Drunk On Their Own Virtue

You can take issue with some particular examples used by David Books, as readers did in the comments because Brooks made the grievous error of mentioning health care and Trump, thus invoking the activists for single payer health care and anti-deplorables, but his point was about the cost of bureaucracy on people’s now-crushed souls.

The growth of bureaucracy costs America over $3 trillion in lost economic output every year, Gary Hamel and Michele Zanini estimated in 2016 in The Harvard Business Review. That was about 17 percent of G.D.P. According to their analysis, there is now one administrator or manager for every 4.7 employees, doing things like designing anti-harassment trainings, writing corporate mission statements, collecting data and managing “systems.”

This situation is especially grave in higher education. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology now has almost eight times as many nonfaculty employees as faculty employees. In the University of California system, the number of managers and senior professionals swelled by 60 percent between 2004 and 2014. The number of tenure-track faculty members grew by just 8 percent.

We’ve become a nation of administrators adminstering adminstrators who administer administration. You want DEI? It needs administrators. Title IX? Administrators. Breathing? Administrators.

Brooks tries not to pick a fight with the vast army of Americans who earn their daily bread by getting paid to administrate.

The general job of administrators, who are invariably good and well-meaning people, is to supervise and control, and they gain power and job security by hiring more people to work for them to create more supervision and control. In every organization I’ve interacted with, the administrators genuinely want to serve the mission of the organization, but the nature of their jobs is to enforce compliance with this or that rule.

Are they “invariably good and well-meaning people”? Is the guy who wants to be an executioner just doing his job administering the Iron Rule of Executions instead of the Iron Rule of Bureaucracy? And if you think it’s easy to be an executioner, you should see the rules.

But why do we tolerate being forced to choose whether to live as a rat in someone’s maze or let them steal our time and soul rather than fight back?

Their power is similar to what Annie Lowrey of The Atlantic has called the “time tax.” If you’ve ever fought a health care, corporate or university bureaucracy, you quickly realize you don’t have the time for it, so you give up. I don’t know about you, but my health insurer sometimes denies my family coverage for things that seem like obvious necessities, but I let it go unless it’s a major expense. I calculate that my time is more valuable.

This is death by a thousand paper cuts. Whether bureaucrats know it (some do, obviously, but as a general rule, it’s unlikely they give it any thought) or not, they justify the misery they cause by believing they are just doing their job administering the good rules that keep society functioning for its own good. They are the safety mongers. They are the gatekeepers of conformity.

This state of affairs pervades American life. Childhood is now thoroughly administered. I’m lucky enough to have grown up at a time when parents let children roam free to invent their own games and solve their own problems. Now kids’ activities, from travel sports to recess, are supervised, and rules dominate. Parents are afraid their kids might be harmed, but as Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff have argued, by being overprotective, parents make their kids more fragile and more vulnerable to harm.

By the time students get to college, they have already been forced into the square hole.

High school students design their lives to fit the metrics that college admissions officers require. And what traits are selective schools looking for? They’re looking for students who are willing to conform to the formulas the gatekeepers devise.

But it’s not just your academic life under scrutiny. It’s like Rule 34, if there is a human activity, there is a bureaucrat to manage it.

In a recent essay in Liberties Journal, he illustrates how administrators control campus life by citing the rules they have devised to govern how members of the campus community should practice sadomasochistic sex: “When parties consent to BDSM 3, or other forms of kink, nonconsent may be shown by the use of a safe word, whereas actions and words that may signal nonconsent in non-kink situations, such as force or violence, may be deemed signals of consent.” Do institutions really need to govern private life this minutely?

Perhaps this was inevitable given the explosion of people with dubious college degrees who needed jobs, and so jobs were created so they had someplace to go on Monday mornings. But the upshot is that we’ve become a nation ruled not by presidents or CEOs, but by administrators who spout the mantras written in scripts for them to stymie thought.

In his Liberties essay, Edmundson writes that this kind of power is now centerless. Presidents and executives don’t run companies, universities or nations. Power is now held by everyone who issues work surveys and annual reports, the people who create H.R. trainings and collect data. He concludes: “They are using the terms of liberation to bring more and more free people closer to mental serfdom. Some day they will awaken in a cage of their own devising, so harshly confining that even they, drunk on their own virtue, will have to notice how their lives are the lives of snails tucked in their shells.”

Edmundson was an optimist and no doubt there will be a study that proves him wrong.

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