[The following essay was first posted at the Palace Of Reason on September 2, 2003. I consider it a useful adjunct to the ongoing series on the nature and behavior of systems of all kinds.]
Robert Conquest’s Three Laws of Politics:
- Everyone is conservative about what he knows best.
- Any organization not explicitly right-wing sooner or later becomes left-wing.
- The simplest way to explain the behavior of any bureaucratic organization is to assume that it is controlled by a cabal of its enemies.
There’s been a lot of discussion recently, on the Web and elsewhere, about the State Department’s well known tendency to impede the implementation of Bush Administration policies as they touch on the Israeli / Palestinian conflagration, the Muslim Middle East generally, and the ongoing crisis in North Korea. Some have speculated that Secretary of State Colin Powell, though a retired soldier, is more comfortable with appeasement than with confrontation. Others have opined that the institutional tendencies of the State Department are simply more geared to talk, the polite fictions of diplomacy, and the consequent compromises, than to face-offs from which one side or the other must back down.
Professor Conquest, as noted above, had a simpler take on it. Historically, his capsule seems to hold true, at least for “mature” bureaucracies in which structural and personnel changes have dampened to “holding” levels. But questions of no little importance remain: Why should the incentives that govern America’s State Department perennially produce results that better suit the interests of America’s enemies than those of her people — regardless of the ideological alignment of the executive administration or the majorities in Congress? What is the nature of the mechanism? Can it be exclusively the incentives produced by civil service tenure rules and governmental inertia? Why should those things work against us, rather than for us?
It’s a life study. One of the master intellects of the past century, the great Cyril Northcote Parkinson, made such matters his special field. Despite his penetration, he left the work unfinished. But your Curmudgeon is here to pick up where that mighty mind left off.
Parkinson promulgated a number of laws of bureaucracy that serve to explain a huge percentage of its characteristics. They’ve exhibited remarkable predictive power within their domain. The first of these is the best known:
Parkinson’s First Law: Work expands to fill the time available for its completion.
Parkinson inferred this effect from two central principles governing the behavior of bureaucrats:
- Officials want to multiply subordinates, not rivals.
- Officials make work for one another.
Like most generalizations, these are not always true…but the incentives that apply specifically to tax-funded government bureaucracies make them true much more often than not. They make a striking contrast with the almost exactly opposite behavior observable in private enterprise.
In his wonderfully humorous book of business advice Further Up The Organization, former Avis CEO Robert Townsend advises the young manager to try to eliminate his own job. “No one ever got fired for telling his supervisor, ‘They do it better without me than with me. What should I do now?'”, writes Townsend, and in the world of free enterprise, he’s right. Profit-seeking enterprises prize that kind of effectiveness. It is not so in government.
Government work is never done. In part, that’s because, in the grand scale, the problems addressed by governments are eternal problems, to be solved only by the Last Judgment. But in greater part, it’s because solving problems even on the small scale is antithetical to the personal well being of bureaucrats. Charles Peters, editor of the Washington Monthly, noted this in his book How Washington Really Works. He observed that it is the least effective organs within government that invariably receive the largest increases in funding and staffing. The lesson is seldom lost on the young bureaucrat with a hankering to move up.
That young bureaucrat will profit from deliberate ineffectiveness to the extent that he can get himself viewed as an asset by his superiors and a non-threat by his peers. His superiors want him to produce justifications for the enlargement of their domains. His peers simply ask that he not tread on their provinces.
To justify enlarging his sub-pyramid of the bureaucracy, a manager must represent his efforts as vital and his resources as inadequate. This can put peers in a bureaucracy into conflict with one another, but the budgetary constraints on the bureaucracy as a whole will often give way even if every sub-bureaucracy within it demands more people and funds simultaneously, provided only that Congress can be made to see the alternatives as unacceptably worse.
How does one engineer the required perceptions? By a combination of techniques, the most effective being the partial suppression of information, both about the nature of the problems one addresses and one’s labors to solve them.
