Category Archives: bureaucracy

China flu and the persistence of illusion

The Wuhan virus is of relatively minor consequence for the mortality of the world population

Follow the science.

On this view, writes Dalrymple, science

speaks with one voice, ex cathedra. It lays down doctrine that humanity, most of which is not scientifically minded, must humbly accept. Neither the world nor science is like this.

Epidemiology, he points out,

is not only an inexact science but can be a powerful tool for the regulative bullying of the population by ­bureaucracies.

The Wuhan flu is

not the Black Death, which killed between a third and a half of the population of Europe. The 1957 Asian flu was said to have killed up to 2m people and the 1968 Hong Kong flu 1m, yet they have passed from collective memory, perhaps without having entered it.

The illusion that the risk of epidemic default on mortgage obligations had been eliminated

There is an increasing unfamiliarity with death as the natural end of life, and

assuming that this is an epidemic of relatively minor consequence for the mortality of the world population, the panic must be in part because of the apocalyptic nature of death from the disease.

The China pandemic

will no doubt be mastered in time; there will be a vaccine, perhaps a treatment. But it will have dented mankind’s illusion that it has everything under control — give or take a blip — on the upward ascent to a life without suffering, the unpleasantly untoward, or the unforeseen.

Dalrymple reminds us of the time before the collapse of Lehman Brothers,

when mathematicians claimed to have developed a model that eliminated the risk of epidemic default on mortgage obligations. This proved illusory and was always foolish; but it suggests that the illusion of control will return soon enough, once the epidemic is over.

The NHS egalitarian? Far from it

The justification for Britain’s nationalisation of healthcare was egalitarianism. Yet the National Health Service, writes Dalrymple,

has failed even in the matter of equality. The difference between the health of the richest and poorest sections of the population has increased rather than decreased under the NHS.

The gap between the life expectancy of unskilled workers and that of the upper echelons, which had been stable for decades before the foundation of the NHS,

began to widen afterwards, and is now far wider than it ever was. If systems are to be judged by their effects, the NHS has failed in its initial goal.

It is a matter of common experience, Dalrymple notes,

that members of the middle classes are far better able to derive benefits from the system than the lower classes. Members of the middle classes complain where the lower orders swear, and bureaucrats are aware that articulacy is a more dangerous enemy than assaults on staff can ever be.

Bureaucratic Perónism

Dalrymple tries to contact a government department that offers grants to organisations that want to pursue certain projects and seek subsidies.

Irrespective of the effects of subsidies in general, I knew of an organisation that was seeking a subsidy for something that I considered deleterious to the town in which I lived and wanted to make objection to it.

He finds the website of the government department that hands out the subsidies, but

there was no means of communicating with it except by applying to it for a grant. It had no address, postal or e-mail, and no telephone number. Although it was only a department, the website did not say what it was a department of.

In other words, says Dalrymple,

it handed out grants to applicants, but only at its own discretion. Its power was (in its own small corner of the world) absolute. It gave no clue as to the criteria it used in choosing the applicants to subsidise; the public had no say in its deliberations. The public’s only relationship with it was to pay its taxes, from which the subsidies it granted were drawn.

The professional purifiers of our utterances

The idea, writes Dalrymple, that ‘hate speech’ can be banned is

a sign of impatience with the intractability of the human condition. It wants to legislate people into kindness, decency and fellow-feeling. It appeals to the sort of people who forget (or never knew) that supposed solutions to human problems frequently throw up further problems that are greater than that which the solution is designed to solve.

For its protagonists,

it has the advantage of creating a bureaucracy of virtue with pension arrangements to match.

Only the USA, he says,

with its constitutional commitment to free speech, has held the line against the encroachments of the professional purifiers of our utterances.

Trump’s finest hour

Donald Trump: patriotism, generosity and good sense

Reading in his morning newspaper that the General Assembly of the United Nations had greeted a short section of Donald Trump’s speech with laughter, Dalrymple’s esteem for the US president grows. The laughter, Dalrymple writes,

gave rise to Mr Trump’s finest moment. He took it in good part, admitted that he had not expected it, and said it was perfectly all right.

The moment

revealed something about world opposition to Mr Trump: that it is bogus or not deeply felt, and is pro forma.

Dalrymple asks:

  • Would the General Assembly have laughed disrespectfully at Mr Putin or Mr Xi, and would either of them have reacted in the same good-natured way if it had?
  • Did anyone laugh at Mr Obama’s fatuously grandiose claim that his election marked the beginning of healthcare in the United States and the healing of the planet, at least the equal in absurdity of anything said by Mr Trump?
  • Is Mr Trump’s slogan Make America great again any shallower than Mr Obama’s Yes we can?

Barack Obama: absurdity, grandiosity and fatuity

Dalrymple points out that Trump is held to a different standard; and anyone really believing the president was an incipient totalitarian dictator wouldn’t have laughed.

