Tuesday, 21 October 2014

The rise of Homo bureaucraticus

...and the evolution of the precautionary principle.

The rise of the precautionary principle since 1900

The precautionary principle is a defining characteristic of Homo bureaucraticus, a gender-neutral offshoot of Homo sapiens. Along with its symbiotic partner the expert, a species of hominid parrot, Homo bureaucraticus is now common all over the northern hemisphere.

The traditional definition of the precautionary principle is as a post hoc justification of actions and policies already decided, but it works even better as one of the keys to rise of Homo bureaucraticus.

Most of us are acutely sensitive to personal, family and tribal risk. It’s an ingrained feature of our survival antennae, part of our animal nature. Homo bureaucraticus takes this a step further. If it sees a risk, any risk, then bureaucraticus instructs an expert to slap a precautionary principle on it – the favoured one being avoid and blame.

Bankers go a step further and engineer negative risks for themselves and their cronies – ie other bankers, but that's another story.

Risk wasn’t always so amenable to manipulation though. Before Stonehenge was built, when even the most upmarket kitchen utensils were made of flint, risk was a far more serious business than it is today. Although...

What was the risk of not building Stonehenge? Is Homo bureaucraticus an older species than we have hitherto supposed? It’s an open question.

Anyway, among many other disadvantages our technical civilisation has made risk rather less risky. We may get away with stupidities but Homo bureaucraticus always gets away with stupidities. Much like banking in fact, only with bureaucraticus the risk is parked on voters...

Nope on reflection it’s not much like banking, it’s exactly like banking.

Even so the system copes. It may sag a little but on the whole it seems to cope. Not that we’d ever know if it couldn’t cope. Not until afterwards when bureaucraticus claims it’s all our fault for electing idiots. Which admittedly is something we do rather often.

So without the lure of a very substantial gain Homo bureaucraticus isn’t prepared to take risks under any but the most compelling circumstances. If it ain’t worth it don’t do it – that’s the bureaucraticus mantra.

Doing isn’t the whole story though because doing includes thinking and saying and telling. In other words bureaucraticus doesn’t take risks with language either, not even with that covert language trickling through its head as it reads the report it told an expert how to write.

So it is no surprise that the rise of the precautionary principle has seen a parallel and very energetic promotion of risk-free language. Political correctness we call it. As usual the risk of not speaking plainly is bound to fall on the peasants – not on bureaucraticus.

Ironically it could turn out to be a risky business not taking risks. 


James Higham said...

when even the most upmarket kitchen utensils were made of flint


graham wood said...

"Doing includes thinking"

I should think so too. Do you not know that "thinking" can now be classified as a pre-crime?

graham wood said...

AKH Perhaps you are not familiar with the classic and goodly volume entitled :

"Bureaucrats: How to Annoy Them."
Verily a must have handbook (indeed 'bible') for any professional opposition to the plague of bureaucraticus.
It is packed full of ancient lore and wisdom for one's approach to this public pest.
Indeed the dedication of this little volume is itself a very subtle indication of the contents, of the strategy and battle plans to be employed.
A fine example of "soft power" if I may put it this way:

"To all bureaucrats and Civil Servants, everywhere. If this book makes your lives even the tiniest bit more difficult, it will have been well worth writing"

In the author's (R T Fishall) language these pests are commonly described as "twitmarsh's" and he begins by laying down some basic
FUNDAMENTAL LAWS as helpful guidance governing correspondence with the pests.
1. "When writing to a Twitmarsh, never be explicit. Word your letter in such a way that it can mean almost anything"
(The EU has refined this to a beautiful art form in what they call "the treaties"- but let that pass)

2. In general write it instead of typing it. Make it long, verbose, and only semi legible.
(a good example from the "other side" would be the actual wording enshrined in the new 'Marriage Law' - beautifully crafted but totally incomprehensible)

3. Never give a correct reference.
If for instance you have a letter from the Tax Office with reference
EH/4/PNG/H8, head your letter back either WS/3/JGH/H9, or, if you prefer, nothing at all. But always give a reference of your own, this may come in useful later because......"
You get the drift I THINK, and there are seven other FLs.
A useful hint is about stamps on envelopes sent to Twitmarshes - but that's for another post.

FrankC said...

R.T.Fishall was the pen name of the late Patrick Moore.

A K Haart said...

James - (:

Graham - that rings a bell. I'm not sure if this wheeze is by the same writer, but when presented with a box on a form which says Do Not Write In This Box, one should rub wax all over the box to make sure nobody else can write in it either.

Frank - that's something I didn't know yet I'm sure I once read or browsed through the book.

graham wood said...

AKH Patrick Moore eh? Well. I did not know that.
If so then yes, the "wheeze" was his.
Nice sense of humour - more to the old boy than I thought.