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Brian D. Rude, 1977
In the summer of 1975 I took a teaching job in Nebraska. As my previous teaching experience was in Missouri I had to see about getting a Nebraska teaching certificate. I applied for a “Nebraska Standard” teaching certificate. I sent in my college transcript, the application form, and a check for eight dollars. They sent me back, in their own good time, a “Nebraska Prestandard” certificate. I decided there was nothing “prestandard” about me or my teaching, so I wrote back and asked why I didn’t get the “standard” certificate. They replied that since I had not taught three out of the last five years I was eligible only for the “prestandard” certificate.
“What do those pigheaded bureaucrats know about my teaching?” I thought to myself. “How would they ever know the standard of my teaching just from shuffling papers around?”
With a little reflection I realized that of course they know nothing about my teaching. They are not supposed to know anything about my teaching. They are paid to evaluate the papers I send them. They are not paid to evaluate my teaching. They have a clear mandate to shuffle my papers, and nothing more.
I presume my application was opened by a secretary, who, following a tightly structured routine, checked off each requirement, typed up my certificate, got it signed by some authority and sent it off to me. Such a secretary is most likely a conscientious worker, a wife and mother, a Republican or Democrat, an occasional churchgoer, a bit of a gossip, and a lot of other plain ordinary things. But she is most likely not a “pigheaded bureaucrat”. She would not think of herself as a bureaucrat, and neither would her boss, her coworkers, her family, or anyone else who personally knew her. When she typed “prestandard” instead of standard” on my teaching certificate she is simply doing her job. Were she to do anything less or more she would be negligent.
So where is the bureaucracy? Or was I dealing with a bureaucracy? If not, then where is there a bureaucracy? Where do we find the genuine article, the bungling, myopic, pigheaded bureaucrat?
I think pigheaded bureaucrats do exist, but they are rare. It’s the good bureaucrat that drives us batty, quite as much as the bungling bureaucrat. The good bureaucrat knows exactly what he is obligated to do and he does it conscientiously. The good bureaucrat simply applies the rules that he is responsible for applying, but that he did not make.
A bureaucracy is a group of people responsible for applying a set of rules. The police, courts, executive branches of government, parents, teachers, librarians, and many other people or groups of people are also responsible for applying rules, yet we don’t think of these as being bureaucracies. The distinguishing features of a bureaucracy are the types of rules to be applied, and, to some extent, how the rules are applied.
A bureaucracy is responsible for applying what I will call “secondary”, or “derived” rules, A secondary rule is a requirement or prohibition established only because it promotes a primary goal. When Moses came down from the mountain with his stone tablets he was carrying what might be considered the simplest statement of what I will call “primary” requirements. The rule, “Thou shalt not steal”, for example, is a primary requirement because it is desirable for its own sake, not just as a means to some other end. Similarly, “Thou shalt not commit murder” is a primary requirement because it is desirable as an end in itself.
Safe driving, as a modern example, is a primary requirement because it is desirable for its own sake. The requirement that one get a driver’s license before driving, in contrast, is a secondary requirement. It is a requirement instituted by state governments in an attempt to promote the primary goal of safe driving. It is secondary to, or derived from, the primary requirement of driving safely. If people always drove safely, or if driving by its nature presented no hazards, then there would be no need for driver’s licenses. Or if legislatures decided that licensing did nothing to promote safe driving then there would be no need for driver’s licenses. Licensing is not an end in itself.
Tertiary, or third order, requirements can also exist. If a state requires a birth certificate as proof of age before issuing a driver’s license then the state is imposing a third order requirement. Showing a birth certificate is a requirement designed to promote the licensing of drivers, which in turn is designed to promote safe driving.
I imagine one could go ahead and find examples of fourth order requirements established to promote third order requirements. However I don’t think there is much point in getting too deep in this kind of analysis. The main point is the distinction of whether a goal is important for its own sake or whether it is important in promoting some other goal. Thus I may speak of a “derived” requirement, meaning only that it is not a primary requirement, but not specifying whether it is secondary, tertiary, or even further removed from the primary goal.
