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  • The Reductio ad Absurdum of Bureaucratic Liberalism

    Posted by David Foster on June 7th, 2013 (All posts by )

    The government of Sweden didn’t do a very good job of protecting its citizens and their property from the rampant rioting that took place in late May.

    Government agents did, however, fulfill their duty of issuing parking tickets…to burned-out cars.

    Link with picture

    I’m reminded of an old SF story, “Dumb Waiter,” written by Walter Miller, who is best known for his novel A Canticle for Leibowitz. This story, which dates from 1952, lacks the philosophical depth of Canticle, but seems quite relevant to the events in Sweden.

    In the story, cities have become fully automated—municipal services are provided by robots linked to a central computer system.  But when war erupted–featuring radiological attacks–some of the population was killed, and the others evacuated the cities. In the city that is the focus of the story, there are no people left, but “Central” and its subunits are working fine, doing what they were programmed to do many years earlier.

    The radiation levels have died down now, and the city is now habitable, from a radiological standpoint–but the behavior of the automated systems, although designed with benign intent, now makes entry to the city very dangerous.

    Mitch, the protagonist, resolves to go into the city, somehow get control of Central, and reprogram it so that it will be an asset rather than a hazard for future human occupants of the city.  The first thing he sees is a robot cop, giving a ticket to a robot car with no human occupants. Shortly thereafter, he himself is stopped for jaywalking by another robot cop, and given a summons to appear in traffic court. He also observes a municipal robot mailing out batches of delinquent utility-bill notices to customers who no longer exist.

    Eventually Mitch establishes contact with Central and warns it that a group of men are planning to blow it up in order to have unhindered access to the city for looting…that the war is over, and Central needs to revise its behavior to compensate for the changed situation. The response is that he himself is taken away for interrogation. He hears a woman crying in an adjacent cell—she has been arrested by a robot cop for some reason or other, and her baby was separated from her and is being held in the city nursery.

     

    “They won’t take care of him! They’ll let him die!”

    “Don’t scream like that. He’ll be all right.”

    “Robots don’t give milk!”

    “No, but there are such things as bottles, you know,” he chuckled.

    “Are there? ” Her eyes were wide with horror. “And what will they put in the bottles?”

    “Why-” He paused. Central certainly wasn’t running any dairy farms.

    “Wait’ll they bring you a meal,” she said. “You’ll see.” “Meal?”

    “Empty tray,” she hissed. “Empty tray, empty paper cup, paper fork, clean paper napkin. No
    food.”

    Mitch swallowed hard. Central’s logic was sometimes hard to see. The servo-attendant
    probably went through the motions of ladling stew from an empty pot and drawing coffee from
    empty urn. Of course, there weren’t any truck farmers to keep the city supplied with produce.

    Mitch observes that inmates in the surrounding cells have all starved to death while Central and its subunits went through the motions of feeding them.

    Mitch and Marta manage to escape, as Central calls in vain for human guards–who don’t exist anymore–to assist its unarmed robots. Eventually, Mitch is able to reach the house of the former mayor, assert (via code-cracking) the mayor’s authority over Central, and gain control of the system.

    The behavior of Miller’s automated city-system…feeding people with trays that contain no food, arresting people for minor offenses and putting them an environment in which a child could see that they would starve, sending out utility bills to nonexistent customers, calling for assistance from personnel who haven’t been around for years or decades…closely models the state to which bureaucracies–ie, robots made of human components–tend naturally to evolve.

     

     

    20 Responses to “The Reductio ad Absurdum of Bureaucratic Liberalism”

    1. Lexington Green Says:

      The human components are forbidden from doing anything human at all. They have incentives to rigidly follow rules and rigidly follow directives. To do otherwise means professional problems, poor reviews, fewer and smaller raises and promotions. Bureaucracy is a machine for turning humans into impersonal machines, then treating other humans with machinelike inhumanity. The trains must run on time. If they are going to the Gulag, it is not the department of the people in the bureaucracy to exercise any human moral judgment to do so. If they do, they will lose their jobs and be replaced by someone who will act like a machine, and nothing will be different and they will have sacrificed themselves for nothing. This is one reason why bureaucracy ends up in democide. It is the natural end point.

    2. Ginny Says:

      Which is why the founders were obsessed with understanding human nature; twentieth century engineers of it wanted to remake it in a simpler and more quantifiable and dependable form. Here or somewhere else in the late 90’s I saw the chart of democide versus war; it took that to finally help me understand that war may be hell, but it is simplistic to ignore the fact that it can be truly pro-life – both literally and figuratively, both when thinking of mass burials and when we think of the human spirit. Of course, anyone who wants to understand human nature rather than control it realizes the answers aren’t easy. But those democide figures are not as widely spread as they should be and many have not considered how ennobling free choice is.

