Saturday, 7 November 2009

The Drowning Tide of Bureaucratic Administration

Creeping Totalitarianism

The previous decade, which saw a continuing Labour government in New Zealand, also witnessed an explosion of bureaucratic management of society. The two are connected. When Helen Clark first became Prime Minister she revealed that one of her high priorities was to rebuild and restore a "quality public service". This has to be on of the greater oxymorons of the decade.

All governments have centrist and controlling tendencies. But the "do good" prejudices and pretensions of the Left make them far more likely to want to reduce, if not banish, the messy attributes of freer societies. The armoury to build more ordered, planned, rational, and organised societies inevitably turns toward weapons of planning and regulations--which means a significant increase in planners, auditors, reviewers, advisers, orderers, and monitors with the full cluster of committees, boards, bodies, and functionaries--that is, bureaucrats.

The present government has justified its tolerance of a much-increased state administration on the grounds that we are now in a recession, and it would merely make things worse to lay off thousands of state functionaries. But it has held out the hope that when economic growth picks up it will start to cut the state sector significantly, removing layers and layers of self-perpetuating administrative waste. But is history is any guide, the prognosis is not good. As governments proceed the tendency to be captured by its officials becomes overwhelming.

Meanwhile, Australia is now going through a similar bureaucratisation under Kevin Rudd. In her regular Sydney Morning Herald column, Miranda Devine describes a process that is now all-too-familiar to New Zealanders.

Pettyfogging bureaucracy is just creeping totalitarianism
November 5, 2009

. . . . The spread of brain-dead supplicants to the state has grown with the rise of the bureaucratic class, which reached its zenith when the former Queensland bureaucrat and chief jargon generator Kevin Rudd became Prime Minister.

He may be a perfectly fine human being but he believes in one thing - that systems and processes can solve any problem, that if you have enough meetings, summits, talkfests, reviews, studies, probes, resolutions and facilitations, preferably with some connection to a United Nations body, solutions will miraculously occur without hard decisions being made. . . .

Bureaucratism obfuscates with jargon that is impossible to understand, making your mind behave like a skittish colt. You finally give up and turn away with a sense of failure, suspecting that if you had tried harder you might have reached the golden truth. Only there is no golden truth. It is all dense verbiage, with no reason to exist except itself.

Bureaucratism operates by adding layers of complexity to a problem so that much time and effort can be spent on assembling the architecture of that complexity and then solving the problems created by that architecture. You become so caught up in solving the human resources issues or occupational health and safety concerns or constructing risk analysis that the original problem is rendered meaningless.

Take the consultant called in recently to define the "strategy and objectives" of a big metropolitan rail network project. He told me he was stuck with senior management who thought safety was their first priority, "ahead of moving an ever-increasing number of people across the network". He told them the only safe train network is one that has no trains.

The Institute of Public Affairs showed recently that state bureaucracies were growing at a rate of 8 per cent a year, as expressed by the cost of state public sector workers. The number of state public servants nationwide has grown from 972,000 in 2000 to 1.2 million last year. They all need something to do, and the results can be seen in the dozens of small ways our lives are burdened with bureaucratism every day.

Try getting a passport renewed at Neutral Bay post office. They will have you back and forward retaking photographs to eliminate a shadow or the hint of teeth. Any deviation and your application can be spiked. You cannot collect the application form from the post office. You must download it from the internet and print it out. But woe betide you if the margins are a millimetre too wide. You will be running back and forward to the printer for days. It is like being lost in a Kafka play. There must be people who enjoy such useless activity.

The main problem with pettyfogging bureaucracy is that it puts immense power in the hands of people who are constitutionally unfit for it. It is evident from early years in the school playground that some people are destined to be paper shufflers. But give them power and they become drunk with it, wielding it not only unwisely but unjustly.

It may be tempting to think of over-bureaucratisation as a benign, though annoying, malaise that will pass quickly. But one of its strongest early opponents, the US president Ronald Reagan, argued it was as much a threat to liberty as communism. As his biographer Steven Hayward recently told ABC radio's Counterpoint, Reagan believed bureaucratic government, ''undermines self-rule and consent of the governed''.

Governments in Australia, the US and Europe "don't have secret police or concentration camps but they do behave arbitrarily and sometimes … even lawlessly, and are not very accountable to voters. So even in our two-party systems in Western democracies we are governed in some important respects like a one-party state."

The great shining symbol of bureaucratism's triumph over freedom is, of course, the carbon pollution reduction scheme, and its elaborate bureaucratic apparatus, which brooks no dissent.

The CSIRO economist Clive Spash, for instance, reportedly has claimed CSIRO management suppressed his research criticising emission trading schemes. Spash said he was not allowed to publish his paper, The Brave New World of Carbon Trading, because it commented on "policies", as if no CSIRO scientist had ever done such a thing.

The totalitarian threat of bureaucratism is nowhere as clear as in the climate change industry's creeping assaults on liberty.

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