Saturday, February 07, 2009

There's an article over at TPMMuckraker that got me thinking. It's a bit of a digression, but bear with me.

There seem to be two understandings of "bureaucracy," one pejorative, one objective. In the pejorative version, bureaucracy is an organization -- typically governmental, like a regulatory agency, or that pot-bellied guy who works in the zoning department -- characterized by a terrifyingly blind, sometimes petty dedication to, say, filing all of the necessary paper work for your boat license. In the objective version, which I expect is more common amongst social scientists and the like, bureaucracy is an organization characterized by a formal structure, with rules guiding how it is supposed to go about accomplishing its mission.

I prefer the objective one; it's less driven by animus and, being more generic, it lends itself to broader application. It's more useful. With that definition, a corporation is a bureaucracy, which only makes sense: it's an organization with a blind, sometimes petty dedication to profit (if, of course, you assume that corporate governance is not completely broken, which it is). Or an army: an organization with a blind, petty dedication to killing (in the national interest).

There's a stereotype that government bureaucracies are extremely inefficient, but I think that's the wrong way to look at it. They are typically just as efficient at accomplishing the goals of the organization as corporations, the military, and other institutions. They just operate under different resource constraints. A well-run military given the right resources is an efficient killing machine. A well-run technology company given the right size (e.g. IBM) or right position in the technology life cycle (e.g. the early Cisco) is an efficient profit-making machine. And a well-run regulatory agency given the right authority is an efficient regulator of whatever it's regulating.

But like it or not, that's all they do. They don't know how to handle things that conflict with their mission; when that happens, people outside the bureaucracy may have to apply force to cause it to behave correctly. Depending on the degree of asymmetry of power between the outside group and the bureaucracy, something terrible might happen before the outside group succeeds, if they succeed at all.

So, with that in mind, please, dear reader, do remember that while bureaucracies serve a useful function within their own domain, they do little else. Banks, for example, do not love you. They're financial intermediaries, run for a profit, and they want your money; they don't give a damn whether your mother just died of cancer. Actually, I take that back, they do care if your mother just died of cancer, because that may make you more vulnerable and increase the chance that they can trick you into to giving them money to which they have no rightful claim. Bastards.

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