In which invective is betrayed by ignorance
May 18, 1979
I argued with myself about whether to enshrine this piece in this archive because it expressed views that today embarrass me for their smugness and meanness. It’s not all tosh; there are some good bits. But I had a lot to learn.
I was not alone. The people of Illinois, as I point out again and again in this archive, are steadfast in their adherence for the principle that a free people should never be expected to actually pay for the services they demand from state government. State lawmakers, under pressure to keep taxes low, are equally steadfast about not paying for today what might be paid for tomorrow at twice the cost.
The result, in the forty years after this piece was written, was the gradual hollowing out of the State of Illinois workforce. There was still plenty of work to do, but fewer people to do it. It was harder and harder to do a job well, and morale dropped. Senior staff got fed up and left, taking their expertise and experience with them. The results made clear even to Illinoisans that, if anyone deserves to be called parasites, it is the voting public, not public employees.
V.S. Pritchett. reviewing a new study of the Russian mind, reminds us that the revolution, instead of making the State wither away, has made it a more intrusive force in the daily lives of Soviet citizens. The results are predictable. “The bureaucrat is not admired” in Russia, says Pritchett, “and may be jeered at as he carries his hated briefcase in the street."
There are no jeers in the streets of Springfield yet, though one reads them from time to time in the letters columns. As the state capital, Springfield employs an estimated 25,000 government workers, some 18,000 of whom work for either the state or federal governments. Springfield thus symbolizes Bureaucracy to many lllinoisans, the way Paris is sometimes thought to symbolize Love.
It is widely assumed that the top dogs in this growing heap are underworked and overpaid. The fact is, however, that most bureaucrats are probably overworked and overpaid. (The differences between a bureaucrat and an ordinary state employee are subtle, and resemble South African racial definitions in both their complexity and their effects. The principal difference seems to be that bureaucrats get their names printed on their note pads.) Still, it's hard for the person in the street to recall the fringe benefits awarded civil servants—free parking spaces, phones with buttons on them that can be used to call Mom or order football tickets long-distance at no cost, free Xeroxing of sons' term papers or daughters' Little League rosters, two-hour-long hour lunch breaks— without muttering, "There but for the grace of Alan Dixon go I."
Bureaucrat-bashing has become fashionable, in part because the public misunderstands what it is a bureaucrat does. It is a maxim of the paper-shuffler that one never solves a problem (that would render one useless come budget time), one studies it or reviews it, preferably making it more complicated in the process, so that next time there will be even more to study or review. What most people fail to realize is that, as the bureaucracies' resources of manpower, money and information become more sophisticated, it is getting harder and harder to avoid solving problems.
Failing to solve problems used to be easy back when the cogs in the state machine were patronage hacks for whom a trip to Springfield was looked upon as paid rest leave. It takes real ingenuity today, though, and standards are much higher as a result. The ranks of the bureaucracy are manned by unachievers who are brighter and better educated than ever before. What a British observer noted about that country's marvelously elaborate bureaucracy can be said about Illinois's as well: "A high proportion of our ablest people are in futile, or at least unproductive and inessential occupations."
This is progress, but progress has its price. Even when bureaucrats do nothing, they tend to do it at increasing costs—one measure of the higher standards in the civil service is that it wastes money more efficiently than ever before. Besides, top people must be paid top salaries. Wage packages must be generous to lure people to Springfield; the state pays its top people well for the same reason that the Navy feeds steaks to submariners while surface sailors get meatloaf, as a recruitment incentive for onerous duty.
Springfield, however, is a minor league city when it comes to bureaucracy as well as baseball. The federal bureaucracy in Washington, of course, is the New York Yankees of Paper-Shuffling. But even Washington must bow to Great Britain, whose bureaucrats have scaled heights to which Senator Proxmire's Golden Fleecers can only dream. It is a measure of how remote they have grown from the daily life of the average Briton—and a remarkable coda to last winter's public servants' strikes—that when some classes of social service workers walked out, no one noticed.
As Great Britain has proved, bureaucracy has been developed into a socialist art form; in fact, bureaucracies are to socialism what the interstate highway system is to American capitalism—the system's pride and the ultimate expression of ideology. This is plainly evident in the Soviet Union, where filling out forms and standing in line is a way of life. Russians must get bureaucrats' approval to marry, to travel, to take an apartment. It is a system which our local paper-pushers, who are limited to licensing hairdressers or misrouting unemployment checks, must regard with envy.
Two years ago, editorialists decried a General Assembly proposal to establish an eighteen-member State Productivity Council as wasteful and duplicative. The job of monitoring and improving efficiency in state agencies, they pointed out, was already invested in the personnel department, the Economic and Fiscal Commission, and the Auditor General. Kid's stuff. In Sienyang, in the People's Republic of China, there is a regular agriculture bureau, a special cotton office, a pig-raising department, a poultry office, a vegetable office, a "Learn from Tachai" office (named for what used to be the model farm unit), and an office for rural policy. That is not an isolated example. A small rural county is said to have printed over one million pieces of paper in 1978, the local party chief had to study an average of sixteen daily reports from superiors, and 360 local officials spent more than a third of their time traveling to and from the county seat for meetings.
Any bureaucrat in Springfield can point to his own appointment book and make much the same claims. But rather than trying to reduce this clutter, we taxpayers ought to encourage more of it. Why? Because the only was we can guarantee our lives and fortunes against the depredations of the bureaucrats is to give them free hand to make things so horribly complicated that they end up spending all their time dealing with each other and leaving us alone.
Those readers who dismiss this as a too-distant hope should read the letter Gov. Thompson sent President Carter last March. Speaking of joint state-federal programs to regulate coal mining, Thompson complained, "Too often state governments must spend more time and resources dealing with the federal government than with the problem that needs to be solved."
I suggest that readers write both Thompson and Carter and urge them to keep up the good work. ●