    3. T.K. Tortch Says:

      Well. At least the Humanobot Bureaucrat gets to work on time and doesn’t slack off!!

    4. Mike K Says:

      This is why free markets are anathema to bureaucracies. They’re so messy. No rules to follow.

      The Tea Parties are seen for what they are; advocates of free markets and free behavior by people with no credentials, or at least inferior credentials.

      One reason why technical people at one level are so comfortable with bureaucrats. They are used to writing programs which will fail if one of a million steps is incorrectly written. Of course the fuzzy logic people, or the Bayesians, can understand how freedom works but they are a minority of programmers.

      Obama’s inability deal with a missing speech text today is another example of the mind of the bureaucrat, or worse.

    5. David Foster Says:

      MK…there are, of course, bureaucracies *within* companies…even pretty small companies…that are themselves players within the free market. But:

      a) Irrational bureaucratic behavior within companies that are subject to the market is to some extent self-limiting: either through feedback transmitted from market to organization and leading to remediation, or through the failure and disappearance of the entire organization….in ways that governmental bureaucratic behavior is not.

      b) Individual discretion can be granted to managers and employees in a market organization in ways that would be very dangerous in a government organization which is by nature monopolistic and which has the power of the State behind it.

    6. IGotBupkis, "Faeces Evenio, Mr. Holder?" Says:

      }}} arresting people for minor offenses and putting them an environment in which a child could see that they would starve

      I believe this is what we call “zero tolerance”.

    7. IGotBupkis, "Faeces Evenio, Mr. Holder?" Says:

      }}} One reason why technical people at one level are so comfortable with bureaucrats. They are used to writing programs which will fail if one of a million steps is incorrectly written. Of course the fuzzy logic people, or the Bayesians, can understand how freedom works but they are a minority of programmers.

      Huh? You can’t be talking about professional coders. If there is any naturally libertarian profession, it’s computer programmers. That’s one reason they’ve never unionized anywhere. They KNOW how brittle complex systems are from direct personal experience, and how futile it is to attempt centralized control on a large scale.

      This is part of the reason for the widespread hatred of M$ in the hacker elite. They are anarchists at heart, libertarians by necessity, and M$ is the ultimate computer bureaucracy… producing absolute crap and marketing it spectacularly.

    8. Mike K Says:

      “Individual discretion can be granted to managers and employees in a market organization in ways that would be very dangerous in a government organization which is by nature monopolistic and which has the power of the State behind it.”

      In discussions of the awesome efficacy of the German army in WWII, one of the points frequently made is the degree to which it was run by non-coms. The American army had far more officers and still does. The Germans, contrary to myth, were much more free to improvise and adapt than the US and probably the British.

    9. IGotBupkis, "Faeces Evenio, Mr. Holder?" Says:

      }}} In discussions of the awesome efficacy of the German army in WWII, one of the points frequently made is the degree to which it was run by non-coms. The American army had far more officers and still does. The Germans, contrary to myth, were much more free to improvise and adapt than the US and probably the British.

      The sergeants probably were. I suspect the rest of the rank and file were less able. And that can make a lot of difference. Americans adapted and improvised at all levels, constantly. Adds up.

    10. VXXC Says:

      Bupkis,

      Years in we got good at fighting the Germans. However our tanks were never a match for theirs. And 80% of German Battle Deaths were on the Eastern Front.

      In any case the backbone and innovators of the American Army were also NCOs.

      The American Army personnel administrative Officer dysfunctions are post WW2. The rotation system that is so dysfunctional remains..although it’s been modified since Desert Storm so that rotations don’t happen until after a deployment, not individual rotations during. The units rotate, not individuals.

    11. Vader Says:

      Indeed. Incredible as it may seem, the German armed forces (other than the SS) were islands of relative freedom in an ocean of tyranny, because the officer corps were able for a time to protect their own from the police state. And the officer corps was thoroughly trained in a consistent tactical doctrine, then told what their mission was but not how to accomplish it. Figuring that out was the job of the man on the spot.

      As a result, the German Army was superb at tactics, excellent at operations … and miserable at grand strategy. Which was done at a high enough level that Hitler was able to extern malign control.

