The ongoing pandemic has exposed a variety of fault lines in our society. One such fault line lies within the bureaucratic state. This bureaucracy has always existed to a certain extent, but the existence of COVID-19 has accelerated its influence and reach. I do not mean to suggest that there exists a conspiratorial shadow government, but there is a very real pandemic of bureaucracy infecting all aspects and institutions of society.
At the beginning of the pandemic, I was happy to follow along with what I was told by “the experts,” the mostly unelected officials propped up on cable TV or quoted in articles. These individuals had a significant impact on the public policy response to the pandemic, and also on our individual feelings as COVID-19 unfolded around us. “Just two weeks to flatten the curve,” was an oft-repeated refrain. If we listened to the bureaucrats, we would be able to get ahead of this potential pandemic. Americans, for the most part, listened. Schools and businesses shut down, people stayed indoors and canceled events, and the travel industry was crippled.
The promises from the bureaucrats were, of course, false. “Two weeks” has become two years. Bureaucrats continue to advocate for authoritarian policies that have utterly failed at containing COVID-19 over the last two years. Policies that continue to defy logic and reason.
I have come to the conclusion that the bureaucrat suffers from a massive conflict of interest. Every action they take must legitimize the existence of their position (and, by extension, their income) and defend their prior decisions. If their position is not legitimate and/or they have done a bad job, then they have no reason to exist. Therefore, the bureaucracy and those employed within it must engage in self-preservation, even if it is at the expense of those they are making decisions for.
No bureaucrat is going to make a decision that causes them to lose their job. Nor should we expect them to rise above the selfish nature and instinct for self-preservation every human shares. This idea is not confined to the medical “experts” who continue to fearmonger on cable news, but extends to all aspects of bureaucratic rule, including universities like Yale. The Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Director of a human resources department must find instances of racism and discrimination, even if none exist, if they are to keep their job. Otherwise, what is their purpose?
Bureaucrats will fight to the bitter end in order to preserve the institutions they exist within. Just because medical bureaucrats are armed with “science” does not mean that they should be insulated from criticism. Science has always been used as a tool of bureaucratic institutions to accomplish their goals, whether for good or bad. The Roman Catholic Church famously persecuted Galileo because his heliocentric model of the universe did not align with the institutional status quo of geocentrism. Right now, it often seems that criticism of our technocratic overlords is unacceptable. Take the controversy surrounding Joe Rogan, for instance.
One may argue that my criticism of bureaucrats applies equally to elected officials. They certainly suffer from the same issues: they must find problems to legislate and campaign on, they lie to preserve their positions and power, and they often have their own personal interests in mind over those they should be thinking of. However, these are largely solved through the accountability (albeit limited) that elected officials do have. They are constantly vying amongst themselves for political clout and votes, they must do enough good in the eyes of the voters to get reelected, and individual politicians eventually fade away. Not so with the bureaucracy. The bureaucracy has no need to care about accountability, as they are not elected. They do not need to fight among themselves, as they have their own spheres of defined influence. Even though individual bureaucrats die away, the institutions do not. Institutional power and practice is passed onto the next bureaucrat. This can be useful to avoid the whims of politics and preserve institutional knowledge, but by the same token allows institutions to continue to perpetuate bad practice and policy while growing larger and more powerful.
So what is the solution? There is obviously a problem with the current state of things. The government grows ever-larger with the same number of elected officials, universities like Yale hire more and more administrators, human resource departments at corporations become a more prevalent part of corporate culture. My response would be reformation through reduction of existing bureaucracies. The important functions of institutions can be preserved while increasing efficiency. By reducing the size and scope of these institutions, their opportunity for impactful abuse is also reduced. Smaller and more efficient institutions are favored over large and powerful ones because they are more accountable and easier to reign in when abuses do occur.
For the government, the answer lies within elected officials. Choose people who want to seriously reduce the size and scope of government. People who promise to cut budgets and staff, investigate corruption, and place as much responsibility into the hands of individuals as possible. Important to this is public will to choose not to accept the government and other institutions as parental entities. For education, focus on local school board elections. If you are a donor to your alma mater, flex that fiscal pressure with other like-minded alumni. If you run a company, do not accede to demands to hire unnecessary positions.
C.S. Lewis put it very nicely in his God in the Dock essay collection:
“Of all tyrannies, a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It would be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber baron’s cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated; but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience. They may be more likely to go to Heaven yet at the same time likelier to make a Hell of earth.”
The “experts” do not have our best interests in mind. It’s time we stop the pandemic of bureaucracy and start taking back responsibility.
Trevor MacKay is Publication Director of the Beacon and a freshman in Timothy Dwight College majoring in History. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.