A couple of weeks ago, there was a growing forest fire in northwestern Nevada. Fortunately, the Washoe County sheriff’s department had aloft in the area a fire-fighting helicopter tanked up with 323 gallons of water.
Unfortunately, it wasn’t clear whether the Federal land on which the fire was burning was under the jurisdiction of the Bureau of Land Management or under the jurisdiction of the Forest Service. If the former, then the chopper had approval to legally drop the water, if the latter, then it did not. So the team in the helicopter did nothing. More than 200 acres burned.
There have been a lot of stories like this lately. The thicket of rules governing life in America today has become so thick, and belief in the importance of adhering to these rules even in defiance of common sense has become so strong, that the default for many people has become the belief that inaction is safer than action.
In 1805, Lord Nelson said:
When I am without orders and unexpected occurrences arrive I shall always act as I think the honour and glory of my King and Country demand. But in case signals can neither be seen or perfectly understood, no captain can do very wrong if he places his ship alongside that of the enemy.
“Unexpected occurrences” occur quite frequently, whether they take the form of a forest fire in a jurisdictionally-ambiguous area, a kid in school having an asthma attack, or a transatlantic flight losing its airspeed indication capabilities. Human beings need to be ready and empowered to use their judgment and intelligence in such situations, not constrained to act like rigidly-programmed computers.
A couple of years ago, I would have posted this story under the “Just Unbelievable” category. Sadly, that category no longer applies, because stories of rule-driven bureaucratic rigidity have become a commonplace of American life.
In 1797, a Spanish naval official named Don Domingo Perez de Grandallana wrote about the reasons his country tended to lose naval engagements with the British. One of his points:
An Englishman enters a naval action with the firm conviction that his duty is to hurt his enemies and help his friends and allies without looking out for directions in the midst of the fight; and while he thus clears his mind of all subsidiary distractions, he rests in confidence on the certainty that his comrades, actuated by the same principles as himself, will be bound by the sacred and priceless principle of mutual support.
Accordingly, both he and his fellows fix their minds on acting with zeal and judgement upon the spur of the moment, and with the certainty that they will not be deserted. Experience shows, on the contrary, that a Frenchman or a Spaniard, working under a system which leans to formality and strict order being maintained in battle, has no feeling for mutual support, and goes into battle with hesitation, preoccupied with the anxiety of seeing or hearing the commander-in-chief’s signals for such and such manoeuvres…
In my 2007 post on Don Domingo’s comments, I linked a Washington Post article on “the increasing propensity of Americans to be driven by rules and procedures, rather than doing what makes sense” and noted that “there are certainly trends in our society which, if not reversed, will make us increasingly similar to the (French / Spanish) Combined Fleet of 1805, rather than Nelson’s victorious fleet.” Over the last 4 years, I am afraid that we have traveled much further down that road.