The Cancer of Bureaucracy

I just got round to reading Bruce Charlton’s short piece The Cancer of Bureaucracy (h/t Isegoria)

It feels exaggerated and overstated. But I’d be a lot more confident in dismissing it if I could find one thing in it that was actually wrong.

I suppose there is one thing which the article misses, which is the private sector. In my experience, in private-sector organisations, while the bureaucracy Charlton describes does exist, it is subservient to an individual decision-maker. As such, it sometimes shrinks instead of growing, and the bureaucratic process is carried on in the shadow of “what Tom thinks” – where Tom is the person whose opinion matters, either because he is in charge, or his judgment is trusted by the person who is in charge.

But really, how important is the private sector in the direction that our society is taking today? While in raw numbers it’s still a bare majority of activity, so much of it is now under the indirect control of public-sector bureaucracy, that private decision-making is restricted to a much smaller, and diminishing, sphere.

Recall petitions

Voting systems used to fascinate me. I miss caring about which PR system was fairer more than I miss believing that the government worked for me.

That’s pretty much gone, now, but I just had a thought about the Conservatives’ plans for introducing recall of MPs.

I was wondering whether they had taken into account the small number of people necessary to elect an MP. Luton South is a 4-way contest, so 30-35% of the vote may well win it. If turnout is around 40%, then the winning total may be no more than 12% of the electorate. So finding any way of demonstrating that even a newly-elected MP has the confidence of his constituents won’t be easy.

It turns out that the Tory plan is that a petition of 10% of the electorate forces a by-election. I think I can safely predict that there won’t be a single MP in the house that 10% of the electorate wouldn’t want to get rid of, so the only obstacle to getting a by-election anywhere in the country is being organised enough to collect the signatures.

Any existing research on how easy it is to get signatures is probably worthless, because existing petitions are a complete waste of everybody’s time. This is the sort of thing where people are getting very much more efficient.

I wouldn’t be surprised if the recall plan led to every week being a by-election week. Should be a laugh.

The Liberal Democrats – an apology

Earlier in the week, I wrote of the Liberal Democrats’ election literature, that it says “that ‘in many areas’ only the Lib Dems can beat Labour. It tries to give the impression that I am in one of those areas, without being so dishonest as to actually say so.”

Possibly they were stung by my remarks into stepping up their dishonesty, because I got a leaflet yesterday claiming outright “It’s a two horse race here – the Conservatives can’t win in Luton South.”

If I wanted to know about horse races, I would, as the Labour and Conservative parties did, look at what the bookmakers were saying, and they do indeed have the “can’t win” Conservatives as odds-on favourites, and the Liberal Democrats as fourth-place outsiders, behind even Esther Rantzen.

I wouldn’t criticise the LDs for claiming they have a chance when impartial observers say they don’t, but when they claim that the odds-on favourites can’t win – why should any intelligent observer believe a word they say about anyone else?

There is a slight moral conundrum. Tactical voting, like other coordination games, can exhibit self-fulfilling prophesies. If the Lib Dems can lie well enough that they are bound to beat the Conservatives, it would become true, as tactical anti-Labour voters who believed them would vote for them. So if they do come third or fourth, will their offence be that they lied, or that they didn’t lie enough?

Home Education registration dropped

When I wrote my earlier post, the top reason in my mind why a Tory government would be slightly less unpleasant to me than a Labour one was that the Conservatives had promised to repeal the requirement in the new Education Act for home educators to be registered.

As I went through the “filling-in-the-links” stage of the post, I discovered that that clause had been knocked out by the Lords, and the bill had gone through without it.

I felt rather silly for having missed that. However, on checking I could not find one mainstream national news organisation had reported the change. Google News shows 19 stories on the subject, all of them either from specialists or not actually mentioning the home education part. It was also picked up by some local papers such as The St Albans and Harpenden Review

There is a conspiracy of silence on all sides about home education in the UK. Home educators prefer to keep a low profile, because of the risk of the government getting interested and putting in its big boot, particularly since Badman. The education establishment is equally quiet, because they don’t want to draw attention to the number of parents who value state education not merely at less than it costs the taxpayer to provide, but as so completely worthless that it is preferable to do the job themselves.

Letters from Gordon, Dave and Nick

The other interesting element of the election is the literature I’m being sent. The letter from Gordon Brown is about the sort of policies he would introduce if he were ever to become Prime Minister. It barely mentions the Labour party, and makes no suggestion that this Brown person has ever had power of any kind in the past.

