Jane Haddam’s WordPress weblog

Saturday in the Morning

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This is going to be very short, because I find myself in the curious position of still being mostly exhausted.  It turns out that I’m just the sort of person all those doom and gloom writers write about–take away my technology, and I go completely to pieces. 

Oh, I got all my stuff done, I even met all my classes–I think I may be the only person in the department who didn’t need to sign up for extra classroom space to make up for a day–but at the end of it, and nearly a week later, I find myself  wanting to do nothing more ambitious than rolling myself into a ball and going back to sleep.

And I can’t.  I have things to do.  I have pieces of trees, still.

All that said, I think I would disagree on one very important point here:  I think there is something inherent in bureaucracies that make them behave as they do.

And I think they all behave alike.

It doesn’t matter if they’re public or private, nonprofit or for profit, religious or secular.   The first imperative of a bureaucracy is to protect itself.  The second is to expand its power as far as it can possibly go.

The private sector bureacracies used to be less intractable because the people who worked in them were subject to being fired at will–they lacked the kind of job security the public sector bureacracies had through civil service laws.

These days, though, a complicated web of regulations and court decisions and law meant to “protect’ workers from everything from “sexual harrassment” to “discrimination” has made it politically impossible for any large organization with deep pockets to fire at will, so that they have developed internal controls meant to protect them from legal challenges that effectively make it difficult or impossible to fire anybody for cause.

Certainly, bureacracies often contain good people who want to do good jobs and even to help–but it only takes a minority for a bureacracy to behave like a bureacracy, and it always does.

Beyond that, my primary concern is with the relationship between citizens and their government, which SHOULD be that of an employer to an employee–that is, the citizens are the employers of government, and not the children of it.

“Preventive” and “protective” legislation and regulation of the kind some people have advocated here seems to me to be in direct violation of that concept of the relationship between a citizen and his government.

It assumes, rather, that the government possesses wisdom of a kind that the mere citizen–being not much better than a child, and probably both malevolent and self-destructive–cannot possess, and that government therefore must regulate for the citizen’s own good even behavior that is completely private.  After all, if the citizen was a fully functioning adult human being, he wouldn’t make these silly choices.

I would say that governments should not be allowed to make laws “for your own good” at all, and should restrict themselves to what can clearly be seen to be behavior that harms other people, and even then only when it harms them in a significant way–except that I’ve spent the last thirty years watching governments embrace pseudo-scientific crap in order to produce a “significant harm” where none in fact exists.

If you don’t believe me, I suggest you find yourself a first rate math major and let him take you through the protocols of all those studies “proving” that secondhand smoke is going to kill you. 

And no, I don’t smoke.  And neither does anybody else in my family that I know of.

So let me go farther than that.  Let me say that governments should not be allowed to make laws about private life at all unless they can show that such things are absolutely necessary to allow society to run at all.  That would strike off not only all the anti-tobacco regulations, but the federal ban on bake sales in public schools, and most of the drug laws.

As for families and what happens in them, I think that the case of the person who used t knife to make an 8 year old’s vagina large enough to get a penis into should of course be prosecuted for assault.  The laws for that kind of thing already exist.

But to assume that the fact that such people exist at all–they are not, obviously, common–is excuse for subjecting every family with a child to what amounts to the tactics of a police state is not just wrong, but worse than wrong.

A parent who has committed a crime against a child–or for whom there is probable cause to assume so–should be prosecuted like any other person accused of a crime, and that means with full due process of law and full recognition of both his right to the presumption of innocence and his other rights. 

There should be no case in which a government should be allowed to mete out punishment to a citizen–and having your child taken away from you is punishment, as is having to attend “parenting skills classes” or being forced to interact with your child only under the obswervation of a social worker–until it can be proved beyond a reasonable doubt that such a crime occured and that the defendant has committed it.

It should certainly never be the case that supposed “social experts”–social workers, psychologists, teachers, nurses–should be allowed to require parents to make decisions for their children that are opposed to the parents’ own understanding of what is good for that child, such as whether or not to put him on Ritalin or sending him to one “therapy’ or another.

And laws about what constitutes a crime against a child should be passed by legislatures, not issued as regulations by departments and then given the force of law.

I am inherently suspicious of all forms of centralized power.  But I am worse than suspicious of centralized power that claims it is only working “for my own good,” or that it is staffed by people so virtuous and well-intentioned that the danger of finding a Nurse Ratchet among them is close to nil.

Nurse Ratchets are drawn to bureaucracies like bees are to flowers, and in the end they run every bureaucratic organization ever built.