      The American Army, even in World War II, was much more oriented than the Nazis at treating the private soldier like a robotic cog in a machine, with a horrible replacement policy and no concept of unit cohesion. We won because of overwhelming firepower. It was the only recipe we could come up with for beating the Germans with an army that had to be expanded from a handful of badly equipped, badly trained divisions of indifferent manpower in just a few years.

    12. Mike K Says:

      Our use of the Sherman tank was disastrous but our artillery really won along with air power.

    13. ErisGuy Says:

      Bureaucracy may be an attempt to make people into robots, but ideology and self-interest easily trump Law and Regulation. The real terror of bureaucracy isn’t the mindless enforcement of rules, it’s the appearance of rigid, impartial enforcement. The rules are a Potemkin Village, a beard, window-dressing.

      The bureaucracy actually serves an ideology. In America, that ideology is and has been at war with the people for generations. And it has won. Any future must be built on the ruins of the Bill of Rights.*

      Bureaucracy is incompatible with liberty. And it won’t be better when it the rules are entirely written in C++.

      *The government will continue to harass, persecute, and prosecute their subjects who have wrong thoughts classifiable at racists, sexist, homophobic, etc., because the people—having lost the conception of freedom of thought, speech, and print–now demand it.

    14. Joe Wooten Says:

      Pournelle’s Iron Law of Bureaucracy states that in any bureaucratic organization there will be two kinds of people”:

      First, there will be those who are devoted to the goals of the organization. Examples are dedicated classroom teachers in an educational bureaucracy, many of the engineers and launch technicians and scientists at NASA, even some agricultural scientists and advisors in the former Soviet Union collective farming administration.

      Secondly, there will be those dedicated to the organization itself. Examples are many of the administrators in the education system, many professors of education, many teachers union officials, much of the NASA headquarters staff, etc.

      The Iron Law states that in every case the second group will gain and keep control of the organization. It will write the rules, and control promotions within the organization

      Jerry nailed it with this quote. He’s a good science fiction writer, but even better when paired off with Larry Niven.

    15. pst314 Says:

      IGotBupkis “If there is any naturally libertarian profession, it’s computer programmers. That’s one reason they’ve never unionized anywhere.”

      Back in the seventies, programmers in England were unionized. That’s what colleagues in our London office told me back then.

      And sad to say, I know some leftist programmers. They may be a minority–I hope they are–but I’m not sure.

    16. Joe Wooten Says:

      Most of the leftist programmers (and engineers) I know tend to work for the government. Very damn few in private industry or own their own.

    17. Grurray Says:

      “treating the private soldier like a robotic cog in a machine, with a horrible replacement policy and no concept of unit cohesion. We won because of overwhelming firepower. It was the only recipe we could come up with for beating the Germans”

      The Germans had a real knack for making enemies faster than they could defeat them, so they developed their free wheeling mission tactics more out of necessity. Any war they were going to be involved in needed to be fought quickly to minimize the chaos and uncertainty that would result if the conflict proliferated across the continent.

      When faced against a superior force, it eventually contributed to their downfall however. They were often too overconfident and underestimated the enemy, not recognizing the domain dependent limitations of their tactics.

      America being an island nation didn’t have the imperativeness nor the urgency to use such tactics. We were developing more along the lines of Taylorist organizations. Furthermore, in the world wars we were transporting enormous amounts of equipment and huge numbers of troops across the world and trying to coordinate on unprecedented levels. Decentralization just wasn’t realistic.

      Now having said that, one recurring theme I have encountered when talking with older relatives and friends who lived and served during WWII is this: because of strict controls on news and information and the limited communication technologies, no one really had a clear idea of what the hell was going on until long after it happened.

      That condition was probably the case farther up the chain of command than most would admit. So when we say our military strategy was like a machine and the troops were cogs, we can be sure that situation broke down quickly during battle.

      It was then that our true advantage was evident. Our tradition and training of individual initiative and the citizen soldier patriot allowed our forces to carry the day.

    18. setbit Says:

      M$ is the ultimate computer bureaucracy… producing absolute crap and marketing it spectacularly

      IGotBupkis,

      Name one Microsoft marketing effort, just one, that could even be labeled competent, never mind “spectacular”.

      The amazing thing about Microsoft is how often their products succeed in the market despite campaigns that are indistinguishable from self parody.

    19. Grurray Says:

      Start a huge, foolish project, like Noah…it makes absolutely no difference what people think of you

    20. Bill Brandt Says:

      Setbit: “Windows Vista – It really isn’t as bad as you think it is”