The one from Cameron is about civil liberties – ID cards, ContactPoint, and so on. I’m suspicious enough to think that I am on some Conservative database as being concerned about those things, and my neigbours are getting letters from Cameron about clamping down on immigration or spending more on hospitals, depending on what the database says about them. (Actually, rising immigration is one existing phenomenon that this Gordon Brown chap claims in his letter to be opposed to).

The letter from Clegg is the most interesting. It has nothing to say about policy, but says only that “in many areas” only the Lib Dems can beat Labour. It tries to give the impression that I am in one of those areas, without being so dishonest as to actually say so. (Update: they have since rectified that)

Attempts to guide tactical voters are not restricted to party leaders though. The local Labour leaflet devotes one side to claiming that the Lib Dems can’t win in Luton South, and that therefore only Labour can keep the Tories out, and the local Conservative leaflet agrees fully. They are not identical, though – Labour cite William Hill as an authority, but the Conservatives go with Ladbrokes. (if the leaflets are correct that 14/1 is available against the Lib Dems, I think it’s probably worth a flutter).

Meanwhile local LD blogger Andy Strange is keen to claim that they’re really in with a chance, because Nick Clegg has visited twice

I’m a bit confused about the Lib Dems claiming on one hand that Labour and Conservative are so alike as to be one “Labservative” party, and on the other that I should not vote Conservative because only the Lib Dems can get Gordon Brown out. If I want the Conservatives, and the Dems’ first claim is correct, then I should prefer Labour, who are like the Conservatives, to the Lib Dems who are claiming to be different.

OK, I’m not really confused. I am perfectly aware that the Lib Dems will say anything at all that they think might get them votes. Not that the others have more moral scruples, but they have slightly more actual history to tie down voters’ idea of what they stand for, and can’t therefore claim as wide a range of different positions simultaneously as the LDs

Election 2010

Apparently there’s an election campaign on.

By a twist of fate, the first election since I gave up on democratic politics is the first election in which I have the opportunity to influence the result – I would estimate the probability of my vote changing the result as something like 1/100,000 which is non-negligible, and orders of magnitude higher than in previous elections.

My old strategy in elections was, since the main parties are so close as to make no important difference, to attempt to influence the future positions of the parties by voting for fringe candidates.

A related idea is that of Peter Hitchens, who advocates voting against the Conservative party in an attempt to destroy it, opening the possibility of the formation of a new party to represent the conservative majority of the population.

These are both logical ideas, but they depend on the assumption that it is possible to affect the medium-to-long-term political climate by voting, and further, that it is possible to do so in a predictable way. The distinction is important; a butterfly’s wings might affect the path of a hurricane, but it’s not possible to aim a hurricane at a particular target by strategically releasing butterflies.

I do not accept the assumption. The Conservative Party does not represent the conservative tendency of the population, it is the conservative tendency of the political class. I could affect the political landscape (in a tiny but non-negligible way) by joining the political class, but not by voting. I’m not willing to join the political class, as I have better things to do with my life.

My conclusion is that I now see myself as a subject of the political class, rather than as a citizen of a democracy. That’s calming – when I thought the government was “my” government, I was infuriated by how bad it was, but as a subject, I look at the tidbits of protection and freedom that my ruler gives me, and my position isn’t so bad really, compared with that of most people who have ever lived.

And next month, as a free bonus, like a free entry in a prize draw, I get a tiny but non-negligible chance to have a small effect on the government itself. Well, why shouldn’t I take it? If I thought I was more than a subject, then the trivial choice offered to me by David Cameron would be such an insult that I would spurn it as a matter of principle. Nobody who sucks up to the environmentalist lobby and who accepts that government should control more than a third of the economy can possibly represent me. But as a free gift to a subject – well, no more attacks on Home Education, scrapping ID cards, a faint possibility of lower taxes – I guess I’ll take box “C”, since you’re offering.

I suspect that normal, sane people have always looked at elections this way – that would explain much of the mental gap between idealists such as I used to be and the rest of the population. It does make me wonder what would happen if normal people thought like we do – possibly they would demand a democracy and the whole country would go down the tubes.

That does leave me the choice of what to do about my membership of the Libertarian Party. For me, the party only ever had one useful point from the very beginning – getting Chris Mounsey on television. Now that that’s actually starting to happen, I think I should continue to give support, even if it’s not, by all accounts, going too well so far.

Private Morality and Professionalism

Regular readers may have noticed that this blog went quiet for much of the early part of the year.

That was due in large part to the trouble I had trying to get to grips with a story which I considered of great importance. I just wasn’t able to put the issue into the right order to do it justice.

At length, the story ceased to be topical, I admitted to myself that I had missed my chance, and got on with writing about other things.

