Thursday, February 18, 2016

Misconceived Quests

     God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
     Courage to change the things I can,
     And wisdom to know the difference.

     [Reinhold Niebuhr]

     The plea above is as well known among Americans as any invocation of God’s favor other than the Lord’s Prayer. It expresses not merely a desire but an important fact about reality: a vanishingly small fraction of it is susceptible to anyone’s manipulation.

     Individuals associate for a common purpose under an assumption that by doing so, they’ll become able to change certain aspects of their circumstances that no one of them could change alone. And indeed, for some such purposes – e.g., a well-conceived business venture – this is possible. However, even the largest imaginable collective cannot alter the laws of Nature. That includes human nature.

     This precept becomes especially important during a political campaign.


     The emergence, during the Sixties and Seventies, of the school of analysis commonly called Public Choice economics was one of the most important intellectual developments of the Twentieth Century. At long last, serious intellectual firepower, in the form of Mancur Olson, James Buchanan, and Gordon Tullock, was brought to bear on a critical question: why supposedly representative governments behave as they do even when in stark contradiction of the expressed will of the electorate.

     At the heart of the analysis lay an aspect of human nature well known and well understood since well before Adam Smith: An individual’s interests motivate him more powerfully than the interests of any group. Therefore, individuals will act in accordance with their personal interests and in contradiction to their supposed group interests (which includes any “marching orders” they may have been given by the electorate) whenever circumstances enable them to do so. As a corollary, individuals will seek to shelter within environments where the cost to themselves of pursuing their own interests will be minimized. This will often include environments that allow them to shift the costs of their interests to others’ shoulders.

     The superiority of individual interests over collective interests helps to explain why democratic electoral mechanisms have so little influence over the behavior of bureaucratic governments.


     In September of 2013, I wrote:

     Never imagine that bureaucracies are under the control of our "elected" executives and legislatures. They are not. Civil Service rules plus the ability to disclaim responsibility immunize them from anyone's displeasure, including presidents. If you doubt this, consider the sentiments of David L. Boren, for some years a United States Senator from Oklahoma:
Boren, formerly a state legislator and governor, went to Washington expecting to make some changes. "What impressed me most is the great power of the bureaucracy compared to that of elected officials. All the talk about growing control by the bureaucracy is not exaggerated. The shift in power is very real.... There is almost a contempt for elected officials."...

Senator Boren found, to his surprise, that a Senator has great difficulty even getting phone calls returned by the "permanent" employees, much less getting responsive answers to his questions.

The voters can't "throw the rascals out" anymore, because the main rascals are not elected but appointed....

Regulatory bureaucrats have extra power because they can outlast the elected officials. "Often," Boren explains, "I've said to a bureaucrat, 'You know this is not the president's policy.'

'True, Senator, but we were here before he came, and we'll be here after he leaves. We're not in sympathy with his policy. We'll study the matter until he leaves.'"

[From Armington and Ellis, MORE: The Rediscovery of American Common Sense.]

Look upon the naked, if anonymous, face of your true master, and be afraid.

     The unnamed bureaucrat in the above citation says “we” and “we’ll,” but in point of fact he’s almost certainly speaking on behalf of a personal interest. It might be his job’s security. It might be his taste for power. It’s most unlikely to be a conception of the “public good.”

     As Senator Boren notes, we can’t throw such rascals out. They’ve contrived protections for themselves, including effective anonymity, that insulate them against such corrective action. The typical bureaucrat sought his post precisely because of those protections. They give him what he most wants for himself. Notions about duty to the public probably don’t impinge on his consciousness, except when it’s necessary to render them lip service (which, for a bureaucrat, isn’t often).


     The presidential election campaign under way at this time is animated to a large extent by “anti-establishment” feeling. That sentiment is responsible for much of the support enjoyed by both Donald Trump and Ted Cruz. It might propel either of them into the Oval Office. But if the voters conceive of the “establishment” in electoral terms alone, their attention is misdirected.

