Tormented by Ten Thousand Hells

Doctor Faustus   In Christopher Marlowe’s play Doctor Faustus, the doctor of Wittenberg, in his greed and vanity, summons Lucifer’s servant Mephostophilis in order to bargain away his soul. During their conversation the following exchange occurs:
Faustus: Stay, Mephostophilis, and tell me
What good will my soul do thy lord.
Mephostophilis: Enlarge his kingdom.

Obvious conclusion: Lucifer is in charge of a bureaucracy.

In a previous post I discussed the brittleness of the modern American infrastructure as made evident by the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. When jolted out of its routine functioning, the United States’ political and economic machinery reveals its vulnerability. Our manifest wealth is plainly not enough to guarantee that systems will function effectively under duress.

One of the primary reasons for such dysfunction is the metastasis of bureaucracy that has occurred at all levels of government in the last few decades. Layer upon layer of offices, commissions, departments, bureaus, and agencies; armies of deputy secretaries, assistant commissioners, and junior assistant deputy somethings; budgets that never decrease but inch a little ahead of inflation, year after year — welcome to political sclerosis, American style.

Such luxuriant bureaucratic growth is a byproduct of our wealth. As Max Weber pointed out, bureaucracy is a function of affluence, since only those polities with extra resources can afford to assign sun-deprived office toilers to activities not directly related to economic productivity. Before the emergence of agriculture and its surpluses of food, such things were impossible. When the first large agriculturally-based society arose on the sun-baked plains of Mesopotamia in the 4th millenium BC, the king undoubtedly created a “Department of Ziggurat Construction” and an “Office of Chariot Maintenance” as soon as the bricks in his palace were dry.

So for six thousand years we have lived with bureaucracy. Bureaucrats flourished because bureaucratic political structures were the strongest. The Romans, with their genius for administration and organization, were master bureaucrats. Despite all the petty, pointless, and unproductive activity endemic to political hierarchies, the bureaucratic state proved more effective than the barbarian hordes who danced around their campfires beyond the pale of the Empire.

It has gone on so long that it is hard to imagine it any other way — the bureaucrats you have always with you. But does it really have to be that way, or can there exist a rival way of organizing societal structures, one that can outperform bureaucracies?

If it lacks significant external stressors, the sole purpose of a bureaucracy is to maintain itself and increase its area of responsibility. Each agent in the hierarchy is impelled to protect his own position, which means that adding further layers of hierarchical insulation is in his best interests. In this the unchecked bureaucracy resembles a cancerous growth, and the use of the word “metastasis” is well-advised.

After all, what is the function of the Department of Education? It certainly isn’t the education of children; that function is performed by the schools and school boards at a local level, no matter how many “No Child Left Behind” acts are passed by Congress. How about the Department of Commerce? Is it out there making and selling widgets? One could run down the list — Agriculture, Health and Human Services… and don’t get me started on State.

Bureaucracy, of course, is not confined solely to the government. Private industry succumbs easily to the disease, especially the large multinational corporations. Religious groups, the military, and philanthropic organizations all have their share of the metastasis.

The more an organization faces competition, the less metastasis in its bureaucracy. It’s a sure bet that WalMart and Food Lion have lean administrative structures. The military faces its own version of competition every time it has to fight and win a war, which surely serves to concentrate the bureaucratic mind.

But the Department of Education will be with us until the sun goes out. Its purpose is to protect its budget, secure its funding base, and guard against all encroachments on its turf. That’s it. All the rest, all “the future of America lies in its children” folderol, is mere boilerplate.

To prove the point, try to find a bureaucratic entity that has ceased to exist in a time of peace; there are very few. The Mohair Subsidy Program is still with us, after all. Did you notice that the March of Dimes didn’t fold up its desks when polio was ended? Rest assured that if cancer is ever cured, the American Cancer Society will go on soliciting your contributions, though perhaps with a slight name change…

Bureaucracy triumphed because it was stronger than the alternatives. But that situation is in the process of changing right now.

Bureaucracy owes its success to its management of information. As communication flows up and down through the hierarchy, officials near the top of the stack are able to acquire data and effect results far beyond what loose groups of individuals can manage. But this advantage has been maintained only because of the inadequacy of the means of communication.

The words you are reading are evidence of the process I am describing. Before the internet age, I would have to write them, submit them to a sub-editor, gain approval from an editor, rewrite them according to the changes demanded, and resubmit them. They then might be published, or not. All through the hierarchy they would be subject to editing and veto based on the political predilections of the establishment. Heresy would be squelched and any bad thoughts suppressed.

