Monday, June 20, 2022

Bureaucratic Decay

The predictability of bureaucratic decay, which Samo Burja asserted and I mentioned in April (followup to this post) and having quoted Pournelle's Law of Bureaucracy more than once over the last month have set me down a path of rethinking some political assumptions. If the military bureaucracy, which expanded in WWII and did not revert to isolationist attitudes as America had done before, was just naturally going to expand and get less efficient, no matter who was in charge of it and their intent, it causes us to look differently at "the military-industrial complex," whether Democrats "support" the military, the difference between invasion and nation-building competence, the integration of military intelligence with the other intelligence agencies, logistics, hardware, perfumed princes, and all our other military arguments. What if even brilliant leadership only stems the tide in most places and improves things in few others?  What if complete knuckleheads do not, in the long run, make things that much worse than they were going to be on their own.

It would for openers, suggest that the complete dismantling of government agencies, even though the loss of function would be real and even temporarily dire, would be the only long-term solution. And we would have to admit that we aren't ever going to do that. Even psychotic libertarians would move what they considered essential CIA functions to other agencies, even as they took an axe to the tree and felled it. It might be that the US education system needs to be dismantled root and branch if we are to educate our young, and developing cultures starting fresh are going to surpass us, like the small mammals eating the dinosaur eggs.  But we can't even dismantle the Department of Education, a new agency that theoretically only assists the primarily local and state-run systems and provides oversight for policy at best, and in practice started asserting itself as the senior authority, the Supreme Court of American Education right from the start. We can't even dent that.  

If we all understood this I think we would still be angry and divided, but I think we would divide that up quite differently.  

Or maybe not.  We may have already divided into those people who believe the federal government is our best protector and those who believe it is a danger.  We just disguise this in a hundred ways, even from ourselves calling our divisions something else. In New England, for example, we used to be very much in favor of local control but both the local and the control parts were quite real.  Banned in Boston and all that. Not so much individual independence but individual ability to influence.  Because local, dammit.  Take that away and the independence starts to erode. Thus, low crime rates, lots of schools, public water and sewer, better paid police. Highways, ports, airports, but no big stadiums, no out-of-control college athletics. 

All eroding now. It's not coming back. Every branch of every bureaucracy grows and becomes less efficient, sometimes slower, sometimes faster.  It's not the Democrats' fault, or Washington's fault, or the elites' fault, or any of that. It's gravity.  We can only slow it or accelerate it.


David Foster said...

True, bureaucracies tend to grow. In the business world, the ultimate cure for that is bankruptcy, or at least displacement of much of a company's business by more-nimble (and probably smaller/younger) competitors.

In military affairs, the cure for bureaucracy is a stream of defeats, or at least serious fear of a near-term catastrophic defeat. It was only the pressures of the Cold War and the fear of Soviet attack that allowed someone like General Bernard Schriever to be put in charge of USAF ballistic missile programs and given a quite free hand:

In general, failure and de-bureaucratization can take place in the private sector at an earlier and less-catastrophic level than in the government sector.

james said...

Parkinson's Law. O(6%) annual growth. He was joking about the numbers, but not the effect.

Unfortunately, in military affairs, you don't get to pick whether a nation's defeats are survivable or not.

David Foster said...

Peter Drucker, writing in 1969, on bureaucracy:

"Whether government is “a government of laws” or a “government of men” is debatable. But every government is, by definition, a “government of paper forms.” This means, inevitably, high cost. For “control” of the last 10 per cent of any phenomenon always costs more than control of the first 90 per cent. If control tries to account for everything, it becomes prohibitively expensive. Yet this is what government is always expected to do.

The reason is not just “bureaucracy” and red tape; it is a much sounder one. A “little dishonesty” in government is a corrosive disease. It rapidly spreads to infect the whole body politic. Yet the temptation to dishonesty is always great. People of modest means and dependent on a salary handle very large public sums. People of modest position dispose of power and award contracts and privileges of tremendous importance to other people–construction jobs, radio channels, air routes, zoning laws, building codes, and so on. To fear corruption in government is not irrational.

This means, however, that government “bureaucracy”— and its consequent high costs—cannot be eliminated. Any government that is not a “government of forms” degenerates rapidly into a mutual looting society.

(I’m confident that Professor Drucker would agree that whether the forms are paper or electronic makes no difference at all in this context.)

David Foster said...

If government operations are fully proceduralized, to the point of eliminating individual employee and frontline manager discretion, they will be cumbersome and inefficient. If they are not fully proceduralized in this way, then they will be subject to widespread corruption and tyrannical behavior.

Hence, the expansion of government into all aspects of human life leads to increasing inefficiency, eventually resulting in sluggish performance across the entire economy–while the increasing frustration with bureaucracy results in a widespread demand to “make government more responsive” by giving more discretionary authority to administrators and to their political superiors. This, in turn, results in a government which is not only a looting society but a tyranny. Yet at the same time, there will still be enough baroque proceduralization (selectively enforced) to ensure high levels of inefficiency and very high government administrative costs.

james said...

I think there are parallels with "Incompleteness"--a finite set of rules will always fail to cover some legitimate case. The temptation is to add a rule for that new case, but there's always a new unsolvable case, and your system of rules is now more complex--factorially so.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

Rules of grammar are like that. Speech and writing do not match in any language, and both versions of language are messy, with everyday usages that break the artificial rules all the time. Categories are made in order to break them, as I recently posted. Grammar rules are often quite silly, but they gain traction and won't go away. If one works at it hard enough, any sentence can be diagrammed - but few should, or perhaps even none. Little light is shed.

Thos. said...

Your observations on bureaucracy ("All eroding now. It's not coming back. Every branch of every bureaucracy grows and becomes less efficient . . .") is similar to some of the themes in Joseph Tainter's “Collapse of Complex Societies".