However, the recent Chris Grayling storm has brought some of the same issues into focus, and gives me context to return to my confused drafts of February.

The vital story I was unable to discuss topically was the decision of Wayne Bridge, the England left back, not to make himself available for selection for the 2010 World Cup.

To recap the story for those with short memories, Bridge was living with and had a son with a young lady called Vanessa or Victoria or something. At some later point the couple were no longer a couple, but coupling was taking place between Vanessa and the England captain, John Terry.

Bridge appears to have taken this badly. He refused to play for England, a decision made much more significant by a long-term injury to serial adulterer Ashley Cole, leaving Bridge an important part of the England defence alongside John Terry.

The affair reached a climax at a match between Terry’s Chelsea and Wayne Bridge’s club Manchester City, where Bridge pointedly refused to shake hands with the opposing captain, an event which had been the supject of considerable action at the bookmakers’. Once the wagers had been settled, the story began to fade away.

What interested me was the widespread idea that there was something wrong in Wayne Bridge subordinating his professional role as a footballer to his other roles as a man and a lover. There seems to have been a clear expectation that Bridge had a duty to stand alongside John Terry on the pitches of South Africa, whatever their private relationship.

I consider such an idea extremely destructive to society. Many of us spend much of our lives involved with our work. If it is accepted that our private judgement of morality has no place there, whether in the stadiums of the Premier League or the offices of the city, then morality has been eliminated from about half of our society.

Is such personal moral judgement really so important? Yes it is, and the case of the suitors of Miss Vanessa demonstrates why. Apart from the question of professionalism, many have criticised Wayne Bridge on the grounds that she had already left him before carring on with John Terry. That is a significant point, but for me to assess it fairly I would need detailed knowledge of the relationships between the three people. That would require that there be extensive coverage of the events (which, as it happens, there was), and also that that coverage be reliable and truthful (which strikes me as so unlikely that I haven’t actually bothered to ascertain the details of the story as they have been presented, though I care enough about it to write all this screed). The reality is that even in a story like this, played out (thanks to Justice Tugendhat) on the front pages, the only people in a position to make meaningful moral judgements are the participants themselves and those very close to them. The person on the spot has to make their own judgement. If they are constrained to subordinate their judgement to that of the Football Association or the News of the World, then morality is left with a busted metatarsal.

OK, so why am I bringing it all back up, now that the world has happily forgotten the most recent melodrama of footballers and their molls? It is because one of the causes of the decline of private morality has now hit the headlines. This is the story of the guest house which turned away a respectable middle-aged gay couple. Like Wayne Bridge, the proprietors of the guest house made a moral judgement that is at variance with that of most of the population. In this instance the facts are not in question, only the moral rules applied. But if we take away the right of a guest-house owner to apply their own moral rules, it does not follow that they will instead apply ours. They will, like the rest of our society, retreat into jobsworthism and deem all behaviour not actually illegal to be none of their business. (I would go further – even illegal behaviour will be tolerated unless the police can effectively prevent it, since they are the professionals and as private people it is “none of our business”)
I would like to see it accepted that making moral judgements is always our business, whether we are full-backs, B&B proprietors, or bankers. We won’t all be applying the same moral rules, but that can’t be helped. The only choice is between personal morality or no morality.

I do accept that while the discrimination at the B&B might seem harmless enough in Cookham, it would be a very different matter if gays faced “not wanted” signs at every turn.

So to see the other side, take the case of Constance McMillen, who wanted to dress in a tuxedo and take her girlfriend to a school dance. In Fulton, Mississippi. The school cancelled the prom rather than let her attend, and when a private alternative was arranged, she was deceived into going to the wrong venue.

While I would say that the immediate problem is that she wanted to socialise with people who didn’t want to socialise with her, and that’s a game she can never win, I have to admit that, dances aside, life in Fulton doesn’t look very attractive for Ms McMillen. How would she get by without protection from anti-discrimination law?

I fear she might have to leave. I don’t say that lightly; I know it’s an imposition. But after all, I’m not even talking about the hypothetical case of there not being anti-discrimination law, I’m talking about the actual case, given the US law that prevented the school holding the event without her in the first place. Such laws do not effectively protect anyone, unless they want to spend their lives fighting their neighbours on behalf of the central state. There must obviously be somewhere she can go – for the sort of laws we are talking about even to be possible, the wider population must generally support the tolerance the law mandates.