I have to go to the post office before it closes.

Written by janeh

November 12th, 2011 at 11:15 am

Posted in Uncategorized

17 Responses to 'Saturday in the Morning'

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  1. I’m in complete agreement with the nature of bureaucracy and bureaucrats, but that doesn’t diminish the distinction between private and coercive power.

    I began buying a DVD over the phone a few weeks ago and stopped because the company selling it was asking too many questions. I’ve had to explain to a couple of stores that they can have my money or my zip code, but not both, and I drive some miles out of my way to buy gas because the two closest stations play annoying commercials while I fuel up. I’ve told my insurance agent that not only was I not going to schedule a meeting to “discuss my insurance needs” but if she kept trying to set one up, I would take my insurance needs and go elsewhere. I can’t get a particular private-sector bureaucrat fired, but I can make an entire private-sector bureaucracy go away and stop bothering me–or even go away altogether. (Anyone who tried to special order a book from Borders in recent years knows exactly why they aren’t there any more.)

    These are not options I have with the Internal Revenue Service, the State Department, the local police and the Department of Motor Vehicles. They can be wonderful organizations, filled with pleasant people–they even really are, sometimes–but they still need to be on a much shorter leash then the local church or bookstore.

    Bureaucracies are indeed prone to the same ills. And the physics of flight are always and everywhere the same–but we rightly keep a much tighter grip on the fellow flying the 777 than the one with the RC model.


    12 Nov 11 at 12:05 pm

  2. I expect after all these posts regular readers know I generally agree with many of Jane’s opinions, but am also generally somewhat more moderate in my condemnation of any and all bureaucracies. Now, I do agree tht the people in bureaucracies tend to want to perpetuate their bureaucracies, for reasons ranging from a desire to keep their jobs to a conviction of the rightness of their bureaucracy’s overall aims and I’ll even admit to the presence of some Nurse Ratchets, who seem to be motivated more by a desire for power combined with the lack of ability to work on the scale of a Hitler, but I think they’re less numerous than Jane and Robert appear to think.

    How do you structure a modern society without bureaucracies?

    They came into existance when societies became too large for one person to settle all disputes and deal with all the business between a state and the people, and were to the advantage of the people as well as the kings or early versions of parliaments. No one wants the decision as to who gets to pay for the new bridge and who keeps the records you need to prove that the person who owns the land you’re buying really owns to be the one who gets the ear of the King or Lord Protector or even the local magnate who happens to be the brother-in-law of the other local bridge-builder. You need some method of distributing authority to make community decisions and some method of keeping the basic functioning of the country going while the crowd at the top are busy cutting each other’s heads off or calling each other nasty names. And that means you need a bureaucracy – and a smooth-running, mostly effective one can be a joy to deal with. OK, they aren’t all like that – but I don’t see an alternative in any society larger than a tribe consisting of a dozen families.

    There can be checks and balances, of course. In another period of my life, I used to get annoyed and then cynical when every election brought upheaval in the provincial bureaucracy. Not by firing people – since the civil service is required to be apolitical, the only people who can be fired for political reasons are those who are defined as such, usually politician’s advisors. But the new broom always wants to sweep clean, so they’d always reorganize departments and reorder the priorities. I was told that the civil servants had to accept the organizational structures and priorities of the politicians because they won the election and that made them bosses, but (not having read Jane’s ideas on the subject yet) I thought that the politician’s input just made the bureaucracy far more chaotic and inefficient than it needed to be. Now I suppose I’d have to admit that having the elected leaders in charge was and is a constraint on the power of the bureaucracy.

    One thing that’s happening here more and more is that people are using the local media to circumvent both the bureaucracy and, sometimes, the politicians. It seems to work, too, quite often. A school is being closed, a medical procedure is deemed ‘cosmetic’ and not ‘medically necessary’ (i.e. you have to pay for it yourself), home care workers aren’t available or their hours are cut back (for people on government assistance), family members can’t be hired as home care workers (also for people on government assistance)….some people got what they wanted, some look like they will. One or two are still in progress. That’s another limit on bureaucracies. Bureaucracies don’t have to grow like cancer.


    12 Nov 11 at 12:19 pm

  3. More on topic comments later. For now, this apropos some earlier discussions:

    “Reading their work, it seems to me that if you have psychopathic tendencies and are born to a poor family, you’re likely to go to prison. If you have psychopathic tendencies and are born to a rich family, you’re likely to go to business school.

