The Hannibal Blog continues its multi-post and cumulative ‘freedom lover’s critique of America.” In recent posts, I reflected on Hong Kong, and how very differently–read: freer–I felt when I lived there. Now I want to start exploring what it is that makes me feel unfree in America.
Let me define the direction of my posts (in the comments you can go wherever you please). I won’t be talking about America’s role in the world at large. I won’t be talking about whether or not the world owes America for saving it from totalitarianism in the past (it does). I’ll be discussing only what it feels like to be inside of America today, after having known life in other developed and comparable countries. More specifically, I will concentrate on what it feels like to interact with the organs of official America. (That individual Americans will comfort one another and make life livable is obvious, but no more so than in any other country.)
In essence, this becomes a discussion of American bureaucracy.
God knows other countries have a lot of it, and often more of it, than America. But America has a peculiar brand of it. It has many and overlapping bureaucracies. These share data but do so awkwardly and antagonistically. Democracy does not help but often hurts, because electoral politics (people campaigning in poetry, then governing in prose) add to these bureaucracies. America’s legal tradition, often praised, hurts too, because it is adversarial (as opposed to inquisitorial). It is based on the clash of two parties, each trying to win, with the hope that truth and justice are on the side of the winner. This pervades all of official life in America: You prepare for clashes, you arm for war, then climb down when possible. (Hong Kong also has an adversarial system, but without the rest of America’s bureaucracy.)
Let’s make this concrete. Watch Barry Schwartz talk about our loss of what he calls “wisdom”. It meanders a bit and will strike you as only tangentially relevant. But pay attention to some of the anecdotes. They are peculiarly American. In one, a father takes his son to a ballgame, buys him some lemonade, doesn’t realize that it is a brand that contains some alcohol, is observed by a guard who (yes, preparing for war, using the bureaucracies) calls an ambulance and the cops. The son ends up in the emergency room (procedures and rules are being followed, you understand) and is declared safe. One bureaucracy (something with “welfare” in the name) sends the child to a foster home for three days. A judge (in another bureaucracy, the court system) sends the son home, but now orders the dad to move into a motel. The ordeal goes on for two more weeks. All bureaucrats involved eventually say “we have to follow the rules”.
America is all about rules. It is the land of ever more disclosure statements, ethics training seminars, pieces of paper (often with a notice at the bottom about a “Paperwork Reduction Act”!).
Schwartz says these procedures and frameworks of officialdom are meant to “spare us from thinking”, to relieve us of spontaneous and moral judgment. They “assure mediocrity”, he says. To me, they contribute to making me feel less free.