John Singleton with Bob Howard, Rip Van Australia (Stanmore: Cassell Australia, 1977), pp. 23-27, under the heading “The Bureaucracy”.
The Lord’s Prayer has 56 words. Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address has 266. The Ten Commandments have 297. The famous U.S. Declaration of Independence has 300. But a recent Price Control order in the United States concerning cabbages contained 26,911 words.
Imagine you are living on a desert island with three other people. For all of you to survive there are certain things you have to do, certain needs you have to satisfy. You need food, shelter and, perhaps, clothing. You need to arrange for some services — water, sanitation and rubbish disposal, for example. All the usual things.
Assuming you are all fit and healthy, you would split the work up between you, making use of any special talent or skills that each of you might have. There would be hunting, fishing, farming, foraging, building and cleaning to be done. You would trade between yourselves. But, no matter which bit each did, all of you would in some way contribute directly through your own efforts, to your own physical survival and material wellbeing.
Imagine now that a fifth person is introduced into your group. This person does not become involved in any of the work you have been doing. His function is different. He is there to promote “the public welfare” — he is your first public “servant”. And a busy, ambitious and conscientious fellow he is. He inspects your sanitary, living and garbage disposal arrangements, and if they are satisfactory, gives you a certificate to prove it. He inspects your structures. He organises your working conditions and specifies hours. He lays down rules for hunting, fishing and farming. He sets aside various areas of the island “for the future” and forbids you to use them. He regulates your trading activities. He stipulates that in the future if you want to embark on any new activity — build a boat, construct new homes, start new farming or manufacturing enterprises, knock down trees and clear land, or even simply change or improve those things you already have — you have to first see him, tell him what you want to do, and convince him that he should give you a permit to go ahead and do it. These are some of the things that this new person introduces into your life to make things better for you.
Of course, because he’s so busy managing all this, he doesn’t have time to build his own house, or provide his own food and clothing, so for his services he charges you fees. Henceforth, one fifth of what you produce, or one fifth of your time, you must give over to providing for his needs. This allows him to continue to provide his services. He is a bureaucrat, and this crude situation is in too many way analogous to what is happening in Australia today.
One person in five in our workforce (approaching one in four) works for the State. By and large, their functions are not productive, but regulatory. Where they do attempt to be productive, the results are nothing to get enthusiastic about — the Post Office, Telecom, the Public Transport Commission, and so on. The bureaucracy is a gigantic Wettex soaking up human energy, ideas, wealth, initiative, creativity and time.
Think of the waste that occurs every day because of it. Take time alone — time spent making applications, supplying statistics, filling out forms, gaining permissions, qualifying for licenses, satisfying conditions, standards and whims, or, simply waiting — waiting in queues, waiting on form processing, permission granting, law changes, inter-departmental hassles, or the mail.
If only the first public servant to arrive on the island had been fed to the sharks, how much better off we all would be.
As Herbert Spencer said (last century), when State power is applied to social purposes, its action is invariably “slow, stupid, extravagant, unadaptive, corrupt and obstructive.” It shows a positive genius for making any human activity as complicated and as difficult as possible.
If we go back to our original desert island example again, there are two further very important points to be made:
The fifth person, the bureaucrat, does not depend directly on the results of his work for his survival. Ultimately, all five people depend on the skills and success of the first four in their work of hunting, fishing, farming or foraging. Survival imposes very strict limitations on the activities of these four people. They have to produce at least enough to cover their needs, and if they are to grow and progress, a little extra to cover that growth — in other words, they need to make a profit. If they have a crop failure, or a bad hunting or fishing trip, they feel the results directly. The bureaucrat, however, as far as his own work is concerned, is removed from that. His “work” only influences his income indirectly. Because he lives off the work of the others, he could go and lie in the sun all day and do very nicely. Maybe/if/perhaps (once every ten years) his work could resolve a conflict that has arisen between the four, and thus allow them to work more efficiently, which would in turn improve his own welfare. The rest of the time his “work” would only complicate and retard the activity of the others, thus having a detrimental effect on the welfare of them all.
But — and this is the main point — because his material welfare is only indirectly affected by the results of his work, he does not have the same incentive or profit motive that the others have. He does have the power to sap the incentive from everyone else, and this gets worse as the society becomes more complex.
In a modern business, decisions are made ultimately in the light of business survival. Anything business does, it does after doing some sums to assure itself that it is in fact going to be profitable: for example, hiring new staff, extending offices, purchasing plant. All these have to be justified on the grounds of profit (and although this mainly boils down to dollars and cents, it doesn’t always do so. Longterm survival must also take into account public opinion and industrial relations — two things businessmen ignored in the past, for which they are now paying the penalty).
Modern bureaucracies, on the other hand, trade in a different currency. They trade in privilege, power, influence, status, votes, and, a distant last in most cases, public service. This is so, and can only be so, because they do not directly depend on the results of their labour for their survival. Bureaucracies are, in a sense, a luxury that our society affords (with increasing difficulty). They are, in the true sense of the word, parasites. They hinder and feed off the productive efforts of others.
Because of the impositions imposed on them by the activity of the fifth person, the attention of the original four on the island is increasingly drawn to him. He comes to play a more important part in their daily activity as regulatory activity increases.
After a while, one of the four (at least) will suddenly discover something. He will see opportunity: he will become political. It will occur to him that if he gets on the right side of the public servant, he will be able to get the public servant to organise his regulations so as to secure advantages for them both at the expense of the other three. As an example, he may get the public servant to decree that henceforth only he should be allowed to fish (he could perhaps justify it by saying it was to prevent the possibility of dog-eat-dog destructive competition). Having by this means secured a coercive monopoly on fishing, he could then start to demand inequitable terms of trade with the other three people. Should there be a crop failure, or a bad hunting season, he would be in a position to really exploit his situation.
As a reaction and in self-defence, the other three people would turn their attention to the public servant and seek similar privileges in their own areas of speciality, and also seek ways and means of breaking down the fishing monopoly — perhaps by offering the public servant a better deal. Perhaps even a bribe. It has been known to happen.
The situation quickly evolves into one where the public servant functions as a privilege broker. Thus power, influence, status (and later, votes) come into being as his currency, to purchase privilege, and with “public service” usually serving as little more than the shallow rationalisation to justify his manoeuvres.
There are two way to gain wealth. One is the economic means; that is, to work for, and produce wealth. The other is called the political means; that is to peddle favours so as to have wealth expropriated and given to you. Politics then becomes the struggle for control of this political means, with the State existing as the organisation of the political means. Like organised crime. Only legal.
It should be easy to generalise from the simple island example to our present economy. The State, with its bureaucracy, serves more than ever as a broker in privilege, with all the special interests: the big companies, the mining lobby, the many welfare lobbies, the secondary industry lobbies, the primary industry lobbies, the teachers and students, women’s lobbies, Aborigines’ lobbies, anti-porn lobbies, church lobbies, etc., etc. — vigorously jostling one another for a position at the public trough.
Politicians and public servants have for many years fed on this activity, with the result that over one and a quarter million people are now employed to keep the seats warm and shuffle all the paper backwards and forwards. It’s a vicious and evil process, dishonest and fraudulent in the extreme, and totally cynical in its use of high sounding rhetoric to justify what is little more than common thuggery. Next time you write to someone in the bureaucracy, just to let him know which side you are on, do two things:
First, don’t put a stamp on your letter — let them pay it, particularly if it’s your tax return.
Second, sign your letter:
You remain, sir,
My Humble Servant
Or better still, just refuse to write at all.
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