But times have changed. Witness, besides the blogosphere, peer-to-peer file sharing, instant messaging, cellphones, and satellite links. Networks of loosely-connected and rapidly-changing components form and dissolve faster than any authority can monitor. The blogosphere’s takedown of Dan Rather is just the bare beginning of what is to come.

But it will be hard to surrender our allegiance to bureaucracy; we are so used to it. When anything significant happens, we look to the top of the hierarchy. That’s why President Bush is to blame for a hurricane, and it’s why hunger in Africa is referred to Kofi Annan. Old habits die hard.

When a meteor strikes downtown Omaha, and your first response is to blog it, consult your IM friends, call your kids on your cell, and not look at CNN until long afterwards… then you’ll know things have changed.

In the meantime, keep in mind another quote from Dr. Faustus:

Faustus: How comes it then that thou art out of hell?
Mephostophilis: Why this is hell, nor am I out of it.

UPDATE: Dr. Sanity reminds me that she was first through this particular door with her post on Monday, Pseudo-Action. The money quote:

     This “pseudo-action” is the hallmark of government on all levels, from the local to the federal. From NASA to FEMA to the Post Office. Somehow, all these agencies are able to transform huge amounts of money from the taxpayers into the appearance of doing something, when in fact, they fiercely resist any change, any improvement, any suggestions.

13 thoughts on “Tormented by Ten Thousand Hells

  1. Oh, don’t even get moi started on the Department of Education! I’m a teacher, and I chose to homeschool my own children rather than submit them to the drivel masquerading as instruction nowadays.

    So, of course, we’ve had contact with people who are sure our children are not learning anything… Then our kids tested grades ahead of their age limits.

    Then the buzz became that our children were “unsocialized”… until anyone met them.

    The latest I’ve heard was, “Well, I know it seems that it works for you, but I just really FEEL it’s wrong for the children.”

    Because, God knows, our feelings are the ultimate guide of what we should be doing.

  2. We home-schooled the Baron’s Boy thru sixth grade. The bureaucracy wasn’t friendly about it. It’s become so commonplace now that many schools are linking with home schoolers and providing services. This is esp. true of private schools.

    When you think about it, it’s amazing we got away with it. I guess not even the teacher’s union can overcome the American character when it comes to individual choice.

    Which is not to say there aren’t people who aren’t hounded. That’s why there’s a legal group devoted to assisting homeschoolers who get entangled with DSS and the other bureaucrats. Lots of municipal govts can’t afford the hassle.

  3. sarc-Doctor Faustus can’t hold a candle to Sin City (2005). Our infrastructure is just fine, thank you.-/sarc

    Anyway, I think that in rebuilding New Orleans, we should introduce privatization to speed up restoration there, and while we’re at it, everywhere else that our education system needs it.


  4. The words you are reading are evidence of the process I am describing. Before the internet age, I would have to write them, submit them to a sub-editor, gain approval from an editor, rewrite them according to the changes demanded, and resubmit them. They then might be published, or not. All through the hierarchy they would be subject to editing and veto based on the political predilections of the establishment. Heresy would be squelched and any bad thoughts suppressed.

    You mean the left hasn’t replaced the natural social phenomena of the heirarchy, with “social justice” – the slogan that caused a destructive revolution in academia whose aftermath could be compared to the dropping of a nuclear bomb on America’s moral structures? Would I stray from the subject to ask that?

    The true cause and name of those activities that fall under the lables “liberalism” and “progressive” were merely the poison in candy wrapping fed down the throat to millions of Americans while the media found and finds this of no interest to the public which its supposed to inform.

  5. I remember so long ago going to my son’s 7th grade orientation. Poor kid. I embarassed him. We were being told about “recreational science,” and I asked “don’t you mean camping?” “Sputter, ahem, sputter, well – yah!”

    So that kid was in Christian school and that was that. The education wasn’t that hot but they didn’t call camping, “science.”

  6. Village Idiot — and don’t forget the Infocom text adventure game called “Bureaucracy”. That one was definitely hell. I never got very far in it; it was too mind-numbing.

  7. Bureacracy and Hell? You might enjoy “Inferno”, Niven and Pournelle’s modernization of Dante’s Inferno which includes demonic bureacracts, congressmen, environmentalists, and so on.

    Not to claim that Niven and Pournelle are in the same league as Dante, Marlowe and Goethe, but it is pretty good.

  8. > it’s why hunger in Africa is referred to Kofi Annan

    Yeah, there was a piece on CNN about it last week:

    “Food aid was sent to deal with Kofi Annan, but the tribal warlords tend to abscond with it for their own purposes, which only causes more Kofi Annan…”


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