A quick meditation on the value of bureaucracy

When people think of bureaucracy they often imagine the DMV. And it often deserves its reputation. I think there’s a 1% chance that all of the offices have been infiltrated by foreign operatives with the long term goal of undermining American faith in government. Our own Central Intelligence Agency distributed a guide for accomplishing exactly that (see page 28).

But, in my role as slight-apologist-for-everything, I think our cultural version to it throws some baby out with the bathwater. This was my (weirdly abstract) take away from a pair of books that I have read recently which seem extremely disconnected: Killers of the Flower Moon and Bad Blood. The first is about the cold blooded murders of Osage Native Americans for the purpose of stealing their reservation’s oil riches. Some of victims were essentially killed by their own white spouses – a betrayal shocking even in the context of a horrific history of mistreatment. The second is about a blood testing company Theranos, which lied to investors, regulators and ultimately patients about their ability to detect disease.

Both stories are written chronologically, giving the reader a growing dread as suspicions slowly solidify into horrifying reality. In both cases, the eventual scale of the harm overwhelms even those who initially started looking into it. But there are more subtle connections between the two books, even though the Osage murders took place nearly 100 years earlier than the Theranos you-can’t-quite-prove-that-there-was-manslaughter.

Then, as now, most people are not actively evil. However, choices are rarely made with full information. And people’s curiosity can vary quite a bit. As Upton Sinclair said “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it.”

For the Osage, it was the local law enforcement, and townspeople who shrugged their shoulders when no progress was made on the case. For Theranos, it was the many executives who hindered and overruled their own due diligence processes.

Processes – that’s where the bureaucrats start to look awfully attractive. They really, truly, don’t care about you. They don’t care if you’re an oppressed minority, or a charismatic Silicon Valley founder. There’s no upside to treating anyone differently, no glory in being the one who approved or denied some specific application. Just a stack of papers and a vague fear of being fired for breaking the rules.

Of course, they’re not all perfect. Some are susceptible to bribes, or become petty tyrants. But every system is made up of components. And a system that rewards by-the-book conservatism 99% of the time is going to be made up of people who are, as individuals and as a culture, pretty resilient in the face of fishy behavior. So let’s definitely have some elements of the Wild West in our research labs and movie studios. Even in our companies! But when there’s pressure to ignore age-old processes of justice, regulation, policy, or even democracy “just this once”, it’s worth understanding why our society found it worthwhile to build them up in the first place.

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