    This is not to suggest that all executives are psychopaths. It is to suggest that the economy has been rewarding the wrong skills. As the bosses have shaken off the trade unions and captured both regulators and tax authorities, the distinction between the productive and rentier upper classes has broken down. Chief executives now behave like dukes, extracting from their financial estates sums out of all proportion to the work they do or the value they generate, sums that sometimes exhaust the businesses they parasitise. They are no more deserving of the share of wealth they’ve captured than oil sheikhs”


    12 Nov 11 at 1:35 pm

  4. Cheryl, you ought to read C. Northcote Parkinson. No, they don’t have to grow like cancer–but they will, unless someone keeps them in check. From the bureaucracy’s point of view, after all, there is no downside to gaining more power, more information and more membership. Someone else has to say, “no, that’s enough.”

    And as usual, I left out a critical point. While telling all the private organizations I mentioned above to keep out of my business, I regularly tell Amazon what books I own, what books I’d like to own in different formats, which books I bought as gifts and what I thought of the ones I read. This seems to me a worthwhile trade-off for their recommendations, the alerts on new books I might be interested in and the reading of other people’s opinions of certain volumes. The point is that I get to choose the trade-off, which is not the case when a Federal bureaucrat wants my fiancee’s mother’s naturalization certificate number before processing my paperwork. (No, I didn’t make that one up.)


    12 Nov 11 at 1:35 pm

  5. “…which is not the case when a Federal bureaucrat wants my fiancee’s mother’s naturalization certificate number before processing my paperwork.”

    I don’t know, nor do I need to know, the specific circumstances of that comment. But in re bureaucracies let’s look at an easily understood example of the above.

    A disaster, such as Katrina happens. The only organization with the resources to deal with something on that scale is the federal government. Congress and the President can’t do it by themselves, so yes, an agency – a bureaucracy is created whose job it is to respond to such catastrophes.

    Now, if it responds at the greatest possible speed to the maximum number of requests without much or any vetting of those requests, then to no one’s surprise, some people will manage to game the system.

    An outcry then ensues from self appointed keepers of the public trust about “waste”.

    So some paperwork is now required to receive aid. Turns out that stops some abuse, but some clever people still manage to game the system.

    More paperwork ensues.

    Then it turns out that at the next disaster, of course, people now howl about how difficult it is to get any help from the agency designed to help them. The very documents they require to obtain help were themselves destroyed in the disaster.

    Much howling, from the same folks as before, except NOW they complain about “the bureaucracy”.

    Similarly, one the one hand those same folk again will howl about the cost of the federal government, until something else goes wrong — like the safety of the food supply.
    Then they want the Feds to “do something”.
    Apparently they expect this to happen without, of course, having to pay for it.

    For example, from just today:

    So the psycopaths in charge of the companies are perfectly happy importing tainted Chinese honey illegally, they don’t give a damn what happens to the consumer so long as they’re making money – and will be the first to bankroll any campaigns to avoid “raising taxes” and/or “increasing federal bureaucracy”. Interferes with their business model.

    So just remember, every “dumb rule” you complain about in a bureaucracy is there because someone was gaming the system — and the bureaucracy was tasked with stopping the abuse.


    12 Nov 11 at 2:27 pm

  6. Appropos my earlier comment, this time from a corporate viewpoint. Corp’s sometime LIKE regulation. It can not only stifle competition, it can protect profits from citizens injured by corporate negligence:


    Also, any time you see someone campaigning for “tort reform”, understand that what they’re up to is screwing people who’ve been hurt by negligence — not “stopping abuse”. The tort reform IS the abuse.


    12 Nov 11 at 2:30 pm

  7. While I’m posting links, here’s one:


    Now the question is, since that interlinking seems to be a natural phenomena which will spontaneously arise absent any interference — just how little government can we tolerate to keep this spontaneous concentration of power from simply taking over and crowning someone as Merchant King?


    12 Nov 11 at 3:04 pm

  8. As in Parkinson’s Principle? Read it years ago – also read about the Peter Principle. Many a true word is said in jest – and in that respect, I think ‘Yes, Minister’ and ‘Yes Prime Minister’ are unequalled of their kind.

    There has to be some kind of control or balance, I agree, but I think they perform an essential role in society,

    Michael, in that last article it seems that there is some question as to whether connections mean control. I’ve always wondered just how much the person at the top of these multi-national corporations actually controls the operations of, say Company D, many of whose shares are owned by holding company C which is part of a larger operation owned by B which in turn is directly owned by A. Given the natural tendency of humans to screw up, it seems unlikely that they could be doing much more than checking the bottom line – that is, if some flunky in B or C isn’t doing it.