Contrary to what intuition might say, a fully informed superior is usually an unhappy man. Even if things are going swimmingly in his organization, if he knows exactly what’s being done at the detail level, he’ll always see things he disapproves — because he once did those jobs himself, and will invariably contrast his subordinates’ methods unfavorably with his own. The temptation to micro-manage is amplified by the possession of those details. His subordinates will know this, of course, and so will suppress any details below the level required for a broad-brush status report. This is an example of Robert Anton Wilson’s “Snafu Principle” in action.
So the portrait of a bureaucracy’s operations, as it emerges from the nether depths at which specific tasks are addressed, becomes ever vaguer and less detailed as it approaches presentation to “outsiders”: the president, Congress, and the general public. In a sense, the “outsiders” are lucky to get any accurate information at all. If it could get away with it, a bureaucracy’s status report to its external control authorities would say nothing but: “You need us desperately, and we’re working as hard as we can, but we need more people and money. Send them soonest.”
Another of Mankind’s master intellects, Nobel laureate Milton Friedman, has approached bureaucratic inefficiency from the standpoint of the incentives that govern the use of resources, particularly money. He presented the following matrix of spending decisions:
|The Benefit Will Accrue To Me||The Benefit Will Accrue To Others|
This is the incentives matrix each of us faces any time he has to make a spending decision.
In Type I and II situations, the spender is spending his own money, and so has strong incentives to control cost. In Type I situations, where the spender will be purchasing some benefit for himself, he will attempt to maximize the quality of the thing purchased. In Type II situations, where the benefit will go to someone else, the quality of the thing purchased declines in importance, and is sometimes sloughed entirely.
In Type III and IV situations, which embrace all government spending, the spender is spending someone else’s money, and so has little or no incentive to control costs. In Type III situations, where the spender is buying something for himself, he’ll attempt to maximize the benefit. In Type IV situations, where the spender is buying something for someone else, there are no compelling reasons to control either cost or quality.
Most bureaucratic resource allocation falls into Type IV.
But Friedman’s insight ought to be a starting point, not a stopping point, for the understanding of bureaucratic spending decisions. A bureaucrat will learn, given time, how to “spend on others” in such a fashion that the primary benefit flows to himself, particularly as regards the perception outside his domain that what he’s doing is critically important and must not be interfered with. It’s no accident that every department of the United States federal government runs a public-relations office, something that would be incomprehensible if each department did its work economically and effectively, and were viewed thus by the general public.
In the case of our State Department, it is the bureaucrats’ desire that we see their operations as critically important to the nation’s interests, as America’s relations with other governments affect them. Central to the maintenance of this image is the related perception that, unless the State Department is allowed free rein and generous resources, America will be perennially, ruinously at war.
It’s one of the present day’s largest ironies that our Secretary of State, Colin Powell, is a former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and one of the most celebrated soldiers of recent memory. The State Department and the Defense Department are bureaucratic peers and therefore rivals. Each strives to minimize the importance of the other.
Von Clausewitz and others have termed war “a continuation of politics by other means,” but when viewed from the perspective of the State Department official, war is the declaration that his organization has failed of its purpose. He sees it as bad public relations for his entire function. Thus, even when the nation’s interests would be overwhelmingly better served by war than by the continuation of diplomacy, the State Department man will prefer diplomacy. It’s in his demesne, and enhances his prestige by enhancing the prestige of his trade.
It’s not too much to say that averting war regardless of its desirability or justifiability is near the top of every State Department functionary’s list of priorities. In this pursuit, the State Department will often find itself opposing even peacetime operations of the military designed to improve its effectiveness, such as the acquisition of new weapons or the enlargement of its ranks. Tom Clancy provided a fictional example of this in his novel The Cardinal Of The Kremlin. The State Department set its face against the perfection of an American anti-missile defense, in no small measure because it would reduce the desirability of arms-control treaties with the Soviet Union.
In the real world, we often find the State Department opposing military decisions, for example about troop deployments or weapons development, specifically out of fear of the reactions of other governments. Objectively, if those decisions made the United States stronger and safer at an acceptable cost, it would be madness to oppose them. But to a State Department loyalist, who has no control over the instruments of force wielded by the Defense Department and whose primary goal is to avert war at all costs, what matters most is the reactions of those other States. If they make unpleasant noises or military adjustments of their own, the State Department man instinctively assesses the risks of war as increasing. Other governments know this, and exploit it.