In different contexts I may speak of primary or secondary “requirements”, “rules”, prohibitions”, “laws”, “regulations”, “goals”, “wrongs”, “burdens”, “privileges, and so on. It seems natural to think of paying taxes as a “requirement”, while murder is a “wrong” that is covered by a “prohibition”. But the requirement of paying a tax can be interpreted as the prohibition of avoiding the tax, and the prohibition against murder can be interpreted as the requirement to refrain from murder. The important point here is the distinction between primary and derived, not between omission and commission.
In the example I gave about getting a teaching certificate the bureaucrats were concerned only with my compliance with secondary requirements. They were not at all concerned with the primary requirement - the requirement that I indeed be a good teacher. This is a distinguishing characteristic of bureaucracies. They are concerned only with applying derived, not primary, rules. Other agencies are brought in when there is a primary rule to be applied. The police and courts handle such primary wrongs as theft and murder, Parents and teachers handle such primary wrongs as tracking mud on the carpet or being late to school. Churches handle such primary wrongs as “living in sin” or blasphemy. But it doesn’t take a judge or a preacher to decide if my application for a teaching certificate is in order, or my application for a driver’s license, or a dog license, or a business license, or a barber’s license, or a building permit, or a marriage license, or breathing license. It takes a bureaucrat to handle these matters.
The basic root of bureaucracy then, is the proliferation of secondary requirements. It is not enough, in our modern world, to just be a good and honest person. One can be the best and safest of drivers, but a driver’s license is still required. One can be a patriot and a saint, but the IRS still wants that W-2 form. One can be the best doctor in the world, but to practice medicine without a degree and a license is still a serious offense. We have estab1ished literally millions of secondary requirements designed to promote a few primary goals. To administer these rules we have people we call bureaucrats.
If the basic root of bureaucracy is a proliferation of derived requirements, then it would seem reasonable that the way to decrease bureaucracy would be to decrease such requirements. This is true, and in fact is a main thesis of this article, Unfortunately it is not always easy to do. Every bureaucratic requirement, in a healthy society at least, was established by reasonably intelligent people giving at least half-way serious consideration to a genuine problem. Therefore any particular bureaucratic requirement or procedure that is challenged will be defended by some person or group.
The most important gain we hope to realize from derived requirements is security. The requirement of any permit or license is usually, if not invariably, justified in order to “protect the public”. We want safe driving so we demand driver’s licenses. We want our neighbor’s dog out of our flower bed so we demand dog licenses. We want merchants to be honest so we demand business licenses. We want welfare recipients not to cheat so we require verification of identify, employment, and who knows what else. All these requirements are seen as necessary to prevent something bad from happening, or to assure that something good will happen.
Derived requirements cannot provide all types of security. We can’t prevent floods and famines by making rules and printing forms. The type of security that is the goal of bureaucratic requirernents is social control of one form or another.
Simple fairness is often the goal of bureaucratic requirements. The Internal Revenue Service is a good example of this. The primary goal of the IRS is to raise money. This could be done by charging every citizen a flat rate of $1000 or so each year. We wouldn’t consider this fair, though, because we realize not everyone has an equal ability to pay. Therefore we have an elaborate set of rules designed to extract more from those who have more. To apply these rules we have what is probably the biggest and most complex bureaucracy since time began. This size and complexity comes from our desire to be fair, not from the simple desire to collect money.
Another form of social control for which bureaucratic requirements are established is prevention of abuse of power. Power comes in many different forms, and we know from long experience that power is always susceptible to abuse. One method of dealing with abuse of power is to call it a it a primary wrong and punish the offenders. This is done, and it keeps the police and courts very busy. Another way to control abuse of power is to set up secondary requirements to try to prevent such wrongs from occurring in the first place. This produces bureaucracies. In the 1880’s, for example, railroads were playing a little rougher than people wanted. They gained power by monopolizing a vital service. In response to this the Interstate Commerce Commission was set up, and has regulated business ever since. A more modern, and more specific, example would be the requirement that a used car dealer certify that the odometer reading is correct when he sells a car. This requirement is in response to what is seen as abuse of power by car dealers who misrepresent their merchandise.
