Bureaucracy's Inherent Evil

Bureaucracies are evil, even if nobody in them wants to be.

Conservatives often talk about the urgent need to shrink the size and cost of government.  A large government, by definition, makes more rules and regulations, and these rules and regulations always shrink the scope of individual liberty.

More bureaucrats and enforcers must be paid; either this means higher taxes and thus less economic freedom, or larger national debts and thus less economic freedom for our children.  A certain minimum level of government is required to maintain public order and manage shared infrastructure, but we passed that point a long time ago.

There's another reason to want a small government that's not so often discussed, because at first it sounds unreasonable.  It's no less true, however, and in some ways is the most powerful small-government reason of all:

Bureaucracy, by its very nature, promotes and enforces evil.

When the Buck Stops Nowhere

You are probably thinking, "What sort of nonsense is this?  I know plenty of government employees, and they may be greedy, lazy, incompetent, even venal, but not out-and-out evil."

No, the overwhelming majority of them are not; as we've written before, government employees are no better and no worse than anyone else.  Most of them just want to live solid middle-class lives and enjoy a comfortable retirement.

The point is not that individual bureaucrats are themselves particularly evil, or even that government service is specially attractive to evil people - though in certain particular areas that may be so.

The point is that bureaucracy itself, by the way in which it inherently separates responsibility from authority, always causes evil to be done even when no individual person is trying to make it so.

Let's revisit a classic example we discussed earlier, in which a small child was mistakenly given an alcoholic lemonade to drink at a ball game, and the father was arrested and the child sent to government care even though everyone involved thought it was crazy.

As Scragged writer Will Offensicht wrote:

The police officer who interviewed Ratte [the boy's father] at the hospital said that her supervisor insisted on referring the matter to Child Protective Services.  Federal law makes police officers "mandatory reporters;" they face serious fines and perhaps jail time if they don't report something which might be child abuse.

The CPS workers seemed to be more annoyed with the cop than with Ratte; they told him the whole thing was unnecessary as they drove Leo away.  The Free Press explains, "But there was really nothing any of them could do, they all said. They were just adhering to protocol, following orders."  [emphasis added]

Somewhere far, far up the line, a law was passed and regulations written.  Was there some evil monster in the Congress scheming to destroy families?  Of course not - as Walter Mondale memorably said, "Not even Richard Nixon is in favor of child abuse!"

Yet the end result of this law was a child snatched from his family and traumatized; that child will never again feel safe, nor will he ever trust the police or the rest of the government.  That is evil.

What about the cops and social workers involved?  As the original article made plain, they were obeying their sworn duty to the law.  The law required the cop to report the matter; the law required the boy's removal by the social workers.  For them to do otherwise would require them to break the law and their oaths.  They were placed in an impossible position with no right answer.

So, who is to blame?  Who should be fired?

Everyone involved had the very best of intentions.  Everyone involved did precisely as their organizations demanded and as the law specified; it would be unjust to blame any one individual.

Yet evil was done, and is being done, and will continue to be done on an ongoing basis, and nobody seems to be able to stop it or even plausibly blame anyone.  We explain it thus - "the system."

Authority and Responsibility

In the old days, authority and responsibility were far more closely tied.  The local justice or sheriff could lock somebody up if he felt it necessary.  Sometimes he'd do so unjustly, but everyone knew who was being unjust - hence the term "the unjust judge."

Victims knew who to appeal to, to complain about, or to tar and feather if nothing else.  The authority and the responsibility were clear, and embodied in the same person.

Today, apparently, nobody in the bureaucracy has clear authority to make the right decision.  Everyone must follow written procedures put together with the best of intentions by Somebody Else, who themselves have not the authority to change them.

Our Founders never envisioned this sort of system.  Congress was supposed to write laws and also to bear the blame for lousy ones.

Unfortunately, Congress doesn't write the laws that affect our daily lives on the ground any more.  They pass massive laws that nobody's ever read, but even those rarely specify the precise rules and regulations we all must follow.

Modern laws simply lay out general guidelines and then grant authority to unelected, nameless, faceless bureaucrats ensconced in an alphabet-soup agency to "figure out the rest and make it work."  Thus we are presented with a mammoth Federal Register of infinite rules no one has ever or could ever read, but which we all must obey under penalty of prison or worse.  Is this the life of a free people?

In the British legal tradition, powers granted could not be delegated - that is, Parliament, the King's men, or the courts were allowed to do whatever they were allowed to do, but they couldn't delegate their power to anyone else.  As John Locke put it:

The Legislative cannot transfer the Power of Making Laws to any other hands. For it being but a delegated Power from the People, they, who have it, cannot pass it over to others.

Early America followed the same rule.  As late as 1892, our Supreme Court ruled

That congress cannot delegate legislative power to the president is a principle universally recognized as vital to the integrity and maintenance of the system of government ordained by the constitution.

The New Deal ended all that.  With precious few restrictions, Congress is now allowed to delegate whatever authority they like to the executive-branch bureaucracy, the only limit being that there has to be some intelligible "guiding principle."

"Stop child abuse" is a guiding principle just like "prevent financial meltdown."  We can all support them both.  By current case law, Congress is perfectly entitled to pass a law for the prevention of child abuse and another to prevent financial meltdown, leaving all details to be ironed out by appropriate regulations created by an agency.  In fact, they've done so repeatedly.

