Bureaucratic Culture’s Penultimate Expression

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I thought at first this was a joke because I found it at the humor site Fail Blog. Unfortunately, the story turned out to be very true. The mind boggles at the thought of spending money to not only paint over a wall dedicated to graffiti (a wall which defeats the whole rebellious point of graffiti in the first place) but also to pay for investigating the “vandalism” of painting graffiti on a wall set aside for graffiti. 

This is a humorous manifestation of bureaucratic culture in which people begin to think of themselves as robots forced to blindly follow their bureaucratic programs even when those programs produce obviously nonsensical results. Other results of this culture (here, here) are tragic. 

Bureaucracies in all organizations are a form of computer program. Bureaucratic rules take the form of a classic branching statement, “If condition ‘X’ then take action ‘Y’.” Unfortunately, with the final failure of the “Strong A.I.” school of artificial intelligence in the early ’90s, computer scientists learned that massively linked structures of logical rules did not allow computers to understand or navigate the real world. It turned out that logic rested on a foundation of perception and models of causality. Strong-A.I. computers could readily tell you that, if all men are mortal and if Socrates is a man then Socrates is mortal. However, the computers could not tell what mortality was, what a man was or whether Socrates was a man. Computers could not understand or function in the real world without a foundation of perception and models of causality. 

Vast chains of if-then rules cannot guide human choices in the real world any more than they can guide a computer’s. Rules can only be rough guides. They can set the boundaries but in the end it takes the perception and judgment of individuals to produce good outcomes reliably. Neither can any set of rules program for every eventuality. Everyone who has worked with a bureaucracy of any kind has seen the rules produce silly and sometimes dangerous outcomes. 

Unfortunately, as government power grows and social trust breaks down, people begin to value controlling the actions of other people more than they value the outcomes of those actions. They build complex programs of if-then rules in a vain attempt to preprogram every possible choice. They begin to reward people more for following the program than for producing good outcomes. In the end, obedience to the will of the program becomes the highest and, eventually, the only good. 

This pattern repeated itself over and over again in Chinese history. Dynasties began as dynamic and practical organizations, but as the power of the mandarins grew the system began to value adherence to rules and rituals more that it valued outcomes. In the end, people became the servants of rules instead of the rules serving the people. Only the collapse of a dynasty into chaos and war reset the system for another cycle. 

Chinese dynasties usually lasted for around two-hundred years. The government structures of the Western world have existed for that long already. We are caught in the same cycle. Western Europe, including Britain, is farther along in the cycle than America but we are following perhaps two decades behind. Soon, the worship of rules will overwhelm all trust in individual judgment. We will become dysfunctional robots banging mindlessly into walls. 

If we cannot recognize and break this cycle then we will soon see American law enforcement investigating the “vandalism” of graffiti walls while they let people drown and burn to death. 

9 thoughts on “Bureaucratic Culture’s Penultimate Expression”

  1. Jimbino,

    penultimate: last but one in a series of things; second to the last : the penultimate chapter of the book.

    Unfortunately this nonsense, both the comical and tragic, isn’t the worst that things can get. Britain can fall further. Thus penultimate.

  2. Chinese Bureaucracies in the past grew to as much as one bureaucrat per 500 people. They got to this mass several times before falling apart.

  3. Elambend,

    We’ve long since exceeded that threshold. Nearly 20% of U.S. workforce now works for government. If you assume that only 1 in 4 would qualify as bureaucrat, then that means that 1 in 20 American workers is a bureaucrat. Since the workforce is a third of the population that means we have 1 bureaucrat for every 60 citizens (including children, students, welfare dependent and retirees.)

  4. “Bureaucrat” and “government worker” aren’t precisely identical, although they tend to be correlated. Many government workers do productive things that are not primarily about paper-shuffling…soldiers, firefighters, policemen, air traffic controllers, medical researchers, etc. And there is a large and growing class of people in the private sector whose jobs and behavior *are* bureaucratic.

    Indeed, in a typical week, the average individual probably encounters more obnoxious private bureaucracies than obnoxious government bureaucracies.

    Fortunately, though, members of private bureaucracies can’t vote themselves higher compensation, to be forcibly extracted from the general population. (Members of pseudo-public/pseudo-private organizations, like those the current administration seems to belive in, *can* and will.)

  5. I liked what Niven and Pournelle did to bureaucrats in their novel “Infero”: Hammurabi’s secretary, who invented bureaucratic recordkeeping, is told that he can leave Hell if he fills out the paperwork…in his native language cuneiform…on clay tablets…in a Hell with the ambient temperature of a blast furnace.

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