How Bureaucracy Protects Us
July 1st, 2021 | JH
If you forced me to choose between bureaucracy and democracy, I would choose bureaucracy.
I know that sounds strange coming from a conservative. The right-wing perspective is usually that bureaucracy is bad. It grows and perpetuates itself for its own sake and ties up progress with unnecessary red tape and regulation. Fat cat bureaucrats just line their pockets with taxpayer dollars and collect their gold-plated pensions when they’re ready to retire at 55. If we ran the government like a business, then everything would be efficient and affordable. Common sense would prevail, and we wouldn’t have all this waste and mismanagement!
The libertarian in me used to believe heartily in this narrative. I assumed that since there wasn’t a profit motive then there were no hard metrics for success and, as a result, bureaucracies just became giant slush funds for lazy people to wallow in.
As I’ve gotten older, I’ve come to realize that this ardent ideology doesn’t pan out in the real world. My working life has been spent in the private sector and profit motives are fairly abstract for most people working in this realm. What difference does it make if you work in retail sales and the higher ups tell you to meet a quota, or if you work in the parks and recreation department of your town or city and the higher ups tell you to meet a quota? If you are a “higher up” you’re expected to budget, but budgets are approved for both the private sector and the public sector and people must work within those limits either way. The bottom line for businesses is profits in order to avoid insolvency, but that’s the government’s bottom line too.
One of the biggest influences on my changing perspective was my experience running for mayor in my small town.
The town I live in experienced some scandals regarding property tax increases and utility fee increases. This double whammy occurred during an economic downturn. Obviously, the citizens were angry about this development and the Facebook pages erupted with hysterical half-baked opinions about everything. A petition was started, and local news media jumped into the fray. With an election looming I thought now might be the time for better representation on council and decided to make a run for mayor.
Early on I started by attending some council meetings. Despite my academic interests in politics and policy I didn’t have a lot of experience with the nuts and bolts of local government operations. The council meetings were dry and monotonous as you can imagine, but one thing that I began to notice was that the bureaucracy was always a lot more switched on then the elected councillors sitting up on the stage in front of everyone.
For example, a new residential development would be proposed, and a presentation would be done by very organized and professional people from whatever land development company was pitching their proposal. They would have done consulting with the bureaucrats in the town to make sure everything they proposed would comply with legislation and regulation. Then if there were any questions from developers, the bureaucrats from the town could present the town’s interests back to them before presentations were made in front of council.
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The deciders in all this were the elected representatives on the town council. A random collection of folks with a strong “Island of Misfit Toys”-vibe was happening for sure. After the presentation for land development was complete, they asked amazing questions like, “So, uh, why is the sidewalk made like this?” and “Is this fence tall enough to, like, block out train sounds?”
While the teams from the developers and bureaucracy scrambled to answer their questions, the councillors would lean back and stroke their chins and lord over the situation, smug with their power to demand answers. I’m sure the council thought they were voicing the concerns of the community to the people looking to make a buck, and maybe they were, but I couldn’t help but think the developers and the bureaucracy far outclassed the elected representatives.
Elected representatives are expected to reflect the people they represent, so their random and unpolished image was simply a reflection of the voters. This being the case, I decided that my next step was to go door knocking and meet some of the people who do the voting rather than the representing. I thought I’d do some listening and ask about their concerns and interests regarding their community. I learned a few valuable things.
The main thing I learned was that people for the most part don’t have concerns or interests regarding their community. The reason most people don’t vote in municipal elections (and I mean that literally…voter turnouts are usually below 50%) is because they don’t know, and they don’t care. What’s more…they don’t know that they don’t care, and they don’t care that they don’t know. We are definitely moving from apathy to dependence on the Tytler cycle.
The people who did have an opinion on anything, were often extraordinarily pedantic regarding town issues or unrealistic about possibilities. They either wanted to endlessly talk about their neighbour’s motorhome that was unlawfully parked on the street for more days than is legally allowed, or they wanted a massive and clearly unaffordable sports facility so their kids could take swimming lessons without having to drive to Calgary.
