The March of Folly

Derek Lowe recently touched on a topic I’ve been noticing for all of my adult life, and for which I’m only starting to develop a general theory. Bureaucratic and governmental solutions tend to work in the near and medium term, but usually degenerate into a mess that is either worse than the original problem, or that ultimately fails to solve the original problem, usually within a decade.

Derek was pointing out a paradox in safety regulations in the Industrial Chemistry lab that I have also observed firsthand:

I’ve worked where the safety culture was limited to occasional warnings not to blow yourself up, and I’ve worked under intrusive, no-sparrow-shall-fall regimes. Neither of those, as far as I could see, kept me safer than the other. The problem is, if you’re going to aggressively document every possible incident and near miss, to be entered into the massive database and discussed in detail at the mandatory regular safety meetings (attendance taken and computed into the year-end bonus formula). . .well, people are going to sit on most of the ones that they think that they can get away with. The harder you work to log every lapse, the more of them you’ll miss.

You think he’s kidding right? Nope. Take a gander at one of the comments:

Interesting post. It actually happened to me once when we were trying to kill off a old THF* still. Safety people will not allow you to take the sad still-remains out of the building and dump it in a lake, which would by far be the safest solution (maybe not for the fish). So after spending a week with iso-propanol, followed by absolute ethanol, followed by 96% ethanol, followed by careful addition of small quantities of water, followed by large quantities of water we achieved a beautiful sodium bonfire in the hood. I was standing shoulder to shoulder with two other guys right next to the fire extinguisher but we didn’t want to pick it up due to the paper work and safety interview nightmare we would be facing. Eventually, we decided to tip some sand on the damn thing but before we managed this the fire fortunately went out by itself.

So what we have here is failure to communicate. What we also have here is a breakdown in the rule of law caused by too many rules. Before I went to the USSR, I probably would have thought that adding rules to safety regulations would make things safer, because I was acculturated to obey rules, and also predisposed to believe that most rules were instituted with good reason.

However, in the USSR, even people I considered to be decent and good, and – if they were given a chance to live in America – law abiding, regularly talked about breaking laws to me in the USSR. Not just talk – they used to break them, and quite frankly help me break them as well. A couple of my good friends and I used to go out into the woods around Kursk to work out because non-Military martial arts training was illegal. Now the woods around Kursk are still full of unexploded ordnance from the tank battle, so the odds of us damaging society by blowing ourselves up (most of my friends were engineering students, and so should have had at least some worth to society) or by bringing home a souvenir and blowing up an apartment building, were infinitely greater than the threat posed to Communism by private martial arts training.

Even the good guys in the USSR used to make a horizontal blade out of their hand and undulate it in a sinusoidal fashion while evoking the image of a driver weaving in and out of heavy traffic when they were talking about official rules. The word they used was obxodit’:

3. обходить III, обойти

1. (избегать) avoid, leave out

2. (о законе и т. п.) evade, circumvent

The everyday use of that word is one of the reasons that I agree with Lex that Ivan is not yet ready for prime time when it comes to participatory democracy – and will not be ready for generations to come.

But let’s not kid ourselves with our Anglosphere talk – we in the English speaking world can destroy the unique legacy our culture has bequeathed us by burying individual initiative and the entrepreneurial spirit in a morass of laws. Indeed, much of the West, even Britain by all appearances, is already close to that point.

I’m trying to formulate a theory that describes and explains the mechanics of why bureaucratic solutions gradually fail over time. It’s one of the topics that should be included in MBA Organizational Behavior classes instead of the useless Meyers-Briggs claptrap we feed to business school students. But I’ve never seen a general theory. If any of our readers who are better read in organizational theory than I can point me to some resources, I’d be grateful.