Have we all not heard that "the devil is in the details"?  It certainly was for the unfortunate Ratte family.  It certainly is for countless Americans harassed by unthinking, unreasonable bureaucrats who are "just following the rules" - rules that no known person wrote and that no known person can change.

It's the same with financial regulation.  All the costs will be passed on to people who borrow money and economic growth will suffer. The intentions are the very best; the results will be awful, and nobody will be blamed.

The problem is not caused by evil individuals - there are relatively few of those.  The solution, therefore, is not to replace bad individuals with good ones because it won't help.  As we've seen, "the system" can be full of good, well-meaning, law-abiding individuals and yet the end result be evil.

The problem isn't the individuals; it's "the system" itself.

Well, if "the system" is evil, shouldn't it be abolished?  Our governmental system, in the sense that it affects us on the ground, is bureaucracy.  All the incentives of bureaucrats are bad ones; intentional or not, the results of their work will always be perverse.

After a century's worth of experience letting Congress delegate lawmaking to unelected bureaucrats in the executive branch, the only question is why we're still surprised - and why we haven't done away with an evil the Founders never intended.

Petrarch is a contributing editor for Scragged.  Read other Scragged.com articles by Petrarch or other articles on Bureaucracy.
Reader Comments
Any suggestions on where this paring of the "Bureaucracy" might begin? And how, short of civil war.
September 21, 2010 1:11 PM
national endowment for the arts
Sell off the spectrum used by NPR - there are now HUGE numbers of media outlets and someone would pick up Sesame Street.

Short of civil war? Vote against all incumbents this November. If we do that 2 or 3 times, they'll respond.
September 21, 2010 5:32 PM
its not just about voting out incumbents, its about voting IN someone with the character and honor that is necessary to be given power, and want to limit it, that kind of person, remaining electable of course, (that means you, Delaware! And your wicken canidate) only comes around maybe once every several decades or so
September 22, 2010 6:57 AM
"remaining electable of course, (that means you, Delaware! And your wicken canidate)"

Why is Christine O'Donnell not electable? She beat Mike Castle. She raised millions of dollars online entirely through grassroots efforts. She's running against a socialist.

You say you want someone to limit power - an outsider that isn't afraid to mix it up - and then you turn around and reject the very candidate who would do just that.
September 22, 2010 7:10 AM
"Why is Christine O'Donnell not electable?"

Because the GOP hates upstarts that don't respect their chain of command.
September 22, 2010 8:36 AM
Which bureaucrats to sack? There are a lot of things that the Federal government meddles in which are properly the job of the states. There's no need for a Federal Dept. of Labor, Education, Energy, Agriculture, or Housing and Urban Development. Commerce, Transportation, Homeland Security, and Defense are Constitutionally-mandated Federal responsibilities so they ought to exist. Veterans Affairs is very important but doesn't seem like it should be its own cabinet department; making it a DoD command as it used to be would certainly shave a bunch of bureaucrats.

And that's just for starters, there are plenty of sub-agencies and departments that could get the chop.
September 22, 2010 8:38 AM
Most states have very functional bureaucracies, why not have the laws (as created in Washington) structured at the state level where the people at least have a better chance of reacting to and tempering the regulations created. It would lessen the need for large(er)Washington bureaucracies and just maybe create more equitable and reasoned enforcement.
September 22, 2010 9:23 AM
@ Ifon & Dave
I am rooting for O'Donell, however she is down 13 points in a liberal state
September 22, 2010 10:52 AM

These thoughts come to mind..

a) If it's a liberal state, why did O'Donell win the primary in the first place? In liberal states, "far right" types (as branded by the media) never win primaries. The centrist RNC type does.

b) If it's a liberal state, would Castle have won then anyway?

c) Assuming it's a liberal state AND Castle would have own, what's the point of having RINO's in office if they want cast conservative votes? Doesn't that just erode the brand? Castle already said twice that he wouldn't vote to repeal Obamacare. He also said that he's in favor of cap and trade and amnesty.

The "lesser of two evils" only works if the lesser is MUCH lesser.
September 22, 2010 11:32 AM
@ Ifon
You're absloutely right, however, if the tea-party wants to overturn the dem. majority in congress, they have made a tactical error by "betting on the longshot"
September 23, 2010 6:35 AM

The tea party DOESN'T want to overturn the Democrat majority in Congress, at least not as a stated purpose.

One of the primary reasons the Tea Party(s) formed was precisely because conservatives are tired of Republicans being elected merely to gain control but who do nothing of any value with their control.

Overturning the Dems is a longterm strategy that begins first by returning to First Principles. Without that, any short-term Congressional games are pointless.
September 23, 2010 7:11 AM
@ Ifon

maybe im jaded, but I think after a few years the ferver of the tea party will dwindle, but yes, congressional games are, always been, and always will be pointless
September 23, 2010 9:45 AM
I good example of something meant to do good but will have generations negative impact; Extending over & over unemployment payments. We will have 1000's of families that will struggle to be successfully employed because they learned to survive on their unemployment. Self- esteem has been damaged and many will never return to full time employment. Very sad
September 23, 2010 12:54 PM
Sen. Jim DeMint said it beautifully:

"I don't want the majority back if we don't believe anything."


The majority is not a goal. It's nothing but a number. The goal is to return to First Principals.

Thank God we have people like DeMint still left in Congress. Elect THE RIGHT PEOPLE and stop worrying about having every race won by an 'R'.
September 24, 2010 8:38 AM
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