Hello, I Am With the Bureaucracy and I’m Here to Help You

Posted on March 4, 2014 by


In my last post, I was critical of over-bureaucratization in higher education.  In this post I am focusing on government abuses, and I just happen to have examples from the local, state and national levels.  Such a fortuitous turn of events—I say that tongue in cheek of course.  The local absurdity concerns a high school girl sent to wait in frigid weather with only her bathing suit on, due to a fire alarm quickly determined not to be a fire (see here at http://dailycaller.com/2014/03/03/school-forces-half-naked-sopping-wet-student-to-stand-outside-frostbite-results/ ).  The state outrage is all over the news (see the latest here, http://www.foxnews.com/politics/2014/03/03/justina-pelletier-mitochondrial-massachusetts-family/?intcmp=latestnews ).  It concerns the story of a 16 year old girl who was diagnosed with a rare mitochondrial disease by a respected hospital (Tufts), but which referred to Boston Children’s Hospital, a supposedly prestigious institution, for a second opinion.  Apparently the physicians there not only differed from Tufts, but argued the girl’s problems were psychological, not physical.  Boston, in cahoots with the Massachusetts Child Services, arranged to have the girl taken from her family, stopped all treatment of the girl, severely limited visitation of the parents, and even alleged child abuse.  On what grounds, we don’t know because the DCF in Massachusetts won’t say, but she remained in Boston for over a year (the family is from Connecticut).  Thankfully, a court has just now slapped the perpetrators and given the girl back to her parents.  But can you say abuse of power on an unimaginable scale.  I will come back to this one.  Finally, we have the national example of the Food Safety Modernization Act of 2013, administered by the FDA, which writes the rules (see http://reason.com/archives/2014/03/01/februarys-furious-foray-on-food-freedom )  .  Small organic farmers are threatened with closure.  Of course the “food police” have been active for a long time at all levels of government, but they are particularly finicky nowadays.

What do all these situations have in common?  Among several common features is that all have been mainly brought about because of bureaucratic pathology.  The “follow the rules robotically” mentality has paralyzed the capacity for the exercise of discretion and wisdom.  I suspect in some cases, the state and national ones, both an incredible abuse of authority and a breathtaking hubris are at work.  Let’s look at each a little more.

In the fire alarm-bathing suit case, Minnesota’s education rules do not allow a student to sit in a faculty member’s car, a solution that would have prevented the frostbite the girl suffered.  But no, teachers were apparently afraid (that’s right) to go ahead and allow her to get in a car for ten or more minutes until they received permission (!).  Is it possible we have been buried in rules that make little sense?  It reminds me of the so-called “zero-tolerance” rules in many schools—which can be stretched out of all proportion to create ludicrous outcomes.

The state case of the girl in Connecticut is appalling.  Yet this travesty lasted for over a year.  In the meantime the Boston Hospital and the Massachusetts DCF (a shady bureaucracy to begin with I have learned) were allowed to exercise absolute and unchecked power to the detriment of the girl’s health.  You do need to read the entire story to get the full force of bureaucratic arrogance.

The Federal attempts to regulate food “for our good” are just another example of what happens when we give (and Congress delegates—stupidly) nearly unlimited authority to large bureaucratic agencies essentially to write the laws themselves without accountability.  On this particular issue, in the first place, we must ask how any agency can have the necessary knowledge to be able to tell the rest of us how we should eat to be healthy.  In fact, ideas of health and diet change continually over time.  No one seems to be able to reach definitive conclusions.  Even studies often conflict.  One year coffee is good for us, the next year it kills.  One decade meat is terrible, the next it is good for us because we need the protein.  How can an agency that already has a predisposition to inertia because of its size ever hope to keep up with advancing knowledge?

How did we get to this point and what can we do about it?  Alexis De Tocqueville actually predicted the possibility of our current problem—crisis?  Vincent Ostrom called it the Crisis of American Public Administration, the title of one of his many perceptive books.  De Tocqueville wrote prophetically in Democracy in America that Americans, through the democratic process itself, would “kill off” their government through “soft despotism,” the kind of tyranny that creeps slowly and almost undiscernibly into the process of governing when more and more functions are delegated to bureaucrats—by us and our representatives..  Motives for this have varied.  In the Progressive Era (1880-1925) many believed, Woodrow Wilson included, that if only we trained bureaucrats as experts and designed our hierarchical structures properly (with only one center of power), the desired result—efficiency—would emerge and everyone would be happy. 

We were, as it were, lulled to sleep regarding our loss of ability to function by consent of the governed.  We gave it up in return for what we were told would be greater well-being given to us by the so-called experts.  And it would take no effort on our part.  We could all go on our collective merry way and know (?) that the bureaucrats always had our best interests in mind and heart.

Somewhere along the way, beginning in the late 1950s, a few critics began to question this model.  They argued that we lost more than we gained with large, centralized bureaucratic institutions and that perhaps there were better, more responsive and just ways to achieve certain outcomes.  Perhaps, some argued, we might even give much of what had been done by government back to the market, with a resulting increase in freedom without a loss in the valuable outcomes.  Unfortunately, politicians have been slow to get the message.  And so, here we are today.

If we have any hope of escaping this crisis before the soft despotism engulfs us, we who are still able to do so must make our voices heard.  We do still have a voice, perhaps a dying one, but a voice nevertheless.  At the very least we should be very careful about voting for people who don’t have any care or knowledge of the problem or no intention of trying to fix it if they do know.  The courts for now are a closed option, as they have consistently been willing to expand the scope of bureaucratic power.  The executive branches are pretty obviously useless, since it is they who control the bureaucracies.  Voting for legislators (local, state and national) who wish to tackle the problem is a viable option. 

And let’s not forget to pray for those in authority, not as a last option, but as a vital aspect of being a believer in Christ who is the king of the nations.