In addition to the main cause of bureaucracy - the proliferation of derived requirements for purposes of security - there are several other causes of bureaucracies that are worth mentioning. The first of these is pure blind imitation. Again I will use driver’s licensing as an example.
In the fifty states there is a startling uniformity of driver’s license requirements. The most obvious uniformity is that all states require licenses. I have never been able to understand this. It would seem that if each state followed its own experience, values, customs, and judgment, then there would be a whole spectrum of licensing requirements, ranging from no requirement at all to extensive and strict requirements. This is apparently not the case. The majority of states require a written, driving, and eye test. They require a license fee. They require renewal of the license every so many years. They require that the license be in the person’s possession while he is driving. So far as I can tell only minor variations are found on this basic pattern in the different states.
I attribute this uniformity mainly to imitation. If there were an obvious connection between traffic safety and driver’s licensing then this uniformity would seem more sensible. If the National Safety Council told us everyday that the majority of fatal accidents involved an unlicensed driver, then we would not be surprised to find a driver’s license requirement in every state. But that is not the case. The National Safety Council talks a lot about the drinking driver but not about the unlicensed driver. If there was a historical example of some state that was too stubborn to require licenses and had an atrocious accident rate, then again a strict licensing system would be expected in every state. But is not the case either. The connection between licensing and safe driving is tenuous at best. There are innumerable unsafe drivers in every state who have no trouble getting a license. There are also perfectly safe drivers who have trouble getting a license. I think it is safe to say that the average driver, safe or unsafe, can’t pass the written test without studying the book no matter how long he has been driving. Many people find this out when they try to renew their license. All this leads me to believe that licensing requirements are set up by imitation more than anything else. A few states started requiring licenses and other states blindly followed, thinking in some vague way that they were being modern and progressive.
Pure blind imitation may seem a poor reason to set up a bureaucratic requirement and a bureaucracy to apply it, but there are many examples of such imitation in everyday life. In a previous article, (“Roling and Rolers”, not yet on my web site) I described and developed the idea that blind imitation is a powerful determinant of individual behavior. I think it is almost as powerful a determinant of group action. If each state followed its own inclination in the matter of driver’s licensing I would expect a much wider variation among the different states.
Another cause of bureaucracies is a little more substantial than blind imitation, and accounts for many licensing systems. That is the desire for group recognition. People are by nature social animals. They want to have groups and they want to do things in groups. They want their groups to be recognized and they want this recognition to be official and formal. I began to realize this a few years back when I read in the paper that beauticians were trying to get legislation passed setting up a system of beautician licensure. I thought they were nuts. Why, when we all hate the bureaucracy so much, would anyone want to set up more bureaucracy?
Another example of this kind of bureaucracy building is in the field of occupational therapy. Nurses, physical therapists, and speech therapists are licensed by the state. Occupational therapists, in contrast, have a national association which gives a “registry examination”. Upon passing this test, and having a degree in occupational therapy, one becomes an “O.T.R.”, a registered occupational therapist. Hospitals and other institutions take this designation as evidence of full qualification in the field. With such a sensible system I find incomprehensible that the profession is pushing for a system of state, rather than national, licensure. But that is exactly what they are doing. They are trying to build more bureaucracy, and they will succeed.
It took me quite a number of years to realize that teacher certification is something that the teaching profession wants, rather than being a requirement imposed from above. However that is apparently the case. The system of licensure, though a pain, does give some recognition to the status of teachers. This, along with a considerable amount of blind imitation, apparently accounts for the uniformity of teacher certification requirements found in different states.
It would be nice if we could give official recognition to groups without the necessity of laying down a mass of secondary requirements, but that is not how it works. Recognition, apparently would have little meaning if it did not indicate that the members of the group meet a system of requirements. It would also be nice if those who gain this official recognition were always worthy of it, but that also is unfortunately not the case. There will always be drivers, teachers, beauticians, occupational therapists, doctors, lawyers, and others who somehow manage to gain the official license but are recognized by their peers as incompetent. Whenever a system of secondary requirements is established there inevitably enters a “reality gap”, a gap between the ideal and the real. This can make the whole system ineffective. I will have more to say about this ineffectiveness and its effects shortly.
