Sunday, 26 March 2023


John Drewry has a fine TCW piece on the destructive canker that is bureaucracy. 

March of the red tape brigade

The more corrupt the state, the more numerous the laws – Tacitus

I’M always fascinated by how small, non-profit, social enterprises begin – and how they inexorably end up. Take an amateur theatre. A group of enthusiastic thespians get together to put on plays in the village hall or scout hut. Everybody mucks in choosing a play, casting each other, allocating one as a benign, overseeing director, building and painting a kind of set, sewing some costumes together, sourcing the props and furniture. It expands, with new people joining, and before you know it there is specialisation of labour – someone becomes Treasurer, another Secretary, there’s Box Office, Wardrobe, etc. Very soon, those positions acquire their own importance, certainly in the eyes of the occupiers. Politics and territory raise their heads. People fall out and storm out. Administration and attendant bureaucracy have appeared from nowhere and acquired their own reality, even casting into the shadows the original aspiration, which was simply to enjoy putting on plays. Something ‘much more important’ has manifested. Something totally unproductive.

The whole piece is short and well worth reading. It offers a sense of inevitability - this is what we are like, this is what we do when we try to organise ourselves without certain constraints. Yet I'll add one of the comments as another example of how sinister and repressive bureaucracy has become at every level, almost without anyone noticing. 

Pancho the Grey
This sort of thing seems to beset many voluntary groups and end up alienating many of the original members. My experience is a good example.

I joined an ad hoc group of voluntary woodworkers working in the local country park - all retired and amateurs except one guy who had retrained after giving up a high pressure, well paid job in IT.
We had a variety of skills and were familiar with a range of woodworking machines and hand tools. We fixed park furniture, made signs and other artefacts of practical use, and in our slack moments we made items for sale to generate funds for the charity that helped support the park. In almost all cases we used timber from fallen trees in the park. We worked well together, made cases for additional tools or begged and borrowed them from the local community.

Then the local authority realised what we were doing and suddenly the Health & Safety team paid us a visit. We were told there should be proper training for the machinery many of us had been using for years, that risk assessment should be carried out for all the processes we were engaged in and so on. I won't detail it all but I am sure you get the idea.

What had been for me a relaxed experienced dealing with like-mind individuals whose skills we all knew, it was like going back to work. I put up with it for about 6 months and then left to the more conducive surroundings of my own workshop. None or the original team now remains, and I understand that the restrictions have become even more intrusive..

I'm also the kind of person who would just leave in these circumstances. Leaving doesn't achieve anything positive for the group though. It merely becomes more compliant than it was - maybe compliant enough to survive the next bureaucratic assault. It's a form of selection.


djc said...

The amateur dramatics, the woodwork club, yes I recognise those. And the sports club—two years 'on the committee' confirmed what I knew already: I am not a committee person. One determined individual—bandits with a bandit chief— works best.

Sam Vega said...

Thanks, an excellent piece. I've probably got dozens of stories about this. Here's just one of them.

In our last village lived a 70-year old who had previously lived and farmed in a small Devon village. Before that he had been in the Tank Regiment, so was a practical sort of bloke. The village main street had no footpath, and he asked whether the Parish Council could paint a white line to mark off a footway - just something to deter drivers coming too close to the verge. After discussing it, the Parish referred it up to District, and then to County level. They finally decided it would be a good idea, but they had no money.

Exasperated after all that time, he offered to do it himself. They said he could, but said it had to be the proper reflective stuff. So he bought it out of his own pocket - not cheap. He even had the wheelie machine to apply it - apparently the tankies use white lines a lot, and he'd done all this before. Then a bloke from the Council called round in person to say he needed to do it in hi-vis clothing. No worries - he had that too. But then they said he needed warning triangles for the traffic. Still no worries - he had some of them, too. Then there was another call to say that on no circumstances could he do it on his own; he needed to have another worker with him. Could they supply another worker? No, he would need to find another volunteer, who would need training - in Plymouth - in safe roadside working.

The footway is still unmarked.

A K Haart said...

djc - I agree, one determined individual works best. I spent a fair bit of my working life on committees but don't recall achieving much apart from setting a date for the next meeting.

Sam - that's a dispiriting story, but I bet most of those involved never expected the job to be completed. Some may even have been slightly conscious-stricken about it without ever intending to step out of line and actually allow the chap to do the job.

DiscoveredJoys said...

From Wikipedia, Pournelle’s Iron Law of Bureaucracy:

In any bureaucracy, the people devoted to the benefit of the bureaucracy itself always get in control and those dedicated to the goals that the bureaucracy is supposed to accomplish have less and less influence, and sometimes are eliminated entirely.

A K Haart said...

DJ - Pournelle was right. We need a much clearer and more open view of bureaucracies, their role in democracies, what to expect from them, how to make them accountable, set limits on their remits and so on. As it is, we end up being their servants rather than the other way round.

Peter MacFarlane said...

The root cause of all this, imho, is that our society has become so rich, and generates so much added value, that we can afford to pay millions of people to do nothing useful and in fact to spend their careers obstructing others. Jerry Pournelle (rip!) had some thoughts on this too, I’m sure you can find them by duckducking.

A K Haart said...

Peter - yes, we can afford an astounding level of obstructive uselessness. It is difficult to believe that we'll escape an eventual reckoning, but life trundles on. For now.