The Laws of the Bureaucrat

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.’ “

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  1. Hi Dr Noel,
    I posted this on the YouTube comments but I hope I may repeat here in case you missed it.

    One of the biggest intrusions of bureaucracy into medical practice is in the area of prescription drugs, particularly in the subset of pain management. Another bureaucracy that is intrusive and self-perpetuating is the so-called “War on Drugs” which I believe has done little to nothing to stop drug abusers and had criminalized millions of people who would be better served but treating their addictions rather than putting them in jail. By restricting legal drugs with a potential for abuse to the point that doctors are afraid or too overwhelmed with paperwork to prescribe inexpensive and effective medications like Vicodin and Tramadol to 60-plus year old patients with chronic back pain. By upscheduling these and other drugs they are causing COUNTLESS non-abusers to suffer a lower quality of life than they had before in order to prevent the deaths of a few abusers who over indulge. Punish or treat the abusers, don’t punish legitimate chronic pain sufferers who are doing NOTHING wrong! Go after doctors that truly do over prescribe not the doctors who are treating patients with legitimate provable conditions. Now I have to settle for Tylenol 3 or 4 which does not work nearly as well, and honestly I’m far more worried about ingesting all that acetaminophen than anything else.

    Sorry for the long rant! I loved your series on Hillary’s Parkinson! I truly think you made a big difference!

    I have a long-term back injury, but also now have fibromyalgia and am meeting people with that and other conditions like lupus, etc. I did even believe in fibromyalgia as a real condition until my diagnosis! I’d really like it if you could do a video on immune system disorders someday.

    Thank you!

    1. Good points on Pain Medicine. I practiced Pain Medicine for about five years. Those items are on the list. Also, a history of drug prohibition is necessary, so it will be part of the post. But it will be a while. There’s too much ObamaCare to come.

  2. The insight that bureaucracies create rules so complex and/or contradictory that they can always find some form of non-compliance and make you a criminal if you don’t submit is a very important point. The idea that any Doctor can be found in violation of Medicare “laws” on any given day and that power is used to coerce Doctors is not something the general public realizes. And if it’s true in the medicine it’s true in every regulated business and profession. That needs to be hammered home at every opportunity.

  3. Dear Dr Ted
    When my mind registered your new topic I nearly jumped out of my seat. You were still talking about Parkinson, only now it was Parkinson’s Law of my Grammar school days in the 50s.! “Civil service work expands to fill the time alloted to it “. And in such detail. I cringe.
    Cheers Rod

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