Yet another factor leading to the spread of bureaucracy is a systematic error made, to a greater or lesser extent, by practitioners of almost any field. That error is thinking that the world’s problems will be solved by one’s own field of knowledge or mode of operation. I think a good name for this would be “role egocentrism”. Egocentrism means that a person considers himself the center of the universe, just as ethnocentrism means that a group considers itself the center of the universe. Role egocentrism simply means that one’s own role is given undue importance and status. Thus doctors think that medicine will be the salvation of the world. When medicine has progressed far enough, they think, the world will be such a fine place that other problems will just disappear. Preachers think that if only we would all turn to God there would be no more problems. Farmers think that once the world food problem is solved, by farmers of course, then all will be well. Teachers think that education will be the one thing to save mankind from itself. Scientists think that research will usher in a new golden age.
It is hard to conceive of a bureaucrat having such grandiose visions of salvation. But remember that bureaucrats do not think of themselves as bureaucrats. Even more importantly, bureaucrats don’t make the rules, they only apply them. The rules are made by governments. Governments consist of politicians, and politicians are very susceptible to role egocentrism. To attain office a politician must convince people that government is capable of doing things, and he must believe it himself. Since people want things done it is not surprising that governments are populated by large numbers of people with an inflated idea of what can be done by writing rules and laws. Since there are few primary laws left to write, we have an ever-increasing proliferation of secondary requirements. Bureaucrats may not make the basic rules that they apply, but they do have some latitude to make minor rules, and even more importantly, they are responsible for making reports and can require reports from their subordinates. In the making of reports a little role egocentrism can go a long way. The result can be a massive flow of reams and reams of paperwork, with copies sent to all other bureaucrats who might have come slight connection to the job at hand, but with very little of the reports actually being read.
Bureaucrats also have some latitude in working as individua1s or teams, and again a great deal of waste can ensue. The justification for working in committees or teams is the idea that by joining forces the best abilities of each member can be brought to bear on the problem at hand and therefore a solution to the problem is more likely. Of course there is some truth to this, but it doesn’t always work out too well. The little bit truth can become greatly augmented by role egocentrism. Team workers like to think that if you set six experts around a table something good is bound to come out of it, Non-team workers, like myself, tend to think that setting six experts around a table is a good way for six experts to waste each other’s time. I think bureaucrats at the higher levels are more prone to waste their energy this way, and I interpret this as a form of role egocentrism.
All of these cases of bureaucracy are augmented by another systematic error. That error is the systematic overestimation of group cohesiveness. In the minds of bureaucracy builders the bureaucracies already in existence become “they”, and “they” are a bunch of pigheaded fools. “We”, on the other hand, are good, right-thinking people and the bureaucracy we set up will serve the people, not the bureaucrats. And just to make sure we’ll write in plenty of safeguards. Of course this doesn’t work. Just because it is “our” program doesn’t mean that it won’t be subject to all the problems that beset any program. A new generation will grow up and decide that “we” are “they” and the cycle begins over again.
So far I have painted a rather pessimistic picture. We have bureaucrats because we have a multitude of derived requirements to administer, and we have a multitude of derived requirements because we think they bring us security. We also have bureaucracies because of imitation, because of the desire for group recognition, and because of role egocentrism. Yet the sum total of all this drives us batty. The next step is to try to get some idea of why and how bureaucracy is frustrating. I think the frustration results from two main causes, standardization and ineffectiveness.