    As for the honey – ‘buyer beware’ has been good advice since the first farmer sold another one a pig in a poke. We’ve come a long way from the times when all kinds of weird things were sold in bread and flour, but the thieves and cheats are still with us and have necessarily gotten more ingenious.


    12 Nov 11 at 5:25 pm

  9. In re Honey aint Honey.

    Exactly what “probable cause” did the people who did the research and produced that article have to motivate them to do it? Now I don’t doubt for one minute that there _may_ be some honey producers who cut corners and maybe even some whose industrial practices are downright unsanitary. But honey would surely be the last product whose quality is likely to be affected by any but the most grossly objectionable practices although it may carry some small amount of natural contaminants like botulin spores. Filtering out the pollen isn’t going to affect its quality while it might affect its taste. However, if “taste” is quality, then there’s no objective way to standardise it that will satisfy all or even any customers. The market is the best regulator of these matters of taste. If people don’t like a particular product for any reason, they tend not to buy it and to tell their friends.

    Honey is famous for being lethal to a huge array of disease causing bacteria so any honey bought from reputable commercial sources are unlikely to cause harm. There certainly are some honeys produced by bees from some well-known toxic fauna species, eg azaleas and the like or, in New Zealand from certain areas, but the risks of anybody being seriously affected by such honey, which is mostly limited to small producers with few hives, are small to infinitesmal, probably even less than the infinitesmal risks of adverse health effects from second hand tobacco smoke, ie literally negligible.

    Down here in Oz, the most popular honeys comes from producers whose hives are strategically located each season to exploit particular flowers. There is a huge market for the wide varieties eucalypt flower types, with Yellow Box being especially popular. However, some of these types have a very strong taste which some people, particularly children, find objectionable. So, there is a need for hyperfiltration to cater for the wimps of this world. Where’s the evidence that such hyperfiltration does actual harm or even that there is a significant risk that it might?

    To me, the whole article reads as a piece of cynical propaganda from an organisation hell bent on mischief-making where there is no credible evidence of malpractice likely to affect public health. Sorry, Mike, but my BS meter maxed out.


    12 Nov 11 at 8:33 pm

  10. Toxic error alert:

    That should have read well-known toxic _flora_ species.

    Bah humbug.


    12 Nov 11 at 8:35 pm

  11. As in Parkinson’s Law. But I am not setting out to abolish bureaucracy. I don’t think you can have a modern state or indeed a large institution of any sort without one.
    I am pointing out that a purely private bureaucracy is optional–meaning I don’t have to deal with it. And the corporate heads and stockholders have a vested interest in trimming corporate bureaucracies, which are, after all, overhead.
    A government, though, will grow in power and intrusiveness unless actively checked. It has no reason to check itself, and the bureaucracy is the agent and expression of that expanded power. A few hundred elected Federal politicians could do neither good nor ill without hundreds of thousands of inspectors and enforcers, and the detail and discretion that grows with the bureaucracy is an invitation to abuse with or without corruption. There are a few ungoverned countries, but scores of overgoverned ones with an intrusive, unaccountable and hence arbitrary and corrupt bureaucracy.

    And yes, Michael, of course large corporations love governmental bureaucracies. What should this tell us? But what on earth makes you think bureaucrats only institute a rule because someone was gaming the system? Or that the rule instituted would prevent gaming the system? Or that it was the least painful way to keep the system being gamed? The problem with government bureaucracies–and here in include state-granted monopolies and “public-private partnerships”–is that “because I said so” is a perfectly valid reason. They don’t need a better one.

    The trick as I see it is to keep the functions of government specified and limited, the powers of government restricted to those necessary to carry out those functions, and the laws few, simple, well known and applicable to all. Seldom should things should be waiverable or left to the discretion of the Secretary. The intrusions of government into the private lives of citizens restricted to what is necessary to carry out those functions–no information collected because it’s nice to have or might come in handy, and no public money spent because “we’re doing good things for good people.”

    Because “stamp collecting” shouldn’t mean getting 17 permits and paying 17 bribes.



    12 Nov 11 at 8:54 pm

  12. No “Merchant King” will ever be crowned. Civil government has its uses to the wealthy, and one of these is taking blame. Can you imagine corporations deliberately creating a system where they would have accountability as well as power? No, I didn’t think you could.


    12 Nov 11 at 10:25 pm

  13. Corporations are accountable to their shareholders and, in the final analysis, to the market.

    Modern government bureaucracies are accountable to nobody.