In the absence of source material, I’ve tentatively drawn up some terms for my mental model of bureaucratic failure. The first term is that lawyers and bureaucrats want reams of paperwork. It gives them power, it gives them an excuse to expand their staffs (and hence their influence) by asking for more personnel to handle all the paper work, and it gives them an avenue to CYA. But normal people want to avoid paperwork. As Derek said:

I was talking here the other week about lab safety, and how it’s a good thing to know where the fire extinguishers are. But what if you’re working in a place where discharging one of those extinguishers sets off an avalanche of paperwork and committee meetings? Do you use the thing, or does the vision of all that wasted time give you pause, while the flames leap around your glassware?

A correlated second term is the fact that filling out this paperwork becomes the main measure of performance in the bureaucracy. Employees are trained to complete forms before any other qualification is stressed or judged. I ran by a great example the other day in a daycare center. There was a sign posted on one of the classroom doors:

“We are glad your back Jeremy”

I can forgive the lack of a comma, but this program emphasizes how well it prepares kids for school. And at least one of its teachers is only semi-literate. But I’ll bet she fills out the state-mandated forms right on time. And I’m sure she has whatever degree is required for that job. The fundamental flaw in our educational system is that it can’t or won’t separate the fakers from the real thing.

The next term in my model, closely associated with the mismatch of performance and reward in most bureaucracies, is that rent-seeking, ambitious “articulate intellectuals”, in Shannon’s excellent phraseology**, who got nothing of substance out of their education, but believe that they deserve a position of authority by virtue of their ability to use words, gravitate towards bureaucracies. They especially gravitate towards positions of regulatory authority. To use Derek’s comment thread again, safety officers move into that job because they are not qualified to do anything else (sort of the scientific equivalent of an HR department):

My favorite safety officer story was when the fresh faced new safety officer met the med chem department for the first time. Her goal was to have every reaction run in water by the end of the year.
After the laughter died down she couldn’t understand why she wasn’t taken seriously by the chemists.
On the other hand her replacement, who had a BS in chemistry, was the best safety officer I’ve ever worked with and totally understood you don’t make things safer by asking for ridiculous conditions or burying your scientists with paper.

To which another commenter responded incredulously:

Wait. You don’t need a BS in chem to be the safety officer at a chemistry oriented research facility?
What sort of credentials do you need? Apart from a monocle and a German accent, of course.

Hey, hey, as an American of (recent) German descent, I resemble that remark. For those of you who don’t remember your Organic Chemistry (and Lord knows I’d like to forget it) – most organic reagents do not dissolve well in water, because they are oily compounds – in chemical parlance, non-polar. This safety officer did not understand the basic science that is usually taught in the first week of sophomore high school chemistry. Oh, I’m almost certain she’d been exposed to it, and she had probably regurgitated the “like dissolves like” rule on a test more than once. But she had not understood it. As the Chinese say, she gave her education back to her teacher. Yet still she managed to land a job as a safety officer in a chemistry lab. A faker in a position of authority.

The third term is ossification and misapplication of innovative ideas. Take, for example, a writing program that was probably designed to help middle school kids become better writers (via David Foster) :

Once upon a time there was a thoughtful educator who raised some interesting questions about how children were traditionally taught to read and write, and proposed some innovative changes. But as she became famous, critical debate largely ceased: her word became law. Over time, some of her methods became dogmatic and extreme, yet her influence continued to grow.

Dogma leads to idiocy in the hands of school administrators who would have flunked out of graduate school if they had been enrolled in anything except an Education program:

A kindergarten teacher reported how she was instructed to ask her students, on the third day of class, “to reflect on how they’d grown as writers.” She explained that the children were still preoccupied with missing their mothers and felt the assignment was “ridiculous.”

The final term in my inchoate mental model is that interest groups see existing bureaucracies as a lever to foist their pet programs on the unwary. When a critical mass of competing agendas is reached, it becomes nearly impossible for workers to to prioritize their various directives, and, well, excrement happens, as described by another of Derek’s commenters:

At one of these other facilities, a decomposition of still residues in a 2,000 glass-lined reactor progressed to an explosion which killed one man. One of the contributing factors was the fact that when the condenser on the reactor began to be overwhelmed (due to accelerating decomposition), one of the operators actually closed the vent- to prevent an emissions, thus converting the reactor to a 2,000 gallon autoclave.
This facility had a very comprehensive safety and training program, and was (and still is ) a very good company. However, their emphasis on being environmentally responsible, certainly contributed to this incident.

