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Hi, I'm Craig, and this is Crash Course Government & Politics, and today, we're gonna talk about
bureaucracies, just as soon as I finish filling out these forms. Do I really have to initial
here, here, and here on all three copies, Stan? Regulations say so? All right. I'm just
kidding. I don't really have to fill out forms in triplicate in order to make an episode
of Crash Course, but this kind of stuff is one of the main reasons that people don't like bureaucracies.
Americans tend to associate them with incomprehensible rules and time-wasting
procedures and probably most annoying - actual bureaucrats. But bureaucracies are a lot like our
extended families, in that we largely don't understand, or at least don't appreciate, the important role that
bureaucracies play in our lives, mainly because of all the forms, and because my cousin who always ate
all the cookies from the jar at Grandma's house.
[Theme Music]
So what exactly IS a bureaucracy? I don't like to do this, because I'm arrogant and
lazy, but sometimes it's helpful to go to a dictionary when you need to find out what
a word means. So here's a serviceable, political science-y definition: "A bureaucracy is a
complex structure of offices, tasks, rules, and principles of organization that are employed
by all large scale institutions to coordinate the work of their personnel."
Two points to emphasize here: First, bureaucracies are made up of experts who usually know more
about the topic at hand than you do and who are able to divide up complex tasks so that
they can get done. Second, all large scale institutions use bureaucracies, so the distinction
between big business and big government is, in at least this respect, bogus, or what I
like to call a false dichotomy. Is that too pretentious to say "false dichotomy," Stan?
I don't care, I'm saying it. False dichotomy!
So if people hate bureaucracies so much and compare them unfavorably with Google and Amazon,
why do we have them? Well, the main reason is that bureaucracies are efficient. They
make it easier for governments to accomplish tasks quickly and to basically operate at
all. In the US, federal bureaucrats fulfill a number of specific important functions.
One, bureaucrats implement the laws that Congress writes. Have you ever read a law? They're
pretty complicated. It's a good idea to have experts who can interpret them and put them
into action. Two, bureaucrats also make and enforce their own rules. But this isn't as
action hero-ish as it sounds. And three, they settle disputes through a process called administrative
adjudication, which makes them kind of like courts.
Now, since I know that all of you have been paying extremely close attention to these
episodes, you know that at least two of those functions are problematic in ways that go
beyond making rules that seem Byzantine or stupid or both - Byzantupid.
The big concern here is the separation of powers, which you remember is the idea that
power is divided between three branches of government. Technically the federal bureaucracy
is part of the executive branch, but it's so big that it dwarfs the other two branches
and can easily overpower them, much like I overpower this eagle.
"That's right eagle. I make my own rules, like a bureaucracy."
But an even more troubling, to some people, aspect of bureaucracies is what they actually do.
So let's go to the Thought Bubble. Bureaucracies don't just enforce the rules; they make new
ones called regulations. In doing this, they're acting like a legislature, especially since
the rules have the force of law and people can be punished for breaking them. For example,
if you say "Sh%t Sticks" on TV, the FCC can fine you, just like the local law enforcement
would if you broke a state law against speeding. And don't say "Sh%t Sticks" to the cop. But
according to the Constitution, Congress is supposed to make the laws, so if you're a
constitutional formalist, this is going to give you fits.
On the other hand, the rule making process allows for a degree of popular participation
that goes way beyond what happens in Congress. In 2014, Congress called for the mandatory
notice and comment period on new FCC rules on the issue of net neutrality. Any person
can read the proposed rules which are not easy to understand and offer a public comment,
including suggestions for new rules using the internet. The bureaucracy is required to
read the comments and they could be incorporated into the final rules that are published in the federal register.
So in a way, federal rule-making is more democratic than congressional law-making, but it's still
not in the constitution. Administrative adjudication raises similar separation of powers issues,
but they're less problematic because the constitution gives congress the right to establish courts
other than the Supreme Court and it doesn't say that these can't be administrative tribunals
that are part of bureaucratic agencies.
Many low level bureaucratic positions are filled through competitive exam-based civil
service procedures which are supposed to ensure a level of expertise and take politics out
of the staffing process. But many upper level bureaucratic leaders especially cabinet secretaries
and also ambassadors are very political. For one thing, they're appointed by politicians
who may be repaying favors or trying to pack the agencies with like-minded favorites.
For another, bureaucrats engage in bargaining and protect their own interests, the very
thing that politicians do all the time. Thanks Thought Bubble.
So the first reason we keep bureaucracies is because bureaucracies are useful. They
do get things done even though it might not be as quickly as we'd like. And some of these
things are things we want done, like inspecting our meat so we don't get E. coli or Salmonella
or Mad Cow Disease. One response to this that we'll talk about later is to get rid of public
bureaucracies and contract their tasks out to private companies. There's something to
be said to this. After all, in a lot of ways UPS does a better job of getting packages
to us than the postal service does. And I also have a lot more fun at the private bowling
alley than the public one. There's no such thing as a public bowling alley.
If there is, I'm going. Might be free.
But the main argument for privatization seems to be cost. And that one might not always
be true. It seems unlikely that a private corporation would spring up to inspect meat.
And although we can rely on pricing to signal that our chicken wings are salmonella free,
I don't think it's a good idea. So in addition to being useful and filling roles that the
private sector might not fill, one of the reasons we have so many bureaucracies is because
Congress keeps making them and delegating power to them.
If we didn't have bureaucracy, Congressmen and their staff would be taking on all the
oversight and enforcement of their own laws. In addition to creating its own separation
of powers problem, this might be kind of chaotic, considering that potentially the entire House
of Representatives could be replaced every two years.
One advantage of bureaucracies is a certain amount of stability in the built-up expertise
that comes with it. Probably the main reason why we don't change bureaucracies though is
that doing so is really difficult. Once Congress makes a bureaucracy it's usually permanent
for a number of practical and political reasons. We'll get into those reasons next time.
So I'm going to wrap this up with a little bit of a reminder about Federalism, based
on a largely unwarranted assertion. I bet that if you ask most Americans to give an
example of a bureaucracy they will say the DMV. Most people will tell you a DMV horror
story of the time they had to wait in line for four hours just to renew their license
and when they got to the counter a clerk told them that they didn't have the right forms
and they needed to post a money order, and not a credit card or a check or even cash
and that anyway they had to go on break and I had to come back in fifteen minutes and
all I wanted was my license-- AAAAAAH the DMV!
And I sympathize with this predicament but I feel the need to remind anyone who has had
this experience at the DMV, that it's a state bureaucracy, not the federal bureaucracy.
Most of the bureaucrats you meet in your daily life: teachers, policeman, tax assessors are
officials of your state government, not the federal government, like Bureaucrat Jimmy.
Which is pretty much what the Framers intended.
So it's a good idea to be thoughtful about which government we're going to transfer our
anger towards and to rage against the correct machine. That's what federalism's all about.
Thanks for watching. I'll see you next week.
Crash Course: Government & Politics is produced in association with PBS Digital Studios. Support
for Crash Course: U.S. Government comes from Voqal. Voqal supports nonprofits that use
technology and media to advance social equity. Learn more about their mission and initiatives
at Crash Course was made with the help of these soulless bureaucrats. Thanks for watching.
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Bureaucracy Basics: Crash Course Government and Politics #15

85 Folder Collection
zhangyor published on October 25, 2019
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