     Elected federal officials number only 540. The federal bureaucracy numbers over five million persons – and with the exception of those of us who are personally acquainted with one or more of them, we don’t know who they are.

     Imagine President Ted Cruz addressing the problem of the federal bureaucracy. What could he do about it within the framework of existing Civil Service law?

  • He knows as little about the identities and actual job functions of those bureaucrats as you or I.
  • He cannot easily distinguish those who support important priorities (e.g., national defense) from those who don’t.
  • The management structure of each bureaucracy exists to maximize its perceived importance to the executive branch, and labors ceaselessly to increase that perception.
  • Ambiguities in the laws that authorize and energize those bureaucracies muddy the water still further.

     Though every executive branch bureaucrat serves, in theory, at the pleasure of the president, in practice they are immune from any effective form of discipline. Their numbers and the concentration of their interests on their jobs’ security makes them the most formidable force in America, more powerful even than our million-plus lawyers.

     The only potentially effective weapon President Cruz could wield against a given bureaucracy is a campaign to abolish it – but that would require the cooperation of Congress. Many federal legislators would rise against a president of their own party who would dare to propose such a thing. Congress has almost as much stake in preserving the bureaucracies as do the bureaucrats themselves: the bureaucracies give them insulation from the consequences of their irresponsibility and an enemy against which to provide “constituent services.”

     Do not expect President Whoever to succeed in paring back and weakening the federal bureaucracies, much less in eliminating any of them. Today, no president has the weapons such an undertaking would require. No top-down purge of the bureaucracies is plausible, as much as I wish it were otherwise.


     In Unintended Consequences, John Ross’s novel about the American gun culture and a somewhat fanciful revolution-from-below in defense of the right to keep and bear arms, the development that ignites that revolution is protagonist Henry Bowman’s acquisition of a computer that contains the names and addresses of a great many agents of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms. Without that information, the insurgency Bowman and company initiate against the federal government would not be at all plausible or feasible. The anonymity of America’s true rulers is among their best protections against such a revolution. Knowing where and when they habitually concentrate is a poor substitute.

     However, that having been said, the sort of revolution-from-below Ross envisions is the only sort that’s at all plausibly effective. It would oppose the interests of a large, concentrated, powerfully motivated demographic – in Ross’s novel, American gun owners and shooting-sports enthusiasts – against the bureaucracy that seeks to oppress and destroy it. The concentration of passion upon a single shared interest is essential to such a campaign. Note how much more effective groups such as the National Rifle Association have been than anti-tax groups, whose more diffusely motivated supporters will often disaffiliate from them de facto to support some more personal interest, such as a subsidy or subvention.

     Freedom – the absence of coercion or constraint from individuals’ decisions and actions in all matters that don’t involve aggression or fraud – is a more diffuse, less uniform interest even than defending one’s wealth against the taxman. Which is why, when a well-meaning correspondent speaks of fighting a grassroots revolution against Leviathan in the name of freedom, my immediate reaction is How can he be so sure that enough of those fighting would agree with him on what they’re fighting for?


     I’m not arguing here for completely absenting oneself from involvement in politics in all things and at all levels, though I would commend him who follows that course out of sincere conviction. I’m merely pointing out the low probability that any political campaign for freedom, whether broadly conceived or for some specific aspect thereof, would attain its overt goal. Too many individuals’ personal interests, and too large a group of persons whose common interest lies in perpetuating the governmental status quo, would militate against it. They who designed our fetters have done too good a job. They’ve harnessed human cupidity and weakness too effectively for men of good will to undo them, even though we are probably a majority.

     If there is a substantial hope for a future of freedom, it lies in our prospects for escaping: not fight but flight. Yet even the most dramatic imaginable flight would offer only a temporary reprieve, for human nature is what it is, and is not to be unmade by anyone’s efforts. It’s simply one of the things we cannot change.

