Bureaucracy and alienation in American life


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.

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17 thoughts on “Bureaucracy and alienation in American life

  1. Hi Andreas,

    Putting my toe into the fascinating (and mostly over my head) discussions you’ve created on this blog.

    I’ve always thought that in fact, its the very freedom that America strives for that has led to the proliferation of rules and bureaucracy we find here. Our belief in absolute inalienable rights to just about everything has backfired into an overload of “protections”, i.e., rules. Many rules are designed to protect person X from something that person Y could otherwise do that would infringe upon those rights. It ends up in so many rules that in the end, our freedom is in fact less.


  2. The upside of losing freedom is being relieved of personal responsibility. This is a great relief. An unfortunate consequence is that when someone screws up, everyone is punished.

    One of the big ironies of being in the U.S. military (I can attest), is that of giving up personal freedom. People who love freedom most are those willing to make the ultimate sacrifice, right? The government would have us believe that we all fight the ‘war on terror’ (Obama has a new euphemism). Thus, in order to be good soldiers in that war, we have to sacrifice freedom (and go into debt).

    Just one more thought, as a tear comes to my eye. (cue the music, fade in God Bless America). You can tax me twice. You can make me answer the telephone at dinnertime. You make me wear a helmet in my car. But when the day comes when I’m not allowed to carry a dog in my purse, is the day the terrorists have won.

  3. Reading what you’ve written about freedom-sapping bureaucracies and regulations, and listening to Barry Schwartz talk about absurdities in the workplace, I tried to come up with a word which is centre to all this; and I think that word is Trust. Other words are Courtesy and Consideration.

    If our word is always our bond (as it was with the Englishman of yore) and if we behave to others always with courtesy and consideration (treat others always as we would have them treat us) we don’t need laws, or regulations, or policemen, or jails, or written contracts, or lawyers, or workplace incentives, or lots of other like things I can’t now think of.

    Ergo, to the extent that the peoples of a society behave like boors, who think only of themselves, who lie, cheat, steal, are violent, and who kill, and do lots of other like things I can’t now think of, that society has to be ruled rigidly by means of the laws, regulations, bureaucracies and their like, of which you’ve eloquently complained in your postings about freedom.

    It seems to me as simple as that.

  4. I think Chrissy is right that our rules were initially meant to make us more free. This goes back to Hobbes: Anarchy is the worst state, where man preys upon man, so we need rules, and enforcers, to keep us free (ie, free from one another). But we lost the plot. Now we have rules about rules, rules for their own sake, rules that nobody understands anymore.

    Above all, rules in a context, as Christopher says, without any trust. So a presumption of malfeasance, if not guilt.

    Mr Crotchety, I may have to INSIST that you publish your poetry:
    “You can tax me twice. You can make me answer the telephone at dinnertime. You make me wear a helmet in my car. But when the day comes when I’m not allowed to carry a dog in my purse, is the day the terrorists have won”
    This is great writing! 😉

    One more thing: Did something change in my layout? You guys do realize that you can put your own blogs in the URL field when leaving comments. Chrissy, for instance, is here.

  5. Interesting discussion.

    I can think of an argument where more bureaucracy might actually make you feel more free. When thinking about handgun ownership, to own one is much easier in the United States, than say New Zealand. So in New Zealand I’m less free right because I can’t own a handgun? But perhaps I’m more free, because I’m not as afraid that I’ll be a victim of violent crime and so go about my business with less worry?

    Do I have an argument here? or am I just kidding myself 🙂

  6. Adding a late (and slightly deflected) footnote on freedom(s) . As seen from an ancient perspective and applied to modern US concerns by someone whose day job is studying these matters very carefully, being a member of the Supreme Court:

    Justice Breyer’s recent book “Active Liberty” explains how he sees freedom in the context of the US Constitution. He makes a distinction between the “liberty of the ancients” and the “liberty of the moderns”. Para-phrasing, modern liberty is typically the freedom from government, whereas ancient liberty was freedom to participate in government and a responsibility (or duty) to engage in “an active and constant participation in collective power”. He notes that the founding fathers used similar language [Adams – all citizens “have a positive passion for the public good”].

    The ancients Greeks required the presence of at least 6,000 (“free”) men every 9 days – at a people’s assembly. Those not attending were rounded up by authorities using a red-painted rope that left them “marked men” (the origin of that expression). “Idios” was Greek for “of one’s own” or “private” and is the root of “idiot” – which originally meant someone only interested in his own private affairs – not his duty to public affairs.