    12 Nov 11 at 10:34 pm

  14. That article is why I don’t buy honey except from the producer, who knows all the bees by their first names. ;) Here in S. Cal you can’t go very far without tripping over an apiarist, what with all the orange groves, wildflowers, etc. Wonderful honeys. The best so far is a raspberry honey we bought from a place in Napa Valley. I’ve tasted eucalyptus honey, since we have plenty of transplanted eucalypts, and wouldn’t go out of my way to get it. Very strong menthol taste, it had.

    Mique, I think the idea behind the filtering out of the pollen was that it was done as a way to mask the origin, and that the producers who didn’t want to be identified were probably also adulterating the product with non-honey sweeteners, and using unhealthy amounts of antibiotics (used to keep the non-honey additives from rotting) and pesticides.

    If pollen can be used to track a country of origin, then honey coming in to the country illegally, and perhaps not paying the proper tariffs can be identified, and I think the simple fact of cut-rate pricing on honey would in fact be probable cause for testing. Sort of like selling Coach purses for $10…they’re probably not genuine.

    There are clinically proven benefits to local honey, with pollen and enzymes intact, and if I’m buying such a product hoping to gain those benefits, then I’m glad to know that fakes and substitutes are out there, and how to avoid them.

    We too have local, poisonous flowering plants, oleander most notably, which is tremendously poisonous. I don’t know how the beekeepers prevent their bees from gathering oleander. I suspect oleander honey would be fatal. People have been known to die from eating hot dogs grilled over a fire on oleander twigs, or from breathing the smoke from wood burned in a fire.

    I’ve been dealing with bureaucracies myself lately. Just this week got a project started with one of the state university systems. It’s taken more than a year of politicking on the part of the staffers who *want* me to build them a database to convince the rest of the U hierarchy that there’s no one in the system who can do what I do, for the cost that I do it, in the time frame that I will accomplish it (good, relatively cheap, and fast, in other words). A year. At least once we get the requisition through, they do pay reliably. As recently as 5 years ago, there was none of this nonsense. Staffers had a budget and could spend it as they wished.


    12 Nov 11 at 10:54 pm

  15. Also, I think it’s about time to abandon the myth that merchant princes are needed to “create wealth.” Three centuries ago it was true that insufficient investment would occur unless most of the surplus product was concentrated in a few hands (and not those of the nobility, who wasted it).

    For generations now, the Western economies have been plagued with a surfeit of willingness to invest – in spite of many billions of dollars of resources wasted each year to fight this trend with increasingly sophisticated consumer advertising. Market bubbles caused by the excess of investment funds over real investment demand are now so persistent that no one has any idea what the real value of a stock share or an ounce of gold or an acre of land even is. The prices are all a matter of speculation, which is why they fluctuate so readily.

    Nor is there any need for corporate execs, with or without outrageous salaries, to make business decisions; they are notoriously miserable at running businesses. This is moreover a necessary consequence of too much investment by too many people. When the fortunes of the CEO sank or swam with the company, the CEO at least cared. When most of the company is owned by holding companies, themselves managed by crooks, that represent a million small holders, the corporate officers can do best for themselves by robbing the corporation (and thus the stockholders).

    Henry Ford was a thug, but he at least cared about the success of Ford Motor because he had to. Rick Wagner had less of a stake in General Motors than the janitors did.

    Even supposing (as I do not) that Capitalism is still a viable economic model, the so-called “Captains of Industry” no longer have any role in it, except as thieves.


    12 Nov 11 at 10:55 pm

  16. ab, I can’t count the ways that I disagree with thee.

    Grains of truth scattered hither and thither do not a solid foundation of an argument make.

    The overwhelming prepondance of empirical evidence is against you.


    12 Nov 11 at 11:48 pm

  17. With Mique. Stealing from Churchill, private ownership of property and free exchange of goods and labor is the worst of systems–except for all the others which have been tried throughout history.

    All the advocates of someone else deciding what I’ll work at and what I’ll be paid seem to imagine that they will be the Leader, or sit at the Leader’s right hand, not that they will be the serfs of the new order. And they all really love the bureaucracies which will enforce the decrees.

    That would be bad enough, of course. But somehow what flips the “outrage” switch is that they call decrees made thousands of miles away by people in offices who haven’t seen the place, don’t know the people, don’t use the product and have never worked under the conditions “rational decision-making.” Go to North Korea or Zimbabwe, ab. Live without capitalism. Come back and resume the discussion when you’ve had enough.


    13 Nov 11 at 7:55 am

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