Jerry Pournelle is a gifted writer of science-fiction, but I have often felt that his takes on social science and modern-day life are just as important. One example is his Iron Law of Bureaucracy, which may be stated as:
In any organisation, there are two types of worker. First, there are those who are dedicated to the goals of the organisation. Second, there are those who are dedicated to the organisation itself. In any organisation, the second type is usually the one that winds up calling the shots.
To borrow an example from Dilbert, Dilbert and Alice spend their time trying to actually work while Wally and the Pointy-Haired Boss are interested in gaming the system to their own advantage. The Pointy-Haired Boss isn’t precisely a ‘thundering moron;’ he’s mastered the art of kissing up to his superiors, gathering power and empire-building. While this makes him look hopelessly incompetent from Dilbert’s point of view … the PHB is still the boss, still in charge of the company.
This is a common problem in large organisations of pretty much any description. As people rise in the system, they start trying to gather power to themselves in the hopes of maximising their position within the organisation. A lowly drone in the corporation has no power; the director of a research team has a great deal of power. In order to accomplish this, the PHB must justify his department’s existence. This tends to lead to hair-splitting, pettifogging regulations and a great deal of thinking that seems illogical. (It’s astonishing how logical illogical thinking can sound with the right person controlling the discussion.)
I don’t believe I need to give many examples of barmy bureaucrats in Britain, America or the West in general. Certainly, it wasn’t that long ago that the EU tried to ban unsealed jugs of Olive Oil. Or, as any gun rights activist can tell you, the precise specifications that take a weapon from legal to illegal in the United States can be painfully difficult to follow. You see bureaucrats insisting on schools banning games because someone might get hurt, bake sales cancelled because the kitchens were not vetted … the list goes on and on.
But this is inevitable. Those bureaucrats are trying to justify their existence. After all, they have to be seen to be doing something, right? And if their decrees are thoroughly illogical (or written to please vested interests, like the attempted ban on Olive Oil) who cares? You can’t fight City Hall. Anyone who has tried to argue with a bureaucrat or weave their way through a torturous appeals or complaints process will discover that fighting on their own terms is a waste of time. The bureaucrats can get very creative when they are trying to find a regulation they can use to get their way.
This has to be stopped.
The bureaucrats don’t realise – or don’t care – that they are doing considerable damage to our societies. Quite apart from communal events like bake sales and fairs that help bring people together, they are destroying the respect many feel for the government, the politicians and society as a whole. It is very hard to feel respect for anyone when common sense is ignored and ignorant fools are given the arbitrary power to penalise defenceless people. Or, for that matter, when the rules are followed and disaster happens anyway. The only winners out of this nightmare are the bureaucrats.
Is there anything we can do about this?
I have a proposal – strip the bureaucrats of their arbitrary power.
We have a principle for criminal trials – the suspect is tried by a jury of his or her peers, not by the judge. Nor does he have to prove his innocence; the prosecution must prove his guilt. Let us extend that principle to bureaucrats and their edicts, Instead of arbitrary fines, have them forced to submit their case to a jury.
To simplify this process, we might insist that they are allowed 1000 words to make their case – and, instead of quoting chapter and verse of ill-written laws, they must actually explain WHY something is wrong, dangerous or any other reasonable reason to take objection. The target would be allowed to write a response explaining why the bureaucrat is wrong. If a jury applies common sense, it would be able to decide if the case is actually valid.
If not, they can throw it out. And have the bureaucrat fired if he appears to be being particularly stupid.
Maybe that will convince them to focus on important matters.