Having employees that think for themselves, and understand what they are doing, rather than follow procedures blindly seems to me to be more conducive to a safe workplace.

That last line hits the nail of the core human behavior issue right on the head: bureaucracies stifle individual judgment. And nothing is going to save your sorry behind in a novel and dangerous situation better than a knowledgeable, empowered person in charge. Diminution of human judgment is the main design flaw in a bureaucracy, and along with from incomplete information in the hands of decision makers, it is the twin flaw that makes Hayek’s Fatal Conceit fatal. As Derek said:

Once people have reached a certain level of competence and experience, lab safety is largely a matter of thinking about what you’re doing, realizing what you know and what you don’t know, and planning ahead. These are all highly desirable qualities, both in and out of the lab, and they cannot be expressed by decree. No safety committee is going to make people smarter, and no multi-page web form will make them more alert. In this world, actually, the opposite is much more likely. . .

So, anyone else have some more terms for the model?

* Tetrahydrofuran

** Although the above teacher could not even be charitably described as articulate in the written sense, I’ll bet she can talk a blue streak.

19 thoughts on “The March of Folly”

  1. You’re right that one major reason that lawyers and bureaucrats are fond of increasing levels of regulation is that it increases their power, but you miss the biggest increase they acquire: the opportunity to use prosecutorial discretion. What it comes down to is that with enough regulations, everyone is a violator at some level. It means that anyone is vulnerable because they have broken some regulation or other.

    In corporate culture, that means that administrators are able to document a case for firing or demoting anybody they deem undesirable. When the rules are so many, it becomes impossible for anyone whose job isn’t involved in making or enforcing those rules to keep track of them all. Which increases paranoia and fear because with so many rules, the rule of law becomes the rule of those entrusted with enforcing the rules.

  2. I’m trying to formulate a theory that describes and explains the mechanics of why bureaucratic solutions gradually fail over time…

    I would argue that bureaucracies eventually fail because by design they lack the attributes necessary for evolution to occur. As conditions change, the bureaucracy cannot change in synch. Even the most well designed system will eventually turn to garbage when the conditions for which it was designed no longer exist.

    The first necessity for an evolving system is variability i.e. difference between different instances of the system. Yet, a central concept of bureaucratic design is a ruthless standardization that intentionally destroys all variation. Without any variation, it is impossible for any observer, internal or external, to evaluate whether a bureaucracy is functioning in an optimal manner. For example, if everyone follows the same standards for safety reporting, how can anyone evaluate whether the standards are counterproductive?

    Absence any comparisons between competing variations, evaluations of bureaucracies tend to shift to matters such a credentialism and having the paperwork filled out.

  3. Fair enough. Now try to live without bureaucracies and lawyers. Begin with the food and toothpaste coming in from China, and then turn to universities and their own silly regulations; and now get divorced or buy a house or form a corporation or do a trust without lawyers…and there you have it. Easy enough to lean back and form a theory but basically all youare doing is noting that some things are given to entropy and you would prefer it was not so.

  4. David Still: If John had written about the costs of overeating, would you have posted a comment saying, “Fair enough. Now try to live without food”?

  5. Bureaucracies can operate under varying degrees of discretion. When the discretion given is too little, then the bureaucracy behaves in a manner so rigid that it often fails to fulfil its mission. When the discretionary element is too much, the bureaucracy is likely to behave in ways that are tyrannical or corrupt. (Peter Drucker remarked that any government that is not “a government of paper forms” will rapidly degenerate into a mutual looting society.)

    Use of carefully-thought-out incentive structures can help in combining flexibility/discretion with an assurance that the bureaucracy will not become a rogue element.

