If I had a second chance at life, I think I’d come back as a bureaucracy. Bureaucracies, whether private or public, seldom die. I could live with that.
Consider the March of Dimes. It was set up to raise money for the fight against polio. Well, in the 1950s, Dr. Jonas Salk figured out how to get rid of polio, and it’s virtually extinct. But no one has figured out how to get rid of the March of Dimes, and it’s still raising money.
Consider the Canadian Wheat Board, a monopoly for marketing both wheat and barley. In 1943, the federal government set up the monopoly, supposedly as a temporary war measure. Well, the Allies ended the war when they forced the Axis powers to surrender unconditionally. But no one has been able to end the Canadian Wheat Board, and it refuses to surrender, unconditionally or otherwise. It may stop being a monopoly. Don’t expect it to stop being.
Like cancer cells, bureaucracies are immortal. If we ever get rid of cancer, you can be sure that we won’t get rid of the bureaucracies that are fighting it. There is hope of finding a cure for cancer. There is scant hope of finding a cure for cancer societies.
If nothing else, bureaucracies are survivors. Some survive pretty much on their own. Others, especially public ones, team up. One, for example, promotes the cultivation of tobacco while another discourages smoking. Or, one protects free expression while another imposes censorship. This is known as job creation and is central to bureaucratic fitness.
Bureaucracies don’t just survive. They grow. Surviving and growing, in fact, are what they do best. The leading ones do little else. Like other growing things, they must be properly fed, and they have voracious appetites, devouring huge amounts of money and excreting vast quantities of gobbledygook.
Gobbledygook is what bureaucracies mainly produce. In the process, they generate goods and services, rules and regulations, which have to be sloughed off on the public.
Bureaucracies are secretive. Even the public ones are private. Their privacy depends crucially on gobbledygook, which few enquirers can penetrate. Those who do become so disoriented they risk losing their sanity.
I know, because my friend Dingwall is a recovering bureaucrat. In one of his many jobs, Dingwall had to spend part of each week turning gobbledygook into plain English for public consumption. It was dangerous work and the conditions he laboured under were appalling.
The very first day he ran headlong into a split infinitive and suffered a concussion. No sooner was he back at work than he cut his foot on a sentence fragment. Two days later, while hurrying to meet a deadline, he failed to notice a dangling participle and nearly strangled himself. By then Dingwall was ready to quit and would have done so if he hadn’t needed the money.
Barely two weeks had gone by when he began hearing voices – passive voices. He couldn’t get them out of his head. They were debilitating, especially since he was also suffering from abstractions. When he exhausted himself trying to reach the end of an inordinately long sentence, he had to take a couple of days off to recuperate. On his return, he choked on a circumlocution, tripped over a cliché, slipped on an ambiguity, and fell into a mess of misplaced modifiers.
“Enough!” Dingwall cried, and demanded relief. Mercifully, his supervisors came to the rescue. They gave him a job turning plain English into gobbledygook for public deception. In true bureaucratic fashion, the two jobs, the first specializing in clarity, the second in opacity, nicely complemented each other. The second, Dingwall told me, was by far the easier. Opacity comes natural, he explained. Clarity must be worked at.
Despite the dangers, many people openly consort with bureaucracies. Consider German sociologist Max Weber. He was the first person to analyze them comprehensively. It was he, in fact, who inflicted the word bureaucracy on the civilized world. Gobbledygook took its toll, however, and Weber suffered from mental illness for many years. Happily, he recovered fully to enjoy a sane death. The bureaucracies he studied lived crazily on.
At some point, someone co-opted the term red tape to describe bureaucratic procedures that impede efficiency. At no point has anyone co-opted a term to describe bureaucratic procedures that promote efficiency.
Hobbled by red tape, and smothered in gobbledygook, bureaucrats wear out and must be replaced. They each have their own sunset clause. But not bureaucracies. The sun rarely sets on bureaucracies.