     Be not too trusting in leaders, political or otherwise, who exhort you to march behind their banners in the name of freedom. Even when they’re utterly sincere, their quests are seldom well conceived. Support them judiciously and cautiously, if at all. Sincerity has a way of departing from those to whom power is given...sometimes, more swiftly than we can imagine.

8 comments:

  1. I have commented recently that, at the State level, I approve of the job our Governor has done, although he is purely an effective administrator. It helps that our state still has the remnants of a culture of public service in the government.

    Still, part of me longs to have a Governor that will plant his flag atop a mountain of bureaucrat skulls as he wrests control of the people's lives from the permanent government.

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  2. A prepared patriot would, in the interest of knowing his own area of operations, know if there are any local offices of various federal bureaucracy in his neighborhood. He would endeavor to find out who works there, as much as he can.
    The faceless, blameless bureaucrat is emboldened by their very security by obscurity. It would behoove the prepared citizen to know where he or she can reach the local bureaucrat, because without them, the 535 idiots in Congress and sole idiot in the White House can do nothing.
    While the protagonist in Unintended Consequences does start with BATF agents, the general uprising does not stop there. It expands to encompass other agencies that have thrown their weight around as of late.

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  3. Modality was a subject in which my late sister was a genius. A bureaucrat who from small position brought a populist governor's agenda to a halt. We disagreed. Logistics are very important but do not neglect modality.

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  4. As we consider options going forward, to address the issues raised; we must devise strategies to defeat this Leviathan as well as the culture that allowed it to evolve. On a very basic level of understanding it feels so wrong to have a nameless/faceless bureaucracy running the asylum.

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  5. If you ever wish to check the barometer of any would be political animal try putting this question or idea to them:
    Limit EVERYONE'S (no exceptions) time/job in federal service to 10-12 years (effectively one quarter of a persons working life). After which you MUST seek employment in the private sector, a job with ZERO fed connectivity. This would effectively stop bureaucrats from passing anti-capitalistic regulations, it would be in their own best interest not to do so, knowing that soon they must work in that environment. It would stimulate the private economy and shrink Gov...no more lifetime free rides in no account Gov't jobs.
    Without exception...EVERY single candidate, "conservative" commenter, "conservative" figurehead...HAS NEVER ANSWERED ME. And I've posed this scenario hundreds of time to hundreds of candidates/figureheads and "conservative movers and shakers" The silence is deafening.....lousey lying shitheads all of em! Fran hits the nail on the head in this post RE: getting to the bottom of alot of our woes.

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  6. I have said it myself, commenting on several blogs, that even a President who honestly wished to stop the abuses of the various bureaucracies would likely find himself powerless to do so, and that Congress, as it is currently constituted, would refuse to assist him in doing so.

    In Unitended Consequences, some citizens engaged in leaderless resistance, as with the dry cleaners owner who blew away the EPA administrator in response to the EPA running him out of business. I have often thought that the closest EPA office would be a great place for people to start, when Claire Wolfe's statement (about "too late" and "too soon") is proven wrong.

    Fran, I have to remark upon your choice of the NRA as an effective organization - unless you mean at increasing gun control and compromising our rights away. The NRA has assisted the Federal government in writing pretty much _every_ major (and many minor) pieces of gun control legislation, starting with the NFA legislation in '34, the GCA in '68, and the Lautenberg Amendment, with its incredible ex post facto application. They even admitted their assistance in an old article back in the mid-'50s in an issue of the American Hunter. They wanted to be seen as being "reasonable" and "willing to compromise" - compromise our rights away, that is, in spite of the fact that the Left never compromises when it comes to gun control. (http://jpfo.org/articles-assd02/nra-supported-nfa34.htm) I was a member for over twenty years, until the Lautenberg Amendment was passed with nary a word from the NRA to most (any?) of us members, where we could have been active in contacting our representatives and fighting it. I quit at that time and joined GOA (Life Member) and JPFO (until Aaron Zelman died and Claire Wolfe let us know what was happening with JPFO once he was gone).