  6. Great post, Jay.

    My favorite safety officer story was when the fresh faced new safety officer met the med chem department for the first time. Her goal was to have every reaction run in water by the end of the year.

    No more chlorine chemistry, just like that. :)

    Hayek’s Fatal Conceit

    I immediately thought of ‘The Road to Serfdom’ when I read ‘The March of Folly’

  7. Fair enough. Now try to live without bureaucracies and lawyers. . . . Easy enough to lean back and form a theory but basically all youare doing is noting that some things are given to entropy and you would prefer it was not so.

    It’s not an on/off switch. I don’t have to choose between living without them and having them choke the life out of a system. Actually describing it as entropy-like is relatively descriptive. And like any entropy-prone system, it requires periodic re-ordering to keep it in hand. The beginning of re-ordering it is recognizing that it is getting out of hand and identifying the possible consequences as John has done in this essay.

  8. “But let’s not kid ourselves with our Anglosphere talk – we in the English speaking world can destroy the unique legacy our culture has bequeathed us by burying individual initiative and the entrepreneurial spirit in a morass of laws.”

    Absolutely right. Understanding where we came from and, to the extent possible, why it worked, is precisely to help PREVENT the destruction of our unique legacy.

    No triumphalism here, baby.

  9. A good book to read on bureaucratic behavior is C.Northcotte Parkinson’s books on “Parkinson’s Law”. There is one called The Law, Complete that has all of his essays. They are written to be funny, but they make serious points. James Q. Wilson has a book on bureaucracy that is actually favorable to bureaucracy, sort of, which may be of interest as making the best case for an opposing view. George Stigler’s book The Citizen and the State: Essays on Regulation has good stuff on how regulated industries end up capturing their regulators. The more generic idea that a bureaucratized society strips out of its citizens the virtues which make a free society work is present in a lot of writers. Certainly Hayek, in the Road to Serfdom and the Fatal Conceit. Thomas Sowell and Milton Friedman also have written on this though I cannot recall exact citations as I sit here.

    This is a good subject, which is under-appreciated.

    I think Shannon is right as far as he goes, saying that bureaucracies end up working perveresely due to the fact that they cannot evolve. But it is worse than that. Actually, depending on the type of bureaucracy, they do evolve — just not to be suited for their supposed purpose. They evolve to suit the needs of the people who operate them or benefit from them. Usually, they evolve to create and protect monopoly rents for their incumbents and their clients. In the case of the public schools, they exist to secure the jobs of teachers and administrators, and only remotely to actually teach anyone anything. As in the case of the Pentagon, it exists to funnel money to defense contractors for the most expensive possible objects, and to create jobs for the retiring personnel in the Pentagon as employees of those vendors — only distantly and in attenuated fashion does any of this have anything to do with “defense”. All iron triangles look similar, once you peel away the layers and see what is actually going on.

    Only the icy blasts of the Schumpeterian gale of creative destruction prevents the private sector from sinking into bureaucracy. Fortunately, extinction awaits the uncompetitive, so the incentives are there for now to prevent that from happening. But it is good for libertarians to remind themselves from time to time that most businessmen are not like Hank Reardon, and would love to be a regulated monopoly rather than a range-fed mustang foraging for survival in a competitive marketplace.

  10. I always thought the principle rule of bureaucracies was to build turf. (A decade of vacations spent for Kelly Girl & Manpoer, moving between small businesses and state-run agencies, taught me some valuable lessons about where my tax money went and how it was spent. But I suspect large and calcified private businesses were little different – but those seldom needed our services.)

  11. Jacob – exactly, selective enforcement is why a codex of too many laws paradoxically undermines the rule of law.

    David Still – the point of this exercise was to identify the flaws so that they can be fixed. I call myself a small “L” libertarian because I recognize that over the 6000 or so years of humna history, there has to be a reason (or reasons) why we keep organizing governments. The name of the main reason is probably “The Tradgedy of the Commons”.

    Shannon – human judgment is one of the main pre-reqs for organizational evolution, so I don’t think we disagree, there.

