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Diversity Inclusion Equity as bureaucratic pathology
The functionality of dysfunction
This is the nineteenth piece in ’s series of essays on the strange and disorienting times in which we live. The publication schedule is available here.
This article can be adumbrated thusly: bureaucracies are both useful and pathological, but diversity-equity-inclusion represents extreme bureaucratic pathology. This is something for which there is Late Antiquity historical precedent.
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The trouble with bureaucracy is that it’s both useful AND pathological. If it were just useful, there would be no problem. If it were just pathological, no one would use it. It being both useful and pathological makes assessing and deploying it much trickier.
Bureaucracy is useful because almost any administrative function can be turned into a set of processes, to a series of sequential tasks, thereby creating administrative regularity. Our highly complex societies are pervaded by bureaucracy, whether government, non-profit, or corporate.
The problems with bureaucracy start with it focusing on tasks and processes rather than effects and outcomes, so it loses focus on either efficiency or effectiveness—on either parsimony in resource use or on net benefits flowing from what it does. It can be hard to judge where the more-bureaucracy-than-you-need line is.
Spending resources on themselves
The problem is worse than that, however, as with bureaucracy—whether government, non-profit or corporate—inefficiencies are profit. The more resources the administrative process consumes, the more benefits are available to bureaucrats. There is a sense in which bureaucrats thrive on inefficiency.
Bureaucracy has internal incentives to multiply itself, because this grows career opportunities. This tendency militates against efficiency in resource use and indirectly against effective production of positive outcomes.
This is quite different from commerce’s tendency to select for efficiency. In commerce, discovering ways of releasing unused resources to be sold to others—or making it cheaper to sell to others—is a potential source of income.
It is not accidental that mercantile societies—with their incentives for discovery of opportunities—are persistently more economically efficient and productive than command economies, which are pervaded by bureaucratic pathologies. Leninist regimes—once they reached the end of growth from just-adding-inputs (particularly moving peasants into factories)—had to allow far more commerce in order to generate significant economic growth.
Moreover, expansion of bureaucracy increases the degree of separation between outcomes and those carrying out—including allocating and designing—tasks and processes. Inefficiency breeds inefficiency.
One of the perennial problems of bureaucracy is that bureaucrats are insulated from the cost their decisions impose on others. The stronger reality tests are, the more insulated from error pathologies is any given system.
There is also the cost in resources (time and money) expended by outsiders in dealing with bureaucracy. These costs are not counted within bureaucratic budgets.
Bureaucratic expansion means more resources can be allocated according to bureaucrats’ preferences, rather than those on whose behalf they are meant to act. This aggravates what is known as the principal-agent problem.
Decisions are made according to what fits with the flow of processes and tasks, and is structured so as to serve the status of and provide opportunities for those involved. This can be, and often is, compatible with decisions adverse to human flourishing and having little to do with realities on the ground.
It can be hard for citizens of developed democracies to grasp how much social dysfunction bureaucracies can generate or enable. In a notorious experiment, students of Peruvian economist Hernando de Soto attempted to set up a small textile workshop. To get the required permissions took 278 days of dealing with bureaucracy.
The difference between the developed wealth of Anglo America and the lack of it in Latin America—remembering European settlement started over a century earlier—flows from systematic differences in the level of bureaucratic and regulatory dysfunction. The Iberian institutional regime generated much higher rates of transaction friction—systematically lower levels of transactions across centuries—than the Anglo one.
Bureaucracy is dysfunctional because it is subject to various pathologies. Along with the tendency to select for inefficiency—for more resources to be spent on and through itself—there is also a tendency to hoard authority. The more authority a bureaucracy claims, the higher its standing and ability to grab resources.
A classic way for bureaucrats to hoard authority is to parade as the agent of whomever they are supposed to be serving. “We serve you Majesty, Highness, Mr President, Madam Secretary, Prime Minister, Minister, Vice-Chancellor, you can rely on us…” Another way is to profess exaggerated commitment to operative legitimating norms: be they Christian, Muslim, Confucian, Legalist, Progressive (or whatever).
