Tuesday, September 06, 2005

Blaming Bureaucracy

Bush's latest Katrina tactic--announcing that he will lead the investigation into "what went right and what went wrong"--is infuriating on so many levels that it will take more than our humble blog to dissect it thoroughly. I just want to focus on one small aspect of the president's obfuscating statement today--his bold declaration that "Bureaucracy is not going to stand in the way of getting the job done for the people."

As noted on The American Prospect's website by Sam Rosenfeld, attacking "bureaucracy" is of course a standard rhetorical ploy of contemporary conservativism. However, it takes enormous chutzpah (or in Bush's case, cojones) for this ploy to be used by an incumbent president who has been running the government for the past five years and in fact personally called for and oversaw a massive reorganization of the specific bureaucracy in question. If there's some terrible dysfunction in the FEMA or Homeland Security bureaucracy, whose fault is that exactly?

A true conservative would respond that I am missing the point. Conservatives don't hate specific bureaucracies that are dysfunctional. They hate capital-B Bureaucracy itself, no matter what form it takes or what cause it supposedly serves, because it is inherently ineffectual, wasteful, and counter-productive. Therefore, there's no point in criticizing Bush's dumb-ass management of the bureacracy because bureaucracy is inherently evil.

I could quibble with this--for example, by pointing out that conservatives don't spend a lot of time attacking such massive bureaucracies as the Pentagon. In fact, anyone who criticizes the military immediately gets slimed by the foot soldiers of conservatism. So conservatives apparently consider some bureaucracies less evil than others, on grounds that aren't immediately obvious. But let's not quibble. Instead, let's look at the basic premise of their argument--the inherent evil of Bureaucracy itself.

The obvious question is, What are we talking about? What is bureaucracy? Answer: Any large organization designed to administer complex operations of some sort, using defined procedures, lines of communication, system for information-sharing, and other pre-arranged protocols.

As noted, the Pentagon is a bureaucracy. So is FEMA. And so are General Motors, Microsoft, the University of Chicago, and the Roman Catholic Church. Even the Cato Institute, I imagine, must have some sort of bureaucracy--I bet there's a human resources department, an I.T. manager, and some vice president or other in charge of getting the floors mopped and ordering cartons of yellow legal pads. (Don't give me that stuff about "flat organizations" that are "non-hierarchical" and "bureaucracy-free." Any organization that gets to be bigger than a couple of hundred people develops a bureaucracy, or else it stops working. That's the nature of reality.)

So being "against bureaucracy" is really devoid of meaning in today's world. You might as well be "against electricity" or "against printing"--that's how pervasive bureaucracy is. And we'd all have to agree that some bureaucracies do things we like, while others do things we hate. (We'd just disagree about which bureaucracies fall into which category.)

So bureaucracies are inescapable. And far from being inherently evil, they are involved in almost all activities in contemporary society, both good and bad. The only real question is, do you believe it's possible to make a bureaucratic organization run effectively, or not?

Some people claim to believe it's not possible. If they are sincere, they avoid large organizations altogether. They live in communes in the woods, home-school their children, and raise their own food (since they naturally mistrust the goods produced by the vast bureaucracies that constitute modern "agri-business").

However, most of those who claim a principled antipathy to bureaucracy are not sincere. Their insincerity is exposed by their readiness to participate in large organizations (businesses, universities, private companies, think tanks) when it suits their purposes. In some cases they even develop notable talents for navigating through and manipulating bureaucracies.

These people reserve their anti-bureaucratic rhetoric for times when it's politically useful to them. For example, when they want to break rules for their own benefit, they like to claim they are expressing the "revolutionary" zeal of those who hate the stifling effects of bureaucracies. Or, as George W. Bush did today, they use anti-bureaucratic language when they want to disavow responsibility for the fuck-ups of the bureaucracy they are supposed to run. "Hey, I'm a free spirit!" is the message. "You didn't expect me to burden my mind with all that bureaucratic detail, did you? But if you want, I can go into the bureaucracy and kick some butt. That's my thing--kicking butt. So much more fun than working on org charts or communications systems or evacuation plans."

Unfortunately, this is the kind of person we've chosen to elect as president.

As for me, I'd rather entrust my government to someone who believes it is possible to make a bureaucracy work. It's true that people like this sometimes come across as wonkish, stiff, boring--kinda like Al Gore or John Kerry. But when the levee breaks and hundreds of thousands of people want an emergency plan that makes sense and will save lives, I find it comforting to know that someone who believes in that stuff and cares about it is in charge.
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