For some reason, I am feeling decidedly anti-bureaucracy today. Does this ever happen to you? What is it about bureaucracy that it is so difficult, that drives us mad? Let me give an obvious answer that you would expect from some cultural anthropology type like myself: it’s because of the inhumanity of it all. The inhumanity of some bureaucracies can become so thick that they turn us all into blithering fools.
We get backed into a corner, with no place to turn. Our choices are cut off–we are stuck with the hassles of lines, rules, and forms. We wait on phones, we try to find official offices with no address. You know what I’m talking about. We become not just fools in this process, but blithering fools. But there is power in the inefficiency of bureaucracies–Weber knew that, as did many others. You know that too, don’t you? If you want to know more about this, please click here for more options.
Apologies for that…there must be some sort of glitch in the system. I will send out a request for someone to post a note about composing an email to resolve this issue at a later date. Please wait. In the mean time, if you haven’t read David Graeber’s “Beyond power/knowledge: an exploration of the relation of power, ignorance and stupidity,” well, you should. Here is your chance.
Let me give you a short example of the hilarity of bureaucracy from some of my recent travel experiences:
Setting: A small taco stand in the middle of a well-known tourism destination in Mexico. The taco stand is located alongside the street, in a very small space next to a little convenience story that sells things like soda and sabritas. Novelas are on the TV (novelas are, for those of you who don’t know, soap operas).
Cast: Myself, and a few good friends. The cast also includes the very nice people who own the stand, the unseen phone caller, and the official who shows up to complicate the general plot. And then there is the big official who is in charge of everything, but that’s not for a bit.
Plot: We are at this taco place because said good friends really, really wanted to go there because this place is the best in town. Plus, we are hungry and need to get some food before a long drive.
So we arrive, greet the owners who are working hard, and sit down. We order. Fish tacos for some, and shrimp tacos for the more daring. One friend decides to walk down the street and buy two beers to drink with lunch. He does this because beer is not sold in this small taco stand.
Suddenly, after only a few minutes, an official appears on scene. He does not look at us, but instead talks grimly with the owner of the taco shop. Things look serious. Is this about us? I see the Spanish word for “alcohol” on the back of his uniform. Sure enough, it IS about us, and those two beers that we have on the table. Apparently, it is a BIG PROBLEM to have these two beers here, because the owner of the taco shop does not have authorization to have alcohol on his property. This is little more than a taco stand, mind you. A small cart, a shade, and one plastic table with some chairs alongside the street.
There are no signs posted–this is just the law. This is how things work, even if it doesn’t always work that way for many other shops and businesses all around this taco stand. Plus, the official tells us, someone called in this complaint so it has to be dealt with. If he did not deal with it, he could get fired. The fine? Two thousand US dollars (which is an exorbitant amount of money all things considered). Who pays? The owner of the taco stand, who doesn’t exactly make a ton of money. The owner categorically refuses to even consider paying any fine. He looks around the street and tells us that this is about jealousy.
We all feel terrible for this seemingly random–and overly punitive–citation. People drink beer at taco stands all the time. Why is this case such a big deal? The officer responds that this is just the way things are, and there is nothing he can do about it. Besides, we all should have known better–and there was the caller. The one who got the bureaucratic machine to awaken. There’s nothing that can be done. The process has already been started and now it just has to be seen through. The process is in charge now. My friend makes one last attempt: I have been traveling here for 30 years and nothing like this has ever happened! Tough, says the official. These are the rules.
He writes up the citation and leaves. We talk with the owner and agree to go to court with him the following day.
The next day we meet him downtown, where we can talk to the big official who is in charge of all this. The office is small. Other people are waiting to pay their fines. These are not rich people who are here to pay, let me put it that way. We wait, but not for too long. We step into the office of the official, which is full of what we assume to be contraband liquor that has been seized. We state our case, and he listens. The taco stand owner goes first, but doesn’t make much ground. Then we give it a try. First of all, we tell the official that this is not the fault of the taco shop owner–it is our fault. We should be to blame. We also argue that this should be a warning, since there were no signs posted, there were no other offenses, and since the law is so ambiguous.
He is done listening and tells us: “Ignorance of the law is no excuse.” He also asks us this pointed question: “If I was in YOUR country and this happened, tell me, what would happen to me?” One of my friends, who happens to be an attorney AND a restaurant owner, replies: “Well, depending on the situation, you would probably get a warning, especially if this was a first offense. Besides, while ignorance of the law is no excuse, we also have to take account of intent, no?”
This last line did not please the big official. It was a good try, though. But it may have made things worse. The official is visibly upset. He apologizes and says there is little he can do. The process is what it is, and the law is the law. He makes a show of punching up some numbers on a calculator. He reduces the fine substantially, but that was all he could do. He tells us that we are indeed responsible, along with the owner. Rules. Laws. Regulations.
The fine had to be paid, regardless of all the ambiguity. He directs us to the other office down the hall where we needed to go to pay the bill. After we pay, we were to come back and show proof of paying. There is a thirty dollar fee for the services and time of the big official. In effect, this is a small toll that must be paid in order to grease the wheels of business and politics. We all know it. What choices did we have? We pay the fine, feeling somewhat victorious because at least it wasn’t two grand. It’s not really a victory though. All of this time and money over two beers. Rules are rules, except when they’re not. The process controls all. We are stuck in its tentacles–all of us. The officials–everyone. There is power in the nonsense of it all. It happens here, and everywhere.
*Hilarious Firefox image comes from here.