The less obvious point is that, while the existence of anti-discrimination law doesn’t much help Constance McMillen, the absence of such law wouldn’t much help Suzanne Wilkinson. If Chris Grayling were to repeal the law he voted for, thereby allowing Wilkinson to advertise “No Gays” at her B&B, I strongly suspect that none of the brochures or listings she advertises in would take her money. If she wanted to take a political stand, she could, but if she wanted to carry on a quiet business in accordance with her preferences, a lack of cooperation, and the attrition of local hostility, would mean she would probably not be able to.

I sympathise with her in just the same way as I sympathise with McMillen. There isn’t, to me, one side of this which is “pro-freedom” while the other is “anti-freedom”; rather, the cases really are symmetrical – both women want to make their own choices in an arena that is in the wide grey area between the private and the public, and they both are prevented, as a result of being culturally out of step with their communities. One community has the law behind it, and the other against it, but the practical power of the law is very limited, in both cases, compared to the day-to-day weight of the community’s standards. (John Stuart Mill made quite a point of the fact that community attitudes could be a lot more restricting than actual law).

If the presence or absence of discrimination law does not make much practical difference, either to Suzanne Wilkinson or to Constance McMillen, then what is it for
? Like so many laws, it is primarily meant to send a message, to change attitudes. In the words of the song that passed for a morning hymn when I was in primary school,

And now a child
Can understand
This is the law
Of all the land
(All the land!)

A child can understand that Suzanne’s preference is not respectable, while Constance’s is, because acting on the one is illegal, and on the other legally protected, in all the land, even Mississippi.

My knee-jerk libertarian response is that that is not a legitimate reason for passing a law. But that is dogma and would need some kind of supporting argument.

If we accept that the law is there to shape attitudes rather than to simply prevent the specific things it prohibits, that puts new moral rules on a different footing from old moral rules. Nobody decided that it is now perfectly OK for a man to sleep with his friends’ girlfriends, the way that we have generally decided that it is now perfectly OK for a man to sleep with another man. However, in order to chase those who are deemed to be behind the times, the acceptability of homosexuality, and the unacceptability of discriminating against homosexuals, have been reinforced with anti-discrimination laws. The unacceptability of taking over your friends’ women bears no such official imprimatur, and so, without our really deciding that it’s unimportant, it loses standing from the contrast.

The law is meant to send the message that integrating homosexuals into mainstream activities is good, and excluding them is bad. I don’t have any objection to that message. But is that the message that is really sinking in to our consciences? Or is the real message, instead, that our private moral judgements are to be kept to ourselves, and not acted on in public? Is the message, in fact, that Wayne Bridge has no legitimate grievance against John Terry, who, unlike Suzanne Wilkinson, has done nothing illegal, and that he should therefore shake Terry’s hand and play for England?

And is the message that Margaret Moran didn’t break any rules when she claimed for her house in Southampton? Is the message that I shouldn’t give a second thought to the role I played in the crash of 2008, since I was a professional and I followed the rules? Broken families and broken banks are just things that happen sometimes – maybe the rules need to be changed. If people followed the rules, then nothing else can be done.

That’s morality of a sort, and it works after a fashion, but I’m not convinced it’s better than what went before.

Shirky on Complexity

Clay Shirky has written another essay about the future of media. It’s main point is that big established businesses will not adapt to the new media marketplace because it’s actually impossible for them to reshape their large corporate structures to meet the new need. That’s a good argument, but a familiar one – it’s the essence of “disruptive innovation”, and it’s something Tim B Lee has been saying for a while.

What’s new to me, though, is the analogy he introduces the idea with. He cites Joseph Tainter as arguing that a similar process applies to societies – they become more productive by being more complex, but when they become overcomplex, it’s not possible for them to simplify instead, and they must eventually collapse.

“Tainter’s thesis is that when society’s elite members add one layer of bureaucracy or demand one tribute too many, they end up extracting all the value from their environment it is possible to extract and then some”

That’s horribly persuasive. It needn’t even be, as Shirky puts it, that the elites add more complexity beyond the point where it adds value. If circumstances change so that the previously optimal level of complexity is now excessive, the result is the same.

If there’s one reason why libertarians tend to be in software, it’s that software is more complex than other things humans design (since it doesn’t have to be actually built), and that programmers are therefore more aware that complexity is a cost. The biggest cost of adding a feature to a piece of software is not the time you spend making it, it’s the fact that your software is now more complex, and everything else you do with it in future is made more difficult by that complexity. Similarly, the biggest cost of adding a government program is not what you immediately spend on hiring people to do it, it is that you have made government bigger, in a way that is almost impossible to reverse when changes in the world or changes in what you want to do demand it.

Of course, saying that government cannot be simplified at the margin is just another way of saying that libertarian politics cannot be successful. The only people with any approach that can succeed in the face of Tainter’s theory are these guys.