    By focusing too much on “modern liberties” – we risk becoming idiots, in the ancient sense.

  7. Richard and Jag, you have raised this discussion up a notch!

    Richard: You definitely have an argument there.

    There is a way to have a gun-free society without a bureaucracy, though: Simply make guns illegal. Charlton Heston would now huff and puff and tell us that you can ONLY be free if you bear arms (I always wonder whether that should include nukes, which are arms too). And I’d gladly join you in New Zealand.

    Your comment, of course, is more thoughtful than that. You’re really asking: What about bureaucracy intended to raise the costs of some behavior that we would like to limit? Drivers’ licences => less bad driving; gun licences => fewer armed loonies. I could put up with that. As long as I understood why something is being made artificially hard.

    Jag: I have actually been planning a post on the Athenian Jury system. Also, I want to note for the record that you have called me an idiot. Furthermore, after pondering this matter for a whole minute now, I have decided to be proud of being an idiot!

    It may occasionally seem otherwise, but I am “a modern”, not “an ancient”. So I’d like to be free from government. I’d like to be private, ie idios. I don’t want to hang around the agora all day, voting on whether to make war against Sparta. They only way the Athenians were able to do that was by having slaves and stay-at-home wives. I have neither. Also, I stipulate that their non-idiocy in the ancient sense made them extra-idiotic in the modern sense. Recall the accounts of how they decided to invade Syracuse! (And compare that episode with our own democracy’s invasion of Iraq).

  8. Christopher, I’ve been thinking about your comment all day. I would like to add the word respect, too. I had written something that I never posted about feeling more free (ironically) in the UK because it is more civilized (yobs excepted) than the wild west. Then I jump to my present dilemma about ‘the line.’ That is, the line between trying to get what I want in a civilized manner verses being a total bitch. Unfortunately, being a bitch works better than being respectful (at least in the near term). I hate (hate) crossing that line, but, you know. You want a friend, get a dog.

    I think Mr. NZ has an interesting angle on the semantics of being free vs. having freedom. For example, Should we ask for freedom from being shot with a handgun? Whether handguns exist or not should be irrelevant to that discussion. If we have a very expensive health care system should we be free to live in health up until the moment of death? Could we talk about freedom from having cancer? Is that the same as living in a manner that changes the odds of being cancer free? This does not necessarily have anything to do with the government. This is just something that happens with varying amounts of probability that depend on the choices of the individual.

    Someone said to me once, ‘you’re lucky if you have problems that money can solve.’ This sounds very presumptuous, but it’s brilliant. There are certain things that money can’t change (neither expand nor devalue). In the USA, freedom is fungible.

  9. Andreas & Mr. Crotchety – wonderful points and made with good play on words.

    Mr. Crotchety – the semantics are crucial to these sorts of debates. We throw around big word/ideas like freedom, happiness, love – without being particularly specific about what they mean. Which leaves much scope for error, bad discourse and even worse outcomes…

    Re idiocy – Andreas you might be on to something – perhaps government could fruitfully be thought of as “optimizing idiocy” (ancient and modern, ours and theirs).

    Obviously “interesting times” to be debating such optimizing of idiocies. It’s amusing to see the anti-big-governments folks lining up for big-government help. Don’t you just hate it when big government gets in the way of your big bailout, and your big subsidies?

  10. Mr Crotchety, you’ve raised the issue of “positive” and “negative” freedoms. Classical liberals were always “negative”–ie, they talked about being free of all forms of coercion but not other worries. I think FDR was the one who introduced, with “freedom from fear”, the positive element. A very slippery slope. I, for one, demand to be free from hay fever!

  11. “This call may be recorded for quality purposes.” Can we start a list of (meaningless) phrases intended to not just relieve us, but indemnify us from thinking.

    • Having spent the whole week on the phone menus of Verizon and other utilities, I must say that I like hearing that phrase. Once I know they’re recording, I am prone to sharing just how I feel about their service.

      OK, let’s start that list. I can’t think of anything right now.

    • You know, I can’t think of anything else either. I just get a vague crotchety feeling when I try to focus on a list. Forgive me if I occasionally exploit the HB to purge the negative.

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