Identity in the age of bureaucracy, continued

And apropos of our recent discussion about ‘bureaucracy and alienation in American life’, here is a footnote from China, just for perspective (my emphasis):

Chinese parents’ desire to give their children a spark of individuality is colliding head-on with the Chinese bureaucracy’s desire for order. Seeking to modernize its vast database on China’s 1.3 billion citizens, the government’s Public Security Bureau has been replacing the handwritten identity card that every Chinese must carry with a computer-readable one… The bureau’s computers, however, are programmed to read only 32,252 of the roughly 55,000 Chinese characters, according to a 2006 government report. The result is that Miss Ma and at least some of the 60 million other Chinese with obscure characters in their names cannot get new cards – unless they change their names to something more common.

What would Kafka say now?

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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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Freedom lessons from Hong Kong (1)

From late 1999 to 2003, I lived in Hong Kong. In personal terms, I had some ups and downs there, but that is of no interest here. What’s interesting is that Hong Kong is the freest place I have ever lived in.

In Hong Kong, the authorities and bureaucracies leave you alone.

And this–being left alone–is one simple first definition of freedom. How much time do you spend defending yourself against weird paperwork that shows up in your mailbox? In America, a lot. In Hong Kong, at least when I lived there, almost none.

Let me summarize what I recall to be my interactions with Hong Kong bureaucracies (not counting the ones that I interviewed as a journalist):

  • I had to get my visa when I moved there, and to renew it once during my stay. Since I have two passports, I even made some paperwork mistakes that needed to be corrected. I personally showed up at the immigration agency each time. Total time spent in 4 years (filling out paperwork, waiting in line): 9 minutes!
  • I had to file Hong Kong taxes. (Not German or British taxes, since those countries do not harrass their former residents or citizens when they go abroad; but also American taxes, since the United States, like North Korea (!), asserts global jurisdiction over its citizens.) Total page count of my Hong Kong tax forms, including bilingual translations into English and Chinese: 2 pages! Number of boxes filled in with a money amount: 1! Estimated time spent in 4 years filling out my Hong Kong tax returns: 13 minutes!
  • Then, of course, there were all those other forms that I had to…. Oh, wait. No, there weren’t any. That was it.

Those of you living in America or the European Union, but especially America, might be starting to guess where this is going. Think about the crap that you get in your mailboxes, look at your file cabinets, weigh the paper of your correspondence with your bureaucracies. Read their tone (“on penalty of perjury”). Observe how bureaucratic and official America makes you feel.

Two questions:

  1. Do you feel free? (I am not asking you to enumerate the usual lists of freedoms in the plural–speech, press, association, etc. I am asking you how you feel. Beleaguered or free?)
  2. Do you understand your affairs and interactions with official bureaucracies? (I am not asking whether you can point me to the relevant file for each bureaucracy; I am asking whether you comprehend why your are paying this tax rate and not that, why this form showed up and not that, whether you have set up everything optimally or not, et cetera.)

I am guessing that quite a few of you are already inhaling to inform me that I could not have, should not have, must not have felt free in Hong Kong, that colony of first the British and then the Communist-Chinese empire. China! What about democracy?

Ah. Let’s re-examine that particular issue anon.