Who Will Rid Me of This Meddlesome Bureaucracy?

One of the facets of the response to and analysis of Katrina is that the disaster is large enough that everyone can choose an aspect of it to look at from the comfortable heights of their favorite hobby-horse. Be it the incompetence of (state, federal, or local) government, the evils of (small or big) government, the evil of gays gathering in New Orleans, Allah’s wrath, or anything else. (I’ve touched on this before, in “New Orleans is Not A Morality Play.”)

Having said that, please join me as I ride my favorite hobby horse. It’s the very large, ponderous, un-American one that’s hard to make out under the red tape which adorns it.

One of the threads woven through many stories is the offers of help refused; the failures of initiative in the face of the need to cross ‘i’s, dot ‘t’s, and ensure that the Memorandums of Understandings between the departments are followed in all of the particulars. The phrases “you must understand” and “the way things ‘work’ in Washington” are not only trite and tired, they are frankly offensive when people are dying.

Now, it may well be the case that as any organization grows this large, controlling it requires all of that.

Does the organization need to be that large? Does DHS really need to set the rules for “passenger screening,” operate the system, and audit itself? In light of the reality that TSA screeners do no better than their private sector counterparts, I ask (again) why the department is doing that. Couldn’t their managerial talents be put to better use on a smaller number of operations?

Until the government shrinks, it won’t be possible to manage it. But to shrink the government not a passive act. Shrinking the government takes an act of will on the part of our leaders.

6 Replies to “Who Will Rid Me of This Meddlesome Bureaucracy?”

  1. What I find astonishing to the extreme is the failure of the American spirit: helping others close by in times of dire need. Where were the people from the surrounding areas around NOLA that weren’t hit (as badly) as NOLA itself? Why were there no buses (school buses and others) to help evacuate?
    Or is this a facet of the tragedy that strangely enough doesn’t get reported over here?

  2. Defending bureaucracy may be the contrarian approach, but I believe it is the right one in this case. There’s plenty of waste in everything large–it’s a function of the friction of size. But what we have witnessed over the past week and a half is not, I believe, a direct function of the inherent nature of bureaucracy. FEMA has a reputation of doing things well. In the 1990s, the technocrats running things there turned it into an effective organization that made life better for thousands affected by disasters, and it has been held up as a model for large, dynamic agencies.
    What we have seen is not bureaucracy. What we have witnessed is, in fact, a regression away from bureaucracy, towards the cronyism of the last century. Bureaucracy, notes Weber, is the seperation of the office from the individual. When you move away from that model, society loses the necessary competence that keeps large organizations steady and capable. Bureaucracy in and of itself does not specify using volunteer firefighters as props, and the placement of unqualified political appointees to key leadership positions is a conscious choice that is the direct antithesis of how large organizations are supposed to function.
    Some things can be blamed on the necessary evils of organization management: the stovepiping that blocked intelligence centralization that obscured 9/11 intel comes to mind. But this is not the occasion to try to drown the government in Grover Norquist’s bathtub. Which is a scarier 10 words: “We’re from the government and we are here to help” or “I don’t think anyone anticipated the
    breach of the levees.”
    Failure here was not deterministic.

  3. A disaster organisation is much like a military organisation, and it shares a characteristic of a single command structure, but with responsibility pushed as much as possible down to local commanders.
    In the US however there are two different command authorities – the states and the federal. According to the (old, outdated) constitution, the states are in command. According to the revisions over the last X years, dramatically accelerated post-911, the federal structure is in charge. The transition from state to federal level remains incomplete. Between those cracks, the disaster of New Orleans fell quite nicely, it seems.
    I’d say it was inevitable (given many other factors) that the natural disaster turn into a recovery disaster. I guess the decision that you need to make is “who’s in lead?” because until that is decided it’s hard to know where to start looking at the detail.

  4. You’re starting to sound a bit like Grover Norquist, who once said that he wanted the federal government shrunk down to a size where he could drown it in the bathtub.
    I don’t really identify with the conservative, “small government” mindset, to be honest. I like many of the things the government does, and in some areas I wish it would do more.

  5. Its amazing scary how much today’s government is following that of “Atlas Shrugged” by Ayn Rand.
    ‘The phrases “you must understand” and “the way things ‘work’ in Washington”‘

  6. Allen: Most advocates of smaller government have a little more specific agenda than “smaller”–we usually think in terms of a smaller set of assumed roles for government. One reason for this is the suspiscion that it will not reliably do a lot of the jobs we give it.
    Now, immediate disaster response and maintenance of levies and other public works both seem like necessary jobs of government. But it’s worth pointing out that the New Orleans disaster hasn’t exactly been a commercial for why we should expect various levels of government to do a good job at these things. We need them done, and government probably needs to do them, but I think most people who are paying attention are much less comfortable about trusting that they will be done well today than they were a month ago.

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