Blog 7. Briefcase-carrying bureaucrats

A friend wrote, “…I have soured on what can really be done. The EPA and the state Environment Department are easily bought out… .”  Sounds like a rabid tree-hugging environmentalist.  Actually, I think he votes with the conservative cause.

Citizens are everywhere discouraged, feeling that their governmental agencies and the people in those agencies lack integrity. “Briefcase-carrying bureaucrats” someone called them. Yes, the EPA might seem bought out, but that means thwarted either by congress (Blog 6) or by the administration. Likewise, state regulatory agencies seem more attentive to keeping themselves in existence (that’s bureaucracy) than being responsive to the needs of the state.

Does this mean that all government agencies are inherently corrupt, and government should therefore be minimized? Well, it’s tempting dream that the nation might be better without its stalled, bickering congress of ideologues, but that body is really a symptom, not an original cause of the problems.

The folks I’ve met in the various regulatory agencies (EPA, state environmental regulators, building inspectors, health department and the like) usually take their jobs seriously, wanting to do the right thing. Unfortunately, they often spend their time avoiding criticism and pressure from the elected officials above them, persons with power to affect the agency’s budget and mission. After a few years of trying, some dedicated public servants become discouraged, either to become bureaucrats or to be replaced by do-nothing chair warmers and supplicants who spoil the entire regulatory apparatus.

Special-interest government results from our social myth that all citizens should be free without restraint. Society isn’t free.  It’s a network of restraints. That IS society. Without cultural, legal, formal, informal, conscious and unconscious restraints, humans would be a specie of solitary animals wandering the jungle, each alone except for brief encounters of mating.  Even marriage is a restraint.  A  family is a set of restraints, and that’s the smallest unit of society.  A so-called “free society” is a myth.  We exercise our freedoms within restraints, too many restraints to enumerate.  Those restraints are the set of nonlinear rules that make a society a complex system, with the occasional big events, many small events, and dynamic emergent behaviors that characterize complex systems. See Blog 3.

A stalled, ideological congress, a do-nothing regulatory agency that promotes a special interest, a kangaroo court that ignores evidence, and racial prejudice are some of the emergent behaviors that we have opportunity to eliminate, but only if we recognize their root causes in the oft-unspoken rules of society.  It rarely helps much to adopt yet another rule to limit precisely one specific symptom, such as a new rule about pollution with exceptions for special interests, particularly those interested in money.

This is a harsh pronouncement, but that’s how complex systems are. They behave like other complex systems, like termite mounds and fish schools, not like guiding angels. To change the situation, to relieve particular symptoms, moral individuals have to tweak the rules within which the independent actors of the system operate. If we want a more just society with equal opportunities (a moral value), we have to remove the conflict between the supposition of an inherently free market and the special rules of taxes, privilege, influence, subsidies and exceptions. For example, while crying “free market,” one party or another may promote governmental “economic stimulus” (that’s not free, it’s public money for private gain). It’s possible to have some freedoms in the market, and also to have selected governmental actions promoting particular benefits, like health care or roads.  But if the actual beneficiaries of the purported health care are the insurance companies, your rules create an underlying conflict between your social myths (unspoken rules) of equality of health care and your market reality of subsidy for the insurance industry).

When these conflicts permeate the system, disenchantment grows, resulting in the attitude expressed by my friend who regarded the EPA as “bought.” Actually, somebody did buy the influence that directed the EPA to create pollution regulations at odds with the facts, and enforcement that conflicts with the regulations. As said elsewhere on these pages, the strength of a society is not in its ideals or in its reality, but the weakness is in the gap between reality and the ideals. Tweak the rules to make reality consistent with the ideals, and you may cure many uncomfortable symptoms. Keep making more individual rules to address individual symptoms, and you get both more complexity and more symptoms.