Standardization is a wonderful thing in industry. If my car needs a new fuel pump I can buy one right off the shelf and know it will fit. Fuel pumps are standard, and engines are standard. They fit together beautifully. The few defective fuel pump that are not standard are quickly caught and tossed off the assembly line. This happy state of affairs does not extend to non physical objects though. Consider, for example, a seed planter. I don’t know just how a planter might worth but I visualize a mechanical hand grabbing one seed at a time and popping it into the ground. Seeds are pretty well standardized and. most seeds can be picked up by these mechanical hands without injury. A few seeds, however, are non-standard. They are either too big, or too small, or perhaps the wrong shape. The iron hands that so effectively plant most seeds will bruise, shred, mangle or maybe just overlook the oddball seeds. This doesn’t worry us though. Just like the defective fuel pumps that are bumped off the assembly line, the few mishandled seeds are of no great consequence.
When standardization is extended to humans the situation changes dramatically. We can’t bump off the defectives so carelessly. A bureaucracy can be compared to the seed planter. Iron hands pick you up and set you down again. If you fit the standard mold, these iron hands hold you gently. If you don’t fit the standard mold those same iron hands can shred you to pieces.
For example, a few years back I knew a fellow who was paraplegic. He was completely confined to his wheelchair, but he had a car with adapted controls and could drive as well as anyone. Unfortunately he had considerable difficulty licensing both himself and his car. He could drive to the courthouse, and get himself out of his car and into his wheelchair, but he had no way of getting down in the basement where the licensing offices were. There were elevators from the first floor to the basement of course, but between the parking lot and the first floor were innumerable steps and curbs. To a person in a wheelchair a single four-inch curb might as well be a ten-foot wall. Apparently my friend managed somehow to keep himself legal most of the time, but he did at times speak bitterly about the troubles he encountered. The state required licenses, and the state provided a way to get these licenses, but only if you fit the standard mold. My friend did not fit the standard mold, and felt very much caught in those iron hands.
Fortunately most examples of the problems of standardization are not so serious. My wife had a friend in college who was triply enrolled in the School of Education, the School of Medicine, and the Graduate School. All occupational therapy students were dually enrolled in Education and Medicine, which caused no end of red tape in itself, but this particular girl was such a go-getter that she added Graduate School. This made her a non-standard. person indeed. One day she spent a solid half hour on the phone trying to convince some bureaucrat that, no matter that it didn’t’ t fit the computer, it was possible to be enrolled that way. I presume the problem, whatever it was, was eventually worked out, but not without some cost in frustration. The bureaucrat in question was probably no more pigheaded than your or I. The rules he was responsible for applying simply made no provision for triply enrolled students.
When caught as a non-standard person in a standardized bureaucracy one wonders why standardization is established the first place. Except for the role egocentrism of a few bureaucrats, standardization is not intentional. It arises by the same forces that promote standardization in industry. Standardization promotes efficiency. Whenever a form is printed, for instance, it is designed to fit the majority of situations. Thus a fire insurance application form may ask if the house is frame or brick, with no intention of frustrating the owners of igloos, caves, and houseboats. It simply reflects the fact that most houses are either frame or brick. By stating these two choices the processing of the application is speeded up. If instead the application stated simply, “describe the dwelling to be insured”, the work in processing the application would be considerably increased. Standardization is the inevitable correlate of the proliferation of secondary requirements.
There is also another cause of standardization, the lack of discretionary authority. Remember that secondary requirements are set up in many cases to prevent abuse of power and to be fair. This usually means that the bureaucrats who apply these rules have only a limited number of responses to a given situation. Bureaucracies are given very little discretionary authority. They must follow the rules whether the rules fit the situation at hand or not. To illustrate this let me hypothesize two ways of administering welfare.
