Thursday, February 16, 2012

Right or Privilege (How to fix bureaucracy)

This is a post that started under the heading, “We have met the enemy and he is us”. A good friend once told me, good can be the enemy of the best. This describes bureaucracy well. Bureaucracy is insidious. The initial purpose of creating an institution is to solve a social problem. The group affected by this problem is growing and a systemic solution is called for. With the creation of this system every thing can start off well. That is the problem. Competent managers can work organizations so efficiently that they need fewer resources. As resources grow they expand aggressively to meet the demand of the problem. However, problems are meant to be solved. The organization adapts and meets the need sometimes very fast, and sometimes more slowly. The end result is the same. The organization has become disconnected from its function. It naturally searches out other reasons, and quickly arrives at protecting the organization itself. An ill conceived problem like sickness or ignorance is never totally eradicated. When a problem grows the feeling of entitlement can increase. The irony of bureaucracy is that systems are set up to organize a solution, but they can end up perpetuating it.

The biggest difference between right and privilege is the motivation behind it. A right gives us a sense of entitlement, and therefore a lack of a need to please. A privilege is earned and can be taken away at any point. The fear of loss is at the root of privilege. Fear can be a very motivating, and emotion is an essential part of communication. When people feel that they deserve something they do not attempt to please. The process of communication becomes lazy, and people turn to anger instead of pleasure. Anger can cause communication breakdown. To bureaucrats the sustainability of the system is more important than anything else. They will use the negative emotion of entitlement to sustain their system. When the service they provide is a right, then they are more concerned with pleasing their employees. Privilege is different. Privilege motivates a bureaucrat to increase efficiency for the consumers of their service. These emotional forces can do more than effect a bureaucrat’s organization. They can undermine the very reason these institutions were created. 

Of course when problems become embedded in our society we turn these organizations into institutions. The Army protecting our defense, and the police, protecting our safety are examples of this. These institutions will never be replaced because the problems are so overwhelming. In the case of the army, we will never lose our fear of strangers. When we consider the police we will always recognize people like to be selfish and not share with others. Roadways are important because the weather is ever changing, and it is monstrous problem to keep up with. When we simplify these problems, and put them on the same level as problems with a beginning and an end, then we plant the seeds of bureaucracy.

The fix for bureaucracy comes down to the basic forces driving the process. The forces seem to be caught up in the answer to this question. Is the systemic solution to a social problem a right or a privilege?  If we say it is a right this creates a strong breeding ground for bureaucracy. If we say it is a privilege, then society can be accused of being cold or harsh. I think there are very few things that we can consider a right. We have a right to life. Having a right to life needs to be balanced with the inevitability of death, since we are all destined to die. Some would say that health care is included in this right. If the right to life is also balanced with the inevitability of death, then choices must be peppered into to the process of determining quality of life. Hospice is an example of this. Comfort over cure can be an excellent emotional choice over fighting a fight that can not be won. Who is determining this choice is at the heart of the health care argument. My opinion is that it should be determined by those who are closest to the problem.

The Constitution also tells us we have a right to liberty. Is liberty a right? Libertarians would agree wholeheartedly. The only problem with this is that it must be balanced against the Declaration of Independence. In this document equality not liberty is the featured value. When I last visited the National Archives in Washington, DC I noticed that both documents were equally revered in the vault where they were stored. The movie, National Treasure, and its popularity would validate the values of The Declaration in our national experience. Both political parties have embraced these values. Mitt Romney likes to call himself a “Log Cabin Republican”. A log cabin republican is a conservative who embraces the egalitarian values of Abraham Lincoln. Abraham Lincoln as the founder of the modern Republican Party. This is a value embraced by the both parties. Liberty must be balanced with equality to produce the value that Americans call freedom. Freedom is a privilege that is earned by balancing these values in a way that enhances domestic tranquility.

How do we stop this cycle from repeating? How do we reverse the process? Some have suggested injecting competition into the organization. Some have suggested term limits. Term limits can jolt us with fear, but upsetting the apple cart will also result in wasted apples. Competition can motivate us though an opportunity to gain, but when the competition is targeted incorrectly, then the target can be easily missed. An example of this is high stakes testing producing poorly educated students. The profit motive or the opportunity to gain is a target that is hard to hit in education. With every right there comes privilege. Rights must be balanced with privilege to give meaning to institutions. Institutions must become flexible and adaptable to change. When new technology is developed organizations must change to accommodate greater efficiency. The rights associated with a systemic solution must never lose a sense of privilege that a need is being met.

It does not matter if an institution is set up by the Republican or The Democratic Party. In either case bureaucracy is a problem that undermines the very purpose of government. The common good must be protected by balancing right and privilege, just as our freedoms are protected by balancing liberty with equality.