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Jewish World Review Nov. 19, 1998 /30 Mar-Cheshvan, 5759

Thomas Sowell

Thomas Sowell Tales out of bureaucracies


Once, when I tried to charge a sweater on my credit card in a department store, the clerk pointed out that I had not signed my credit card. Immediately I signed the credit card and then signed the bill for the sweater. The clerk then compared the two signatures that she had just seen me write, to make sure they matched, and the sale was completed!

What matters to bureaucrats is not whether what they are doing makes sense but whether it fits the routine. It is both bothersome and dangerous to go beyond the routine because that means taking personal responsibility for the consequences. One of the main hallmarks of bureaucrats is avoidance of personal responsibility.

The one thing that all bureaucrats have in common is the notion that the bureaucracy is never wrong. If anything has gone wrong, it had to be someone else's fault, preferably the fault of whoever complains about the bureaucracy. Any evidence that would prove them wrong is likely to be kept under wraps.

After the "Detroit News" began criticizing the University of Michigan for having racial double standards in admission, the kind of data used to show huge differences in standards suddenly became unavailable. Somehow a change in computers now made it impossible to break down the data by race. Moreover, it would be "at least three years" before this mysterious problem could be fixed.

Once a bank gave a new depositor the same account number that they had already given me. His checks began draining the money out of my account, making my checks bounce. Apparently someone discovered the duplication and fixed half of it -- no longer depositing his money into my account, but continuing to pay his checks with my money.

After numerous letters, phone calls and documentary proof of what they had done, the bank reluctantly restored the missing money to my account -- except for the charges for the bounced checks. To get that taken care of, I had to literally make this a federal case by writing to an agency that oversees banks. Under pressure, the bank finally restored the charges for the checks that they caused to be bounced.

In May 1997, I asked the payroll office at Stanford University to deposit my paycheck in a different bank and filed the forms required. It was August before it actually happened -- and only after I went all the way up to the university controller.

The story told by the bureaucrats was that I had not filed the necessary documents and that they had left a message on my answering machine the next day, asking me to do so. Alas for this well-crafted story, I kept a Xerox copy of what I had filed and my phone messages are written down for me at the office and faxed to me at home. There was no such message that day --- or any other day.

These are fairly small things, but bureaucrats can also wreak havoc with much more important things. Literally thousands of black children are kept needlessly in foster care for years because social workers do not want to let white couples adopt them. These bureaucrats are violating federal laws, but of course no one admits to violating these laws, though it is an open secret.

When some people speak glowingly of how "society" ought to solve this or that problem, they fail to note that "society" really means government, and government in the flesh consists of bureaucrats, politicians and judges. Of these three groups, bureaucrats are by far the largest and the ones that the ordinary citizen is most likely to have to deal with directly.

Consider what a bureaucracy is. It is an organization in which people get paid a salary for following routines and not getting caught violating the rules. What the actual consequences of their actions are for other people matters very little.

These consequences may range from inconveniences caused by not having a paycheck deposited in the right bank to children whose lives are blighted for years, while they are sent from foster home to foster home like little vagabonds, even though there are couples on waiting lists who would love to adopt them.

No one has to pay for the pain suffered by these children or for the long-run damage to them as adults who have never had a secure childhood. Certainly the bureaucrats responsible pay no price and seldom does the agency itself have to admit to being wrong, much less be held accountable.

Mystical references to "society" and its programs to "help" may warm the hearts of the gullible but what it really means is putting more power in the hands of bureaucrats.

11/16/98:Scholarships based on scholarship
11/12/98: Forward march
11/09/98: Moral outrage
11/05/98: Will the Republicans ever learn?
11/02/98: A voter's duty
10/30/98: The poverty pimp's poem
10/29/98: Random thoughts on the election
10/27/98: "Partisan" and "unfair"
10/23/98: Ed-u-kai-tchun
10/21/98: McGwire, Maris and the Babe
10/16/98: Lightweight Boxer
10/14/98: A strange word
10/09/98: Impeachment standards
10/08/98: Alternatives to seriousness
10/07/98: Heredity, environment and talk
10/02/98: A much-needed guide
10/01/98: Starr's real crime
9/24/98: Costs and power
9/18/98: Are we sheep?
9/16/98: Judicial review
9/15/98: Hillary Rodham Crook?
9/14/98: Taking stock
9/11/98: Moment of truth
9/04/98: Random thoughts
8/31/98: The twilight of special prosecutors?
8/26/98: "Doing a good job"
8/24/98: America on trial?
8/19/98: Played for fools
8/17/98: A childish letter
8/11/98: Hiding behind a woman
8/07/98: A flying walrus in Washington?
8/03/98: "Affordability" strikes again
7/31/98: Random thoughts
7/27/98: Faith and mountains
7/24/98: Clinton in Wonderland
7/20/98: Where is black 'leadership' leading?
7/16/98: Do 'minorities' really have it that bad?
7/14/98: Race dialogue: same old stuff
7/10/98: Honest history
7/09/98: Dumb is dangerous
7/02/98: Gun-safety starts with
parental responsibility
6/30/98: When more is less
6/29/98: Are educators above the law?
6/26/98: Random Thoughts
6/24/98: An angry letter
6/22/98: Sixties sentimentalism
6/19/98:Dumbing down anti-trust
6/15/98: A changing of the guard?
6/11/98: Presidential privileges
6/8/98: Fast computers and slow antitrust
6/3/98: Can stalling backfire?
5/29/98: The insulation of the Left
5/25/98: Missing the point in the media
5/22/98: The lessons of Indonesia
5/20/98: Smart but silent
5/18/98: Israel, Clinton and character
5/14/98: Monica Lewinsky's choices
5/11/98: Random thoughts
5/7/98: Media obstruction of justice
5/4/98: Dangerous "safety"
5/1/98: Abolish Adolescence!
4/30/98: The naked truth
4/22/98: Playing fair and square
4/19/98: Bad teachers"
4/15/98: "Clinton in Africa "
4/13/98: "Bundling and unbundling "
4/9/98: "Rising or falling Starr "
4/6/98: "Was Clinton ‘vindicated'? "
3/26/98: "Diasters -- natural and political"
3/24/98: "A pattern of behavior"
3/22/98: Innocent explanations
3/19/98: Kathleen Willey and Anita Hill
3/17/98: Search and destroy
3/12/98: Media Circus versus Justice
3/6/98: Vindication
3/3/98: Cheap Shot Time
2/26/98: The Wrong Filter
2/24/98: Trial by Media
2/20/98: Dancing Around the Realities
2/19/98: A "Do Something" War?
2/12/98: Julian Simon, combatant in a 200-year war
2/6/98: A rush to rhetoric

©1998, Creators Syndicate, Inc.