In case A an applicant comes to a social worker. The applicant explains that her husband just lost his job because he drank too much, that she works as a maid two days a week but that her children have no one to stay with them when she works unless she pays a baby sitter which costs almost half her salary, that their car is about to be repossessed and then she won’t be able to get to work at all, that the landlord won’t fix the plumbing and charges too much rent, that they would move except they haven’t found a place that’s any cheaper, that their oldest son was just sent to jail for a two year term, and on, and on, and on. The social worker listens to all this, makes e few phone calls, and the next day tells the applicant, “We’ll give you $70 a week allowance, but tell your husband to come in before next week. We’ll get him off his beer and on the job one way or the other. I called your landlord and got his side of the story and there’ll have to be a few changes made before he’ll reconnect the shower, and you’ve got to . . . . . . . . “
In situation B the applicant comes to the social worker with the same story. The social worker says, “I think we can help you, but first you’ll have to find your birth certificate. Regulations state that only citizens are eligible for welfare. Then you’ll have to take this form to your employer to certify your wage scale. And this form goes to your landlord to verify your rent. And you’ll have to fill out this form to show how budget your income, and this form to verify that you are not now receiving veterans or disability compensation, and this form that verifies you are not eligible to collect child support from any previous husband, unless the marriage was annulled, in which case you have hunt up the certificate of annulment . . . What? You lost your certificate of annulment? You’re not sure you ever were married to John before you left him for Henry? . . . . .
In situation A the social worker is given a budget and a wide latitude on how to distribute the money. She is given discretionary power to large degree. In situation B the social worker is given a very small amount of discretionary power. She can’t decide for herself whether the applicant is genuinely needy, but must prepare a “work-up”, consisting of documentation of all relevant aspects of the applicant’s situation. On the basis of this work-up she is allowed to authorize an allowance, the amount to be taken from a table. If the social worker feels that there are relevant circumstances that are not covered at all in the standard work-up then she nay begin some special procedure to have the case considered by a higher authority or committee. But the common suspicion that things aren’t quite as they should be, either because the applicant is undeserving or that he needs more than he can get or that the program misses its mark in yet some other way, is just a routine part of the job.
Standardization, fitting everyone into the same size slot, reduces everything to paperwork. The “work-up” is a stack of documents. These documents, certificates, forms, statements, memos, become the currency of bureaucracy, the medium of exchange. “Facts” become so only when they are certified by someone’s signature, even though they may be obvious. Other “facts” must be accepted because of their official certification even though common sense or simple observation show them to be false. A gap between the real and the official inevitably sets in. Then this gap leads to actions that are perceived to be detrimental or unfair, then the result is a considerable amount of frustration, in spite of the fact that the intent of all the red tape was to be beneficial and fair.
This leads to the second cause of bureaucratic frustration, which is ineffectiveness. If a bureaucratic requirement is seen as effective in accomplishing its goal we accept it even if there is considerable inconvenience involved in meeting the requirement. If, on the other hand, a bureaucratic requirement is seen as ineffective then a little inconvenience in meeting the requirement can be a very significant frustration. Getting a loan from a bank, for example, involves considerable effort in meeting bureaucratic requirements. However we don’t expect money to be handed out without some security that it will be paid back. Therefore we don’t get too frustrated by the inconvenience in meeting those requirements. Similarly, driver’s licenses are seen as worthwhile, even if not fully effective, and entails only a little bother every four years or so. Therefore we do not hear too much about pigheaded bureaucrats at the driver’s license bureau. Unfortunately other licensing systems have imperfections so massive and ubiquitous, and benefits so doubtful, that the whole system is a burden to society. A little inconvenience in getting such a license can be very frustrating. This is the frustration I felt in the example I gave at the beginning of this article about getting a teaching certificate. Another example would be going back three times to the fire station to get a bicycle license. I went back twice. I figured three times was above and beyond the call of duty. I never did get my bicycle licensed.
In psychological phenomena the whole is not always equal to the sum of its parts. Bureaucratic frustration can work this way. One frustration may be brushed off, and then another, and. perhaps several more, but eventually there comes a point where the frustrations increase out of proportion to their cumulative value. Short-term frustration changes into long-term demoralization. I think “hassle” is a good name for this. It is a commonly used term, though it is not normally considered a specifically defined term. I think the phenomenon should be taken seriously though. It will become increasingly common with constant increases in bureaucratic requirements.
