Get in line, take a number

APRIL 26, 2010

I’ve experienced several months where, for one reason or another, I’ve been stuck wrestling with various bureaucracies, of the governmental and corporate variety. It’s a frustrating, time-consuming and, ultimately, dehumanizing process. You’re always a number. Most everyone at the other end of those darned customer “service” lines is polite, yet indifferent. And nothing ever gets fixed unless you devote enormous time and energy to the process. Sometimes the process can become Kafkaesque in its maddening and illogical complexity, especially if one is trapped in a battle with a powerful agency such as the IRS or FBI.

My most depressing moments as a newspaper columnist have been times when desperate parents called me as they tried to retrieve their kid from the clutches of a Child Protective Services agency or free a loved one who was in an unsafe situation in the county jail. You want to see desperation? Walk through the hallways outside a family court or head over to the waiting room in the jail. My bureaucratic battles have been far less severe than those, but my point here is that ever-larger swaths of our society are beginning to resemble those dystopian movies, where people wait in line and try to navigate impersonal and adversarial systems that often don’t make any sense to the casual observer.

Many people I know are going through something like this at one level or another. I have a friend fighting with a cell phone company; another friend is winding his way through the legal system, and yet another friend is battling an unjust situation with a health insurance company. One person I know just spent months fighting with the Department of Motor Vehicles, which had decided to revoke his license for nonsensical and absurd reasons. These bureaucratic nightmares have become as endemic in our society as bread lines were in the former Soviet bloc. I don’t know anyone – other than those who work in the myriad bureaus – who likes this sort of world.

Yet, Americans don’t seem to understand the connection between the political policies they support and the real-world consequences of those policies. When the government gets bigger, it hires more employees, who control more aspects of our lives. That means dealing with more agencies, waiting in more lines and living in fear that some regulator will spot something that you’re doing wrong. Furthermore, as government regulates more industries, those industries become more like the government, tending to be as concerned about following rules and orders as they do about pursuing profit and serving the customer.

Anything big is going to be more bureaucratic than anything small, and all the new forms of government control empower the large enterprises at the expense of the small ones. There’s a reason big businesses often support higher minimum wages, tougher environmental rules and additional governmental meddling. Such businesses already have the overhead in place – the lawyers, the human-resources departments, the lobbyists, the regulatory analysts – to deal with the new rules. The small businesses don’t have that infrastructure, so, by accepting more rules the bigger businesses can put their upstart competitors at a competitive disadvantage.

My fear is that, as the government gains greater control over our already regulated health care system, more of us will be mired in life-or-death battles with bureaucrats over the fates of our loved ones. You think insurance companies are bad now? Just wait until it’s all controlled by the equivalent of the Department of Motor Vehicles or the Air Resources Board – unaccountable agencies that you must depend upon.

“Government regulations are a major source of this [bureaucratic] problem,” said Tibor Machan, professor of business ethics at Chapman University in Orange. “Every firm, even the small ones, is encumbered by all these duties to report and file paperwork and follow all these rules. The sheer increase in government regulations over the years has caused companies to become mainly concerned about following rules.” Machan finds it ironic that liberal activists who deride big corporations are constantly lobbying for more laws that ensure that only the largest, least-responsive corporations can survive.

Every aspect of a bureaucracy is informed by rules and restrictions, by limitations on how individual workers – who often behave like interchangeable functionaries – can perform their tasks. The incentive for bureaucratic employees is do things as they always have been done, to avoid trouble, to complete some simple tasks with as little hassle as possible. It is factory work in a sense, and God help the “customer” who gets mired in one of these processes as he tries to fix a real problem.

This is nothing new. The great free-market economist Ludwig von Mises, in his book, “Bureaucracy,” argued, “No private enterprise will ever fall prey to bureaucratic methods of management if it is operated with the sole aim of making profit.” But government meddling has made businesses more interested in serving government rule-makers than the consumer. Whereas the natural instinct of the business operator is to improve efficiency by creating innovations, the bureaucrat is “bound to obey rules and regulations established by a superior body.” And so as the bureaucrats increasingly interfere in the private realm, the private sector increasingly begins to mirror life in the government sector. Yet as things get worse, Mises wrote, “Public opinion, biased by the spurious fables of the socialists, is rash in blaming the entrepreneurs.”

That is so true – government screws up private business, and then the public blames business rather than the government … and then calls for more bureaucratic rules that will make things even worse!

Fierce competition and an open marketplace reward companies that do the best job serving the public. The more government intervenes, the more bureaucratic and frustrating our society will become. Until more Americans understand this, we all better get used to standing in line, hiring lawyers, fighting with regulators and waiting on hold with Customer Service.

–Steven Greenhut

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  1. EastBayLarry
    EastBayLarry 26 April, 2010, 12:26

    Yes, that is the pattern; regulations are imposed, i.e. telling Fanny Mae to sell houses to people who can’t afford them, then problems occur, i.e. ‘housing bubble’, then the call for regulations to prevent a recurrance.

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