A further way to hoard authority is for bureaucracies to elevate themselves as source of information while de-legitimising or otherwise disparaging alternative sources of information. This includes claiming trumping expertise—by announcing you are science, for example—or presenting as reliable agents who can be trusted when other sources of information cannot be. Bureaucrats use either or both mechanisms to increase their social standing.
This is especially so if alternative information sources are actual or potential rivals—or otherwise awkward or inconvenient—for those to whom they report. Of course, that such people are precisely those whose concerns need to be attended to more closely means that disparaging them as information sources can create quite dysfunctional patterns.
The recent pandemic displayed a dramatic manifestation of authority-hoarding by de-legitimising alternative sources of information. Various public health authorities—using regulatory and other mechanisms—sought to suppress reports from clinicians that did not fit the official policy narrative.
As a way of dealing with a novel virus, this was bonkers. When approaching a new disease, you absolutely need to use the experience of clinicians “at the coal face”. But that presumes that the purpose was to maximise public health, that public health authorities were acting as reliable agents for the general public.
If, however, the purpose was to hoard authority, then suppressing contradictory reports from clinicians is precisely the thing to do. We Homo sapiens are good at self-deception, at rationalising and moralising our self-interest. This is particularly so when people in a particular milieu—such as a bureaucracy—share common interests and incentives. Selection for ways to moralise and rationalise self interest operates more strongly the lower are costs of error (to them).
It is a sign of how modern societies are pervaded by bureaucratic patterns that this dysfunctional approach to information was so little remarked upon during the pandemic. Some of the convergence between patterns within developed democracies and those of the Soviet Union during its latter years can be seen as instances of late stage bureaucracy. Any formal—or even informal—process that “accredits” acceptable/unacceptable beliefs is likely to facilitate bureaucratic authority hoarding.
It was easier to cast a jaundiced eye on public health bureaucracies and their poor performance during the pandemic if you were already aware of what crap the official nutrition guidelines are. This awareness alerts one to how weak are the reality tests operating on public health authorities.
Protection from the complexities of competence
A third form of bureaucratic pathology is to seek to protect bureaucrats from the complexities of competence.
Imposing accountability on bureaucracy is difficult. Its internal incentives lean towards more inefficiency, towards consuming more resources for less effect. This often translates into more standing and status for less effort.
It’s in the interests of bureaucrats to be judged on their intent: the more resources allocated for that stated intent, the better. Intent+correct process+resources=outcomes is very much their preferred understanding of accountability
It’s in bureaucrats’ interests to substitute measures of activity—justified by stated intent or purpose—for measured outcomes and effectiveness. Note how the bureaucratised academy substitutes things easily measured—total number of publications, say—for something actually useful.
Much of the appeal of supranational and international organisations is precisely their ability to evade the constraints of accountability and local political bargaining. Operating “globally” hoards authority and evades electoral accountability.
It’s easy to presume bureaucracies are structured around their notional role, whether or not this is true in practice. There’s a tendency to see state apparats as somehow automatic agents for their wider society when for most of human history this hasn’t been remotely true.
On the contrary, taxed and pacified inhabitants have often been far more the resources of the state apparat—including the ruler at its apex—than the reverse. Even in autocracies, making sure officials did serve as agents was a constant struggle for rulers.
Autocracies have a bigger principal-agent problem than parliamentary states. One of the most horrifying pieces of social analysis I’ve ever read is Mancur Olson’s argument that Stalin’s purges were a rational way of ensuring the Soviet apparatus was responsive to his wishes. They broke bureaucratic networks and provided him with multiple information sources. Hitler used overlapping (so competing) responsibilities to generate a similar effect.