Not every new State Department employee enters his responsibilities with all these attitudes already in place, of course. But over time, the department’s institutional incentives and outlook will filter out those who fail to adopt the dominant view in Foggy Bottom: War always means failure — for the State Department.
There is a final set of considerations, the least agreeable of the major ones, that must be addressed before we conclude. They relate to the worldview that forms among diplomats and their supporting staffs as a result of their professional circumstances.
The diplomat lives among foreigners. His usual society is, therefore, not aligned with the supposed point of his job: the maintenance and advancement of his country’s national interests. Given this, it would take a will of iron to resist the tendency to draw closer to the representatives of other nations, with whom he must work closely over the span of decades, even at the cost of distancing himself from his fellow citizens. He will unconsciously edge toward the attitudes and convictions of those who form his usual environment. This will affect everyone who makes dealing with foreigners his life’s work; there is no obvious countermeasure for it.
Even more important, a professional diplomatic corps, organizationally separate from its control authorities, is a target of opportunity for the governments of other countries. Inducing America’s diplomats and support staffs to see their own welfare as more aligned with pleasing other governments than with representing America’s interests is a primary objective of foreign powers. They have many kinds of inducement at their disposal.
This is not to suggest that every ambassador, every consular official, and every State Department employee must be constantly scrutinized for indications of treason. However, it would be foolish to deny that foreign powers, who have a large measure of control over how pleasant America’s representatives to them find their work, can thereby influence the mindset and responses of those representatives in all manner of venues. Obviously, that influence is unlikely to be in America’s favor.
This survey of influences on the State Department and the incentives that affect its personnel appears very bleak. Unfortunately, its implications are strongly confirmed by experience. We’ve seen our State Department embrace the interests of America’s adversaries far too often to wish the matter away.
Everything discussed here touches on motivation at the institutional level. Such motivations arise from the large-scale characteristics of the institutions and the surroundings in which they operate. They cannot be undone by changes in personnel, even the most massive, except over the very short term.
Can anything be done for the long term?
Possibly, but more likely not. The conditions discussed here arise from the nature of the institutions discussed: the State Department and the government milieu generally. They cannot be changed without changing the nature of those institutions in radical ways — and the institutions could be counted upon to resist externally imposed changes with all the powers at their disposal.
A new Secretary of State would find himself thwarted in any attempt to reform his department, absent powers so sweeping that Congress would be exceedingly unlikely to entrust them to a presidential appointee. After all, those who labor in those institutions would easily persuade themselves that they knew better how things should be than any boss imposed upon them from outside their sphere. They would be “conservative about what they know best,” naturally inclined to reject the suggestion that their worldview was in serious error. In the end, the Secretary would almost certainly accept the appearance of change in place of the real thing. Following the incentives that apply to his position in the bureaucracy, he would present it to the nation as a triumph. As Arthur Herzog has noted, “Change is hard, and difficulty makes people impatient.”
In reflecting on the totality of the thing, your Curmudgeon finds himself struck by Parkinson’s final Law, the last of his intellectual gifts to Mankind:
Law Of The Vacuum: Action expands to fill the void created by human failure.
Action takes many forms. In the world of geopolitics, the most perceptible form is the military kind: the exchange of fire as governments attempt to impose their wills upon one another. War is the ultimate negative-sum game. Even the victor is worse off after a war than before it. This is not to say that war must always be avoided; sometimes all the alternatives are worse. But war becomes ever more necessary to a nation whose professional representatives to foreign powers cannot bring themselves to do the job for which they were hired — to champion their country’s interests plainly, confidently, and fearlessly. To embrace any other agenda than that, whether out of habit, institutional inertia, or the promotion of personal or sectarian priorities above national ones, is to embrace failure itself, and thereby to create a vacuum into which bullets, bombs, and troops will rush.
Verbum sat sapienti.