Most people were just uninterested, unaware and uncaring.
On social media there were the Facebook 5% that dominated the community social media pages. There was no topic that they didn’t have an opinion on and there was no limit to how dumb and uninformed that opinion could be. Nevertheless, there seemed to be a lot of highly detailed criticisms of the town and I decided to get to the bottom of it so I could intelligently address the issues and have informed policy regarding people’s concerns.
I set up meetings with town officials. The police chief, the captain of the fire department, the president of the utilities department, random board members of different areas, as well as some of those elected council members I criticized in the above paragraphs.
What I learned from all these meetings is that…it’s complicated.
Here lies one of the biggest impediments to democratic government in the 21st century. Our systems have grown way beyond the ability for ordinary people to understand them.
Thousands of people in my town signed a petition to investigate our utilities department because they didn’t like a hike in their water bills. When I met with the top official regarding this, she took an hour out of her day to explain how it all worked. Perhaps she bamboozled me, but I walked away realizing that there was far more going on than the Facebook crowd realized. (Since that meeting, that official was fired and the department was cut to the bone, resulting in marginally, almost imperceptivity… lower water bills. We’ll see what consequences may play out in the future as a result.)
I met with the police chief and we went over crime statistics in his office. We talked about allocating resources and I learned that they were understaffed regarding officers per capita. If you got your info from Facebook, however, there was an out-of-control crime wave happening and all the police were doing about it was handing out tickets for having tinted windows in between their trips to Tim Horton’s.
There are other examples just like this as well and I can only encourage people that are interested or engaged in an issue to go to the source for your information, not the media,social or otherwise.
By the end of that grueling campaign, I handily lost, but gained some valuable insight. One of my main insights?
Thank God for the professional bureaucracy, because elected officials and the mouth breathers they represent are a direct threat to the well-being of our communities.
Libertarian complaints about bloated bureaucracy in the public sector are false. In contrast to the elected side of operations, the entrenched bureaucracy is far more professional and competent than they are given credit for. Despite the lack of profit motive, incompetency or negligence is quickly discovered and usually rooted out. Nobody wants to be associated with waste, mismanagement or incompetency…these are threats to your own value within an organization with or without a profit motive. If you don’t have value or you’re a threat to the security of an organization because you are valueless…then you’ll be eliminated by those looking to protect their position. In this way, the public sector functions much the same way as the private sector.
The flip side of all this is that the private sector that I’m much more familiar with, suffers from many of the same problems that the public sector is criticized for. I’ve worked for organizations that misallocate resources, wastefully spend, promote incompetence, adopt nepotism and all the rest. These are human problems not left/right, or public/private failings.
What bureaucracy has going for it is professionalism and hierarchy and competency and meritocracy…all the classic trappings of effective and efficient organizations. Contrast this with the gong show quality of democracy, in which you have elected officials whose main qualification is their demonstrable ability to win popularity contests, usually with a big wad of cash attached to their campaign, and the credibility is clear.
At the bottom end of democracy, you have the average voter…uninformed, misinformed, or not informed at all. At the top end you have pandering grifters and lucky palookas who know how to play the game, but don’t seem to know much else. Sure, there’s exceptions regarding both electors and the elected, but the exceptions prove the rule.
"Libertarian complaints about bloated bureaucracy in the public sector are false."
We are lucky that bureaucracy runs the show and democracy is mostly a pantomime. If it were the other way around, we would be facing total catastrophic collapse. The next time some naïve libertarian or trad conservative starts complaining about the bloated bureaucracy, start asking poignant and detailed questions about how they arrived at their opinion. What departments are bloated and why? Who needs to be fired? What needs to be cut and how?
If they provide thoughtful answers to these questions, then you can have a dialogue, but more than likely they won’t have thoughtful answers, they’ll just be regurgitating conservative clichés from the 80s.
One of the biggest conservative clichés that needs to die in the 21st century is the veneration of democracy and the vilification of bureaucracy. The latter is far superior to the former and it’s time that conservatives recognized that fact.
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