Only in polities with deliberative assemblies has there been any progress towards state apparats working as agents for their wider societies. Even in the most democratic states, however, this is still never completely true.
Deliberative assemblies able to scale up on the representative principle first emerged in medieval Europe. These Parliaments, Cortes, Estates, Diets, etc. provided medieval rulers with independent information on their officials’ actions. They were a means of finding out what was bothering societal power-holders and bargaining with them about it. The ability to put those bargains into law made the bargaining worthwhile for the bargaining parties.* Taxes negotiated with power holders were easier—and safer—to collect.
Autocracies often left land taxes at fixed rates for centuries because they had no reliable means of judging whether raising such taxes would provoke revolt. Taxes on trade, meanwhile, were less likely to provoke mass revolt.
Far from Parliaments keeping taxes low, they allowed rulers—through political bargaining—to impose higher taxes. From the late medieval period to the C19th, the highest taxing European states (the Serene Republic of Netherlands, the Republic of the Seven United Netherlands, the Kingdom of Great Britain) were the most parliamentary European states.
The larger the state apparat becomes, the wider the scope of its activities, the more it will tend to evade accountability. No accountability mechanism is infinitely flexible.
If much of the media adopts the Pravda media model, delegitimising or avoiding information or discussion that is inconvenient for the current narrative, then lack of accountability will increase. We saw this in the pandemic—when policies that made little sense in terms of human health but a great deal of sense in terms of bureaucratic pathologies—became what “this is what the moral and good believe”.
Diversity Inclusion Equity
Diversity-Inclusion-Equity (DIE) programs are ubiquitous across the developed Anglosphere and creeping into the European Union. Yet there is no evidence that Diversity-Inclusion-Equity programs and officers do any good. One the contrary, there is considerable evidence they do social harm. Getting people to focus on their differences and then construct moralised hierarchies out of those differences: what could possibly go wrong?
Nevertheless, Diversity-Inclusion-Equity has swept through bureaucracies, whether government, non-profit or corporate. Diversity-Inclusion-Equity has done so because it is structured to target bureaucratic pathologies.
Diversity-Inclusion-Equity facilitates spending money on bureaucracy and bureaucratic activity, with all those diversity officers and diversity courses. It hoards authority on the grounds that it’s fighting bigotry. It’s part of an endlessly promoted set of moral projects that extend as far as adjusting language.
Diversity-Inclusion-Equity provides protection against the complexities of competence. To even raise the question of whether it does any good is to question the morality of fighting bigotry.
The Activists’ Fallacy is applied to protect against the complexities of competence.
We are doing X to fight Y.
You have raised questions about X.
You are against Y.
The appeal to activists of Diversity-Inclusion-Equity is quite straightforward. Equity enables one to gain control over resources; diversity, control over hiring; and inclusion control over speech and association. Diversity officers become embedded commissars and inquisitors.
Select, coordinate, activate
The spread of Diversity-Inclusion-Equity is part of a general process of bureaucratic capture—whether government, non-profit or corporate—by Post-Enlightenment Progressivism (“wokery”).
Ideological conformity is bureaucratically convenient. Consider these questions:
Whom do you employ? How do you coordinate? What do you do?
A shared ideology simplifies employment: you select for ideological adherents. It helps you coordinate: people are all working off the same playbook. This helps in coordinating tasks and processes and developing mechanisms to rationalise and moralise collective self-interest. The ideology is even more bureaucratically useful when it generates various moral projects to be getting along with.
We can see the benefits of a shared belief system in the Christianisation of the late Roman Empire. This starts with Diocletian (r.284-305) shifting to more in-kind taxation, requiring an orders-of-magnitude increase in the size of the bureaucracy. As classical historian Ramsay MacMullen points out:
Under Diocletian’s rule the rate of increase of government was hugely accelerated. Increase continued more slowly over the next century or so. Impossible though any exact census of the administration must remain, still, it is safe that the roughly three hundred career civil servants in the reign of Caracalla (a. 211-217) had become thirty to thirty-five thousand at any given time in the later empire, a change attributable in the greater part to Diocletian.
