been wiped out. Rather, they have a strong interest in finding reasons to compete for funds from other parts of the state.

Bureaucrats, unlike businessmen, do not judge their personal success by the bottom line or any other real measurement, but rather by the number of employees they supervise. Consequently, bureaucrats will constantly complain about being "understaffed" because more employees below them in the organizational chart means a grander title, more money, and a nicer office.

This Theater of the Absurd which we call "government" should be scrutinized by outsiders whose profession is showing that the emperor has no clothes, but there are equally serious bureaucracies in academia and the media. Studies by professors and graduate students on a particular government program will never say "problem solved" or "no work done" or "counterproductive" because the niche within academia that these bureaucrats inhabit requires an eternal problem to be examined.

Reporters specialize. In doing so, they stop thinking and start absorbing the belief systems around them. Those noble guardians in our Fourth Estate likewise have crass interests in the perpetuation of the appearance of a constant war fought against some dangerous and barely restrainable social problem.

What about those corporations which end up paying for so much of this ornamentation? These behemoths also develop bureaucracies designed specifically to respond to the bureaucracies of government. Much like medieval mercenaries, these corporate bureaucrats have an interest in almost bloodless but almost constant battle.

The specialization of lawyers creates yet another horde of freelance knights, fully conversant with the practical intricacies of some narrow areas of law and deeply valuing the continued existence of putative problems and prescribed palliatives. And to this group of independent misery profiteers must be added trainers and facilitators, technical writers and editors, and other auxiliary forces.

The numbers of individuals dependant upon the continued existence of problems, which must be constantly restrained but which may never be conquered, are staggering. The bulk of our productive time and energy is spent in this unproductive and morally debilitating activities.

Moreover, the territories of these realms of lard create even more waste. Much of the work in a literacy program, for example, will be spent complying with civil rights mandates, drug free workplace directives, OSHA job safety requirements, and so forth. Perhaps the most bizarre requirement for state agencies is to complete the Paperwork Reduction Act form.

Sometimes insanity reaches beyond mere absurdity. There are government employees who do work needed work. Recent graduation ceremonies had long lists of "thank you" and "we appreciate" to teachers, counselors, administrators, secretaries, etc. There was a conspicuous absence of any thanks or appreciation for the janitors, bus drivers and cafeteria ladies. These folks, however, actually did something of merit.

Likewise, although firefighting is among the most obvious and fundamental roles of government, how many communities have hundreds of people working full-time in senseless jobs, while the community is protected by a volunteer fire department? Why not volunteer bureaucrats and full-time firemen? As anyone who has volunteered to do bureaucratic work for some voluntary association (e.g. recording secretary, treasurer or newsletter editor) these volunteers have a strong incentive to be as efficient as possible.

So why not have government jobs that "do stuff" like keep roads in good repair, maintain water and sewage lines, trim hedges and grass in parks, shelf library books, patrol streets for crime, provide emergency medical and fire services, and the like get permanent funding (their work is real) and have the true bureaucrats all retired volunteers who have worked in real jobs before?

Many of these truly useful jobs are like the military: if their services are not needed, we are much better off. In other words, paying firemen to sit around and play cards is much better than having these firemen battle a roaring city fire. When a police car patrols a neighbor and finds no crime (perhaps because he is patrolling the neighborhood) then that is also great news. It is better to pay policemen and firemen and not to have fires and crime, than to pay them and to have fires and crime.

This is the sort of commonsense which even liberals understand. But within the Byzantine structure of co-dependant bureaucracies there is another hidden problem: not only do all the participants in "addressing" the problem have a vested interest in this problem existing until the end of time, but these are also the very people who have the information that proves that they are wasting everyone's time.

Is there a real solution? Perhaps. Why not allow those employees in federal, state and local governments to take a "very early retirement" with a relatively modest pension, combined with vocational training and six months of paid leave to discover a job that the employee truly loves and can do well, for those bureaucrats who say "I am not really doing any useful work"?

Who knows? Maybe some of these people would like to trim hedges in parks, shelve books in libraries or cook food for children in cafeterias? Maybe nothing can break the lock of bureaucratic co-dependancy. But maybe something both simple and ambitious could start the trend back to real work and real leisure.

Bruce Walker is a senior writer with Enter Stage Right. He is also a contributor to Citizens View, The Common Conservative, Conservative Truth and Port of Call.

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