Bureaucracy vs. Democracy

Philip Howard in The American Interest: “…For 50 years since the 1960s, modern government has been rebuilt on what I call the “philosophy of correctness.” The person making the decision must be able to demonstrate its correctness by compliance with a precise rule or metric, or by objective evidence in a trial-type proceeding. All day long, Americans are trained to ask themselves, “Can I prove that what I’m about to do is legally correct?”

In the age of individual rights, no one talks about the rights of institutions. But the disempowerment of institutional authority in the name of individual rights has led, ironically, to the disempowerment of individuals at every level of responsibility. Instead of striding confidently toward their goals, Americans tiptoe through legal minefields. In virtually every area of social interaction—schools, healthcare, business, public agencies, public works, entrepreneurship, personal services, community activities, nonprofit organizations, churches and synagogues, candor in the workplace, children’s play, speech on campus, and more—studies and reports confirm all the ways that sensible choices are prevented, delayed, or skewed by overbearing regulation, by an overemphasis on objective metrics,3 or by legal fear of violating someone’s alleged rights.

A Three-Part Indictment of Modern Bureaucracy

Reformers have promised to rein in bureaucracy for 40 years, and it’s only gotten more tangled. Public anger at government has escalated at the same time, and particularly in the past decade.  While there’s a natural reluctance to abandon a bureaucratic structure that is well-intended, public anger is unlikely to be mollified until there is change, and populist solutions do not bode well for the future of democracy.  Overhauling operating structures to permit practical governing choices would re-energize democracy as well as relieve the pressures Americans feel from Big Brother breathing down their necks.

Viewed in hindsight, the operating premise of modern bureaucracy was utopian and designed to fail. Here’s the three-part indictment of why we should abandon it.

1. The Economic Dysfunction of Modern Bureaucracy

Regulatory programs are indisputably wasteful, and frequently extract costs that exceed benefits. The total cost of compliance is high, about $2 trillion for federal regulation alone….

2. Bureaucracy Causes Cognitive Overload

The complex tangle of bureaucratic rules impairs a human’s ability to focus on the actual problem at hand. The phenomenon of the unhelpful bureaucrat, famously depicted in fiction by Dickens, Balzac, Kafka, Gogol, Heller, and others, has generally been characterized as a cultural flaw of the bureaucratic personality. But studies of cognitive overload suggest that the real problem is that people who are thinking about rules actually have diminished capacity to think about solving problems. This overload not only impedes drawing on what  calls “system 2” thinking (questioning assumptions and reflecting on long term implications); it also impedes access to what they call “system 1” thinking (drawing on their instincts and heuristics to make intuitive judgments)….

3. Bureaucracy Subverts the Rule of Law

The purpose of law is to enhance freedom. By prohibiting bad conduct, such as crime or pollution, law liberates each of us to focus our energies on accomplishment instead of self-protection. Societies that protect property rights and the sanctity of contracts enjoy far greater economic opportunity and output than those that do not enforce the rule of law….(More)”.