The massive increase in the size of the bureaucracy also meant a lower general level of education and cultural attainment among officials.
The huge increase in the cost of the imperial administration—along with undermining civic self-government—meant a decline in what the Roman state provided. The quality of the famous Roman road system declined precipitously. Historian John Haldon notes
the dramatic change that occurred … over the period from the later fourth to seventh centuries. For there set in a gradual decline in the standard of many—if not most—major public roads. The reasons for this remain unclear: in terms of maintenance and upkeep, it seems in part to reflect a shift in priorities in the allocation of resources and an unwillingness on the part of provincial cities to devote the necessary resources. Already in the Codex Theodosianus, laws of the later fourth and early fifth centuries regret the poor state of many roads. A fifth-century historian notes that the western sections of the Via Egnatia—the major route westwards from Constantinople to the Adriatic coast—was in such a state of disrepair that travellers could barely pass along it … (p.51)
Given the selection and coordination problems such a greatly increased bureaucracy generated, it’s not a coincidence that the first powerful emperor after Diocletian is the first Christian emperor, Constantine (r.306-337) and that all the succeeding emperors, apart from Julian the Apostate, were Christian. Christianity provided a selection filter (be Christian), a coordination aid (all officials employing the Christian playbook) and generated various moral projects.
We can see exactly the same process in contemporary bureaucracies, something happening in part thanks to the collapse of a previous religious settlement.
The status-through-norm-conformity game creates a network monopoly effect. The more “you have to believe X to be a good person” applies, the more incentive there is to affirm X and to block people who disagree with X.
So, Diversity-Inclusion-Equity not only allows bureaucracies to spend resources on themselves, hoard authority, and protect themselves against the complexities of competence. It helps make selection processes and coordination easier and feeds a shared status game. And all without any evidentiary base for its claims.
But, in highly bureaucratised societies, serving bureaucratic pathologies is a powerful advantage: a case of the functionality of dysfunction.
The next few essays examine the contemporary welfare state’s inward-colonising patterns.
* Hence civilisations where law was based on revelation (Islam and Brahmin civilisation) tended to autocratic polities that had very limited ability to create distinctive-to-a-polity institutions, and so take long-term advantage of competitive jurisdictions. Classical India had non-autocratic states, the gana sangha states, but this tradition died once the brahmins managed to acquire legal dominance as part of their (successful) response to Buddhism and the other śramaṇa movements. In Islam, the pirate Republic of Salé (c.1624-1668) was clearly a (one-off) copy by Morisco refugees of Christian self-governing cities.
Ronald Coase & Ning Wang, How China Became Capitalist, Palgrave Macmillan, 2013.
John Haldon, Warfare, State and Society in the Byzantine World 565–1204, UCL Press, 1999.
Ira M. Lapidus, A History of Islamic Societies, Cambridge University Press,  2014.
Arthur Lewis, ‘Economic Development with Unlimited Supplies of Labour,’ The Manchester School, May 1954.
Ramsay MacMullen, Christianity and Paganism in the Fourth to Eighth Centuries, Yale University Press, 1997.
Mancur Olson, Power and Prosperity: Outgrowing Communist and Capitalist Dictatorships, Basic Books, 2000.
Hernando de Soto, The Mystery of Capital: Why Capitalism Triumphs in the West and Fails Everywhere Else, Bantam Books, 2000.
Romila Thapar, The Penguin History of Early India: From the Origins to AD 1300, Penguin,  2003.
Edward J Watts, The Final Pagan Generation, University of California Press, 2015.
Jan Luiten van Zanden, Eltjo Buringh, and Maarten Bosker, ‘The rise and decline of European parliaments, 1188–1789,’ The Economic History Review, 65, 3 (2012), 835–861.