Trump’s speech offered

a more generous view of the world than that of most of his opponents. He called on the people of all countries to be patriotic, acknowledging that people of all countries had something to be patriotic about.

Trump’s was a vision of the world that was

far more genuinely multicultural and multipolar than those who believe in, or call for, a kind of European Union on a global scale, in which all cultures are ground into a food mixer from which a health-giving culture juice of universal rights (to healthcare, social security, etc.) will emerge.

The European Union monstrosity: an emergent bureaucratic tyranny

Trump’s view of patriotism certainly did not entail

the hatred of or disdain for, let alone enmity towards, other countries. What he said in essence was that he wanted a world of live and let live. He appeared to understand that a world government without borders would necessarily be a monstrous bureaucratic tyranny with no possible legitimacy.

To be sure, he simplified problems, but

to look to political speeches for subtle elucidation of knotty problems is like looking to tabloid newspapers for metaphysical insight.

How to get ahead in a state or corporate bureaucracy

The pseudo-poetic metaphors are about as inspirational as a cargo ship’s ballast

The vital quality, writes Dalrymple, is

the mastery of, and willingness to use, a certain kind of language that is opaque and almost meaningless to an outsider. The mastery requires dedication, and the willingness a lack of scruple. It demands a certain intelligence, but not high intelligence. Mediocrities do it best because others are impatient of it.

The language

is peculiar to itself, and makes a speech by the late Leonid Brezhnev seem like a soliloquy by Hamlet. Full of neologisms, its words have connotations but no definite meaning can be fixed to them. Vagueness is essential because only then can responsibility be denied when things go wrong. It is ugly and circumlocutory, but with occasional pseudo-poetic metaphors that are supposed to be inspirational but are as exciting as a cargo ship’s ballast.

This bureaucratese, says Dalrymple

is ever more widespread. It has left few corners of our world uninvaded. It is to be found almost everywhere. It is native to government, of course, but it is certainly not confined to government. Large companies employ it, as do educational institutions.

A question he has long pondered

is whether anyone, in the privacy of his mind, employs such language. I suspect that after a time those who employ it can use no other.

Whited sepulchre

Marlowe-Dalrymple in Europe’s heart of darkness

Dalrymple once took a job in the tropics, and his employer sent him for a medical examination to check that he was fit for hardship. He writes:

My medical was just like the one that Marlowe underwent in Heart of Darkness, before he went out to the Congo.

Marlowe’s medical was in Brussels, a city, Marlowe says, that ‘always makes me think of a whited sepulchre’. And then Marlowe adds, ‘Prejudice no doubt.’ Dalrymple confesses to

a similar prejudice. Brussels shows us our glorious future: bureaucracy and sex shows.

The Working Time Directive

This legal act of the European Union is, writes Dalrymple,

typical of modern legislation, or perhaps I should say administrative fiat. It appears to confer benefits or rights on those who come under its purview (in this case, almost everyone). As such, it is seen by many of its supposed beneficiaries as benign.

But

the supposed benefits exert a profound and baleful influence on the character of the supposed beneficiaries, always in the direction of increased dependence upon the administrators.

A medical profession, says Dalrymple, that is composed of clock-watching shift workers

will be far easier to control and order around than one that is both self-regulating and has a sense of vocation. The independence of citizens or professions is what the modern administrator fears more than anything else, for it strikes at the heart of his raison d’être and threatens him with actual, rather than merely existential, redundancy.

Like a butterfly to an entomologist’s board

The essays of Simon Leys, writes Dalrymple,

often combine delicacy with irony—a combination that few writers, especially in our times of stridency and parti pris, achieve.

Dalrymple cites the opening of Leys’ An Introduction to Confucius:

If we consider humanity’s greatest teachers of wisdom—the Buddha, Confucius, Socrates, Jesus—we are struck by a curious paradox: today, not one of them could obtain even the most modest of teaching posts in any of our universities.

Leys goes on to explain:

The reason is simple: their qualifications are insufficient—they have published nothing.

In two sentences, writes Dalrymple, Leys

has pinned, like a butterfly to an entomologist’s board, the bureaucratic sickness that has overtaken our institutions of higher learning (and not only those institutions). There is no madness more difficult to treat than that which believes itself sane, and there is no irrationality greater than that which believes itself perfect.

It is no surprise that Leys

retired early from his university chair because the university no longer bore any resemblance to what it had once been, and misled students and the rest of society into believing it still was. A community of scholars had become an organisation of foremen on a production line.

Why it is practically a duty to lie to authorities

Irrespective, writes Dalrymple, of

the paperless world to which digitisation was supposed to give rise (though it does not seem that there is any less paper than there used to be), it has not reduced bureaucracy. The ease with which information may be gathered, or asked for, has brought inefficiencies and irritations of its own.

Any organisation, governmental or private,

may easily demand to know more about us than we wish to reveal. Our only defence against this prepotent intrusion is lying, which in the great majority of cases will go undetected and be without consequence.