    David Foster- the problem with governmental bureaucracies is that they are basically sinecures, and there is no carrot-based incentive system in that world, let alone the stick of layoffs.

    Ralf – It’s a title taken from the book of the same name by Barbara Tuckman.

    Jacob and Lex – government regulation is an entropy-prone system, and needs a good housecleaning, including David’s incentive program. I just don’t see it happening in a legal system where you can sue a restaurant for giving you hot coffee. True, the idiot lost the suit, but the judge in the intial case should have laughed her right out of the courtroom. Until the threat of frivolous litigation goes away via tort reform, the government certainly is not going to get into the business of firing people for poor performance or allowing people to exercise judgment.

    The thing about judgment is that when it fails you can pinpoint exactly where the failure occurred and blame someone, so it’s tempting to put a law in place to make the system more foolproof. But fools are so ingenious…

    Lex – Amen about Libertarians trusting too much to the good will of businessmen in the absence of regulation. They need a good biography of Rockefeller to disabuse them of that notion.

  12. “Until the threat of frivolous litigation goes away via tort reform, the government certainly is not going to get into the business of firing people for poor performance or allowing people to exercise judgment.”

    Frivolous litigation is over-rated as a problem. It is expensive to finance plaintiff’s suits. The grotesque ones get a lot of play, but there are not that many of them, and the plaintiff usually ends up getting beaten at some stage of the process. But that is not the essence of the problem. Plus if we did away with relatively easy access to the court system the alternative would not be no recourse for injured people but more direct regulation through the political process. The tort system is a safety valve, and is preferable to what exists in countries like Germany or Sweden.

    The government can never be in the business of allowing people to be fired (efficiently) for cause or exercising judgment. That is not what its actual customers want. Its actual customers are its own employees, who want job security, and the regulated entities that use the government to preserve monopoly rents for themselves. They do NOT want some bureaucrat goofing around exercising “judgment” about the public interest, when they carefully had their lawyers get a regulation through the notice and comment period which will shut down their competitors’ factory while keeping theirs open. That kind of thing. Judgment would potentially interfere with the actual rather than the declaratory purpose of the agency.

  13. “Frivolous litigation is over-rated as a problem.”

    In many cases yes, but not in the case of firing. Someone I know had to fire an secretary at a large firm for non-performance, and the number of hoops she had to jump through was enormous. The time from the decision to fire until the actual termination was as long as the time from hiring to the decision to fire. That’s ridiculous.

  14. The problem is that bureaucracy, as a form of organization in the Weberian sense (ie. functional differentiation of labour etc), is an inevitable aspect of modernity. We need to differentiate between bureaucracy which benefits efficiency, and that which harms efficiency.

    Damaging bureacracy – which harms the organization – should be kept in check by markets (ie. an organization which harms its efficiency with excessive or inappropriate bureaucracy should be more likely to fail; organizations which minimize harmful bureaucracy and focus on their core function should out-compete them).

    Government lobbying by the most successful organizations should help to keep damaging state regulations in check.

    But none of these negative feedbacks on bureaucracy apply in the public sector, where there is no effective competition concerning functionality or efficiency (except competing for the favour of government regulators).

    Those modernizing nations which minimize the inefficient kind of public sector over-regulation (by minimizing the size and role of the public sector) will be the dominant ones over the longer term.

  15. Karl – that’s a pretty good development of what derek’s commenter was talking about in the environmetally conscious vs. safety conscious conflict that killed that guy. And that was only 2 conflicting requirements.

  16. John Jay:
    I wonder if others have gotten to your general theory first. See Conquest’s 2nd and 3rd laws and Pournelle’s Iron Law of Bureaucracy.
    As to the Derek Lowe article, I wonder if the problem lies with allowing the chemists to offload safety responsibility to the safety officers. A good safety officer (or computer security group) takes the authority for safety or security. They also allow their charges to take responsibility for their own safety or security. This mitigates the, “I better not use that fire extinguisher–too much paperwork” problem.

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