How Thai Toilets Explain the Bureaucratic State

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Has progress been prevented by too much effort to make things better?

With mountains of paperwork and endless hoops for jumping, bureaucracies are rightfully faulted with often slowing down progress.

But what if the true problem with bureaucracy is deeper than the red tape? What if there is something inherent in the nature of bureaucracy that makes it almost universally insufficient to solve the problems it claims to be addressing?

Social scientist Charles Murray, who spent his early career serving with the Peace Corps, came to realize the extent of the problem during his time in 1960s Thailand.

As a 22 year old with a degree in Russian history, Murray found himself to be sorely lacking in skills needed to effectively do his job — helping secure water seal privies in Lamphun, a provincial town in the northern part of the country.

As he worked in Thailand, he experienced an epiphany, one that made him realize the problem wasn't confined to this underdeveloped nation.

One morning I’m sitting around at the regional headquarters of the village health and sanitation project, and just reflecting on the fact that nobody is really doing much of anything. They are kind of busy, there’s shuffling papers — that’s the way it is most days; people are busy, but not doing anything that makes any difference to anybody. And I had a sudden image of thousands of offices around the developing world just like this.

All of them pushing the nation forward into the 20th century in terms of the rhetoric, in terms of what the programs were supposed to be doing, and actually they were doing next to nothing.

That image captured my imagination, then when I came back to the States in the 1970s, I realized this ain’t confined to the developing world. In the States I kept running into the same thing, whether it’s programs to help chronic delinquents or children with family problems or programs supposedly serving any number of fine sounding purposes, when I hung out in the offices of those programs, hardly anything was going on.

It’s true of an extremely wide range of government offices, in state and local government as well as federal. The dirty little secret about what happens when you have a government shutdown is how few effects it has on anything. I have come to believe, and still do, that some huge proportion of government offices could disappear tomorrow and it wouldn’t make a damn bit of difference to anything short term or long term.

Government may be full of good intentions — such as providing sanitation in southeast Asia — but the results often miss their mark, so to speak.

How did these revelations change Murray? As a social scientist interested in the "science" part of the job, Murray spent decades writing about how social programs work — and don't work — in the United States.

Social programs simply were unable to show any significant effects, and I’m talking about a very wide range of social programs.

Has anything gotten better? There have been upswings and downswings, but he describes current day as a dark period for Americans who believe "that freedom, opportunity, and enterprise are central to a good society and that the definition of good government is one that enables people to live their lives as they see fit as individuals, families, and communities, as long as they accord the same freedom to everyone else, with government providing a peaceful setting for their endeavors, but otherwise interfering as little as possible.

In other words, "bureaucracy" is now a full-fledged regulatory state.

We have a terrible problem of de facto lawlessness. The regulatory state was far worse than I had realized. It is indeed an extralegal state within the state, that in effect passes its own laws, enforces it with its own police, then acts as jury, judge, and appeals court, all completely within the powers given to it by Congress. ...

America is in a state that looks very much like a terminal case of institutional sclerosis. By institutional sclerosis, I am referring to economist Mancur Olson’s analysis of what inevitably happens to advanced democracy. Their capacity for effective action grinds to a halt. Of course we’re never going to get a rational tax code or rational health care reform or any other coherent solution to a major policy problem. The clichés about the iron triangle of Congress and regulators and special interests are all true. Put another way, what the Founders said about faction in the Federalist Papers has turned out to be disastrously true. Not just true.

Mancur Olson argued that it is unrepairably true. Well, he did come up with one way in which you can get rid of advanced institutional sclerosis, and that is to lose a total war. He used Japan and Germany as examples. It did work for them. It seems a little extreme.

Will America survive? For Murray, it will depend on whether enough people hold true to the ideal

... that freedom, opportunity, and enterprise are central to a good society, and that the definition of good government is one that enables people to live their lives as they see fit as individuals, families, and communities, as long as they accord the same freedom to everyone else, with government providing a peaceful setting for their endeavors, but otherwise interfering as little as possible.

Is America too far gone in the regulatory state to return to valuing freedom, opportunity, and enterprise?How will it recover from institutional sclerosis?

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