    The NRA is also very good about claiming credit for the work of others. They tried to stop the Second Amendment Foundation and Alan Gura from taking Heller before the Supreme Court, and when they were unsuccessful, added themselves as amicus curiae, and then acted as if the victory was due to their involvement.

    The NRA has always worked _with_ gun control groups in and out of Congress, while pretending to fight to protect our Second Amendment right. They _want_ those groups to be writing and trying to pass gun control - it's their bread and butter. They get to frighten gun owners with each and every threat - some of which have already been defeated when they scare the membership with them - in order to drive donations and dues. It took me twenty years, but I finally woke up and smelled the - well, it wasn't roses.

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  7. Danne has a good idea. To which we add a ban on any lobbying for at least five years. And such a ban should extend beyond elected officials to a horde of those bureaucrats as well.

    Note how popular Newt Gigrich's idea of term limits was back in the '90s as part of his 'Contract with America'.

    Yet somehow the weasels said they "met" that part of the contract since they did in fact "bring it up for a vote". They never promised in the contract that they would make sure it was actually implemented.

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  8. It's odd. Fran's blog is the first one I come to when I wake up, get coffee and come on line. I read what he has to say, agree with it and then move on. He usually says what I'm thinking in a much more erudite and persuasive manner than I ever could. And he has truly new and incisive perspectives.

    I don't mean to say that I blindly accept or minimize what he says! I usually read everything twice and often google words or situations he discusses and I always click on his links.

    But then, because I drink a little too much and stay up often for 48+ hours at a time, I find myself coming back a day or two later and thinking about what he's said from an entirely different . . . angle.

    So I often seem like I'm on a tangent, or missing his point.

    But take this post of Fran's talking about bureaucrats.

    Yes, there are millions of self-interested bureaucrats implementing and overseeing (in all that word's meaning) our government, and thus, our lives. And a Cruz, or Trump, Rubio or Reagan won't really do much to change that, no matter how pure their motives or how hard they try.

    What got me posting this, a day or so later, is Fran's mention of. "not fight but flight."

    "Yet even the most dramatic imaginable flight would offer only a temporary reprieve, for human nature is what it is, and is not to be unmade by anyone’s efforts. It’s simply one of the things we cannot change."

    I will now go off on my tangent.

    I was just shy of my 12th birthday when Kennedy came on the TV and talked about the missiles in "Cuber." I remember jumping on my bike and pedaling ferociously up the hill because at that age, I didn't call anyone to discuss things, and my Mom wasn't political and my Dad worked swing-shift.

    Within a year, Kennedy was assassinated and then the Beatles came along. I was a Beatlemaniac. I didn't scream or pant or buy stuff, but I fell for their music and read everything I could. The other "Mersey groups" were pretenders. The Rolling Stones were over-the-top and just trying to be sexy. The Beach Boys - who I'd heard even before the Beatles - were already yesterday's news and just sang about cars and surf, even though their vocals were as neat as the Four Seasons'.

    "Well its been building up inside of me
    For oh I don't know how long"

    "I guess I should've kept my mouth shut"

    "God only knows what I'd be without you"

    I realize now I'm an idiot. Brian Wilson was as much of a poet and shaman as Lennon, Dylan, or anyone of my generation. I just didn't have the . . . WHAT? . . . to hear it.

    To cut this missive short, Fran's right. We can't escape human nature. The bureaucracy will follow us wherever we go. But there are voices that touch us - even DMV attendants.

    And that just underscores that Stalin, Churchill, Merkel, Obama, Kennedy, Reagan and all the rest grew up with the same songs and stories and fears as the rest of us. The "1%" aren't different from us, they just got lucky. The powerful may be psycopathic because they crave power, but they aren't a different species. They are the kid you grew up next door to, but they went another direction.

    Fran's right. We can't flee because our natures will follow us wherever we go. But we've been making a mistake to allow those little children and scared adults to boss us around.

    Far be it from me to say who is sane or grown up.

    But I'll bet it has something to do with not blaming others for your shortcomings or trying to get others to repay you for the past.

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