The best example I can give of hassle in my own experience comes from my home state of Missouri. To get one’s car licensed in Missouri one must show the title or previous year’s registration certificate, as can be expected, but that is not all there is to it. One must also get a new safety inspection certificate and also show his personal property tax receipt. When I lived in Missouri I usually didn’t have any property to be taxed, but I still had to go to the Treasurer’s office in the courthouse to get a card stating that no taxes were due. The safety inspection always caused me worry, and the car licensing itself always had the potential for problems. Maybe they would find something wrong with my title and tell me I can’t register the car. Thus the sum of all this was to me a hassle. The requirements exceeded my tolerance. It caused me anxiety, much more than the sum of the anxieties of each requirement had they come independently. Fortunately other states I have lived in didn’t tie those things together, and for that reason I hope I don’t end up living in Missouri again.
People vary in their susceptibility to hassle. I expect I have about as low a tolerance as anyone. I haven’t heard other Missourians complaining about the car licensing system. Unfortunately those who are not susceptible to the demoralization of hassles have little understanding of the anxieties of those who are susceptible. This goes along with the general rule that the more aggressive cannot empathize with the less aggressive. This increase the problem to those who are susceptible to hassle. However I would expect the future will see the problem given much more recognition as more and more people find themselves pushed beyond their tolerance.
A movement is currently under way by the Democratic Party to do away with traditional voter registration practices and to substitute a “same day” standardized registration system. Thus a voter could show up on election day, show proof of identity and residence, and be registered on the spot. The rationale of this is that the complications of regular registration are sufficient to prevent many people from voting. I think the move is clearly motivated by the political goal of increasing the Democratic vote. Still, I am glad to see the movement. They are talking about hassle. They are acknowledging that bureaucratic requirements are a burden, and that this burden can at times be of a serious nature. Now when somebody tells me I’m nuts if I worry about getting a car license I can reply that apparently some people worry about voter registration. In the first part of this article I tried to explain the causes of bureaucratic requirements. Then I tried to analyze how bureaucracy produces frustration. There are very good reasons for bureaucracies, and there are very good reasons for frustration, so it appears we must live with the problem forever. I don’t think the world will grind to a halt though. The way out of this dilemma is simply to realize when diminishing returns begin to set in, and even more importantly, to realize when the return does not equal the investment. Every human endeavor has a cost and a benefit, an investment and a return. When establishing a system of secondary rules the investment includes the cost of setting up the bureaucracy, the cost of the individual’s efforts in dealing with the bureaucracy, and increasingly more importantly, the cost in frustration, anxiety, and demoralization. These costs must be subtracted from the benefits before deciding that a given proposal is or is not worthwhile.
Sometimes the cost can be reduced to dollars and cents. According to an item in the newsletter from my representative in Congress the town of Faith, South Dakota, recently applied for a federal grant. I be1ieve they wanted to build a rodeo grandstand. They were offered $150,000 to match their own $50,000, but of course there were strings attached. After looking c1osely at these strings they finally rejected the federal help entirely and built their own grandstand for only $20,000. I doubt that this example is typical of federal grants, but it does illustrate diminishing returns.
More commonly only part of the cost can be reduced to dollars and cents. For example, an accountant may compute that a $20,000 grant for a town would entail only about $6000 in labor to do all the paperwork. This would seem to make a clear profit for the town of $14,000. But if the city officials are sick of the paperwork and the delays, if the citizens are mad a everyone and each other, and if the strings will be attached forever, then all this must certainly be subtracted from the benefit.
The investment/return assessment is even more complicated when all important factors are psychological. How can we put a price on invasion of privacy? How can we put a price on independence and respect for the individual? How are these costs to be subtracted from the safety and security that we gain from bureaucratic requirements? I don’t know. Since psychological costs cannot be measured in dollars and cents, the worth of any system of bureaucratic requirements will always be a matter of subjective judgment, a matter of politics to be decided through political processes. They are not matters to be decided by technicians or engineers of any sort.
I have my own opinions. I vote for nuclear energy and against OSHA. I tend to think of the licensing of voters and guns worthwhile, of cars and drivers as borderline, and of teachers, barbers, cats and bicycles as not worth while. Of course everyone else will disagree. I only hope we will start counting costs and benefits a little more carefully. As is true of so many things, it cannot be said of bureaucracy that if some is good, more is better.