Our relationships with government are largely governed by the Laws of the Bureaucrat. These are not published laws, but are laws of nature.
The Laws of the Bureaucrat
A Study in Harmful Incentives
When Congress passes a law, it commonly adds a line that the law will be accompanied by regulations that “flesh out” the bare bones of the statute. These regulations will be written by bureaucrats and have the force of law. And, as the saying goes, “Aye, there’s the rub.”
Bureaucrats operate under the same incentive that everyone else does. They wish to have secure employment with kudos for their job performance. Thus, their very existence depends on the “need” that the law was written to answer. And this is the problem.
1. There must be a problem that only the bureaucrat, the smartest person around, can solve.
Because Congress passed the law, the issue is important. And because the bureaucrat has been tasked with implementing the law, he is the smartest person around. If you had solved the problem, there would be no need for him to fix your mess.
Note: The reality of the need is not determined by presence of the statute. Rather, the statute reflects the perception of need.
2. The bureaucrat can never solve the “problem.”
Because the bureaucrat’s job depends on the existence of the “problem,” solving the “problem” will eliminate the bureaucrat’s job. Thus, the bureaucrat must never solve the problem. To do so would be to destroy his reason for being. In the unfortunate circumstance that the “problem” is actually solved, it becomes imperative for the bureaucrat to identify a new “problem” which only he is able to “solve.”
But it is not necessary for a problem to be “solved” for a new problem to be identified. It is merely necessary that the bureaucrat reach a point at which his full attention is no longer required. Then his exceptional qualities will seek out another task by which he can “serve” others.
Comment: This is the hubris of the bureaucrat, who can never be wrong, and is above mere mortal humanity. It is the source of “mission creep,” where the bureaucracy constantly seeks to aggregate greater and greater swaths of authority, which affirms his superiority over the hoi polloi. The bureaucracy will necessarily become our masters rather than our servants.
3. Every problem can be solved with a rule.
It is imperative that the bureaucrat be able to measure the success of his endeavors. This will allow him to present his great success to his superiors, the press, and anyone else who will listen. But the only metric that can be presented without contradiction is a clear compliance or non-compliance with bright-line rules. Did you check the box, or did you not?
In the private sector, managers must determine what the most reasonable course of action might be. But such judgment calls would make it impossible for the bureaucrat to determine whether the perfect course of action he has decreed is actually being followed. Thus, only “Yes/No” options can be allowed. Of course, if you are not following the bureaucrat’s wise path, it is easy for him to tell an administrative law judge that you are non-compliant. And if there are multiple rules with conflicting mandates, then the bureaucrat has an even easier job. Everyone is a law-breaker! And that brings us to rule #4.
4. You didn’t follow the rules.
It is easy to see how bureaucracies become entrenched and unwieldy. Every incentive is rigged for them to aggregate power, and they have no incentive whatever to actually serve the public. When I worked under NASA contract during the 1970’s, we had a saying that “any government agency that has been in existence for five years can justify its continued existence in perpetuity simply by refluxing paper.” In laymen’s terms, once the sign is on the building, they will bury you in paper, and you will have no chance to do anything about it.
Reforming bureaucracies is probably a fool’s errand. Legislative dynamite is probably the only thing that will work. Let us pick one example. To un-do the disaster created by the Department of Education (e.g. Student Loan debt), the best move is probably to simply legislate the DOE out of existence. If some small kernel of it is so important that we must keep it, then it can be re-authorized. But we ought to err on the side of destruction, not creation.
As Ronald Reagan said, “The ten worst words in the English language are, ‘I’m from the government and I’m here to help you.’ “