Bureaucracies & the power of nonsense

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.

End.

 

*Hilarious Firefox image comes from here.

Ryan Anderson is a cultural anthropologist whose work focuses on the politics of development and land in Baja California Sur, Mexico. He is currently living out in the desert while finishing up his dissertation. You can reach him at ryan AT savageminds dot org or @anthropologia on twitter.

27 thoughts on “Bureaucracies & the power of nonsense

  1. Shouldn’t the word “fine” in the above account be replaced with the word “bribe”?

    This doesn’t sound much different from descriptions of everyday bribery practices that I have heard from a fellow grad student doing research in an Eastern European (not to imply that all Eastern European countries are havens of bribery or corruption).

  2. bureaucracy A system in which every member of an institution is empowered to tell you ‘no’ and only one member is empowered to tell you ‘yes.’

    There’s that great line in the film Traffic about how employment as a LEO is an entrepreneurial endeavor in Mexico. From afar your situation looks just as much like semi-structured rent-seeking with some latitude for negotiation regarding the amount ultimately paid than it does the enforcement of laws. One could make the case that this sort of thing is actually less cynical than the way the rule of law is used to enhance revenue streams under the pretense of public safety (for some reason Americans tend to think that most citations for speeding or moving violations given in the United States have public safety as a primary motivation rather than the filling of an officer’s monthly quota, a quota set by in accordance with budgetary concerns of the jurisdiction).

  3. MTB:

    Ha, good point about tickets in the US! The worst part about that, I agree, is that people assume it’s all about public safety. Talk about the perfect screen for producing some cold hard cash.

  4. Clarification, please. I am aware that the original official may have been angling for a bribe. As the case is described, however, no bribe takes place. An official citation is written and, then, in court, the amount of the penalty is reduced. I can see this as an example of petty bureaucratically officiousness, but not as a case of bribery.

    P.S. I am reminded that somewhere in my library is a copy of a book by Harvard’s Michael Herzfeld, who argues that it is indifference rather than active self-seeking that is characteristic of bureaucratic behavior. I remember, as someone who lives in Japan, scratching my head about that, since, on the whole, Japanese bureaucrats are susceptible to appeals couched in what Eric Berne would have called “poor little me” mode:”Aw, shucks, I have been so stupid….” This works well as long as the bureaucrat’s superior status and authority are recognized. Rational argument that assumes equality of parties or, worse still, the privileged position of the supplicant (“I am an American citizen,” for example) has the opposite effect. The petition is abruptly rejected and additional penalties may be imposed.

  5. John,

    Well, I put “fine” in there originally because it was documented, there was an actual citation, and a procedure was followed. Although grad student guy got me thinking about the borders between bribes and fines. Kinda interesting, since we consider one more legit than another. But officially sanctioned fines can be as egregious as anything. Also, official #1 was not pining for a bribe, definitely not. It was all about the citation, with no room or interest for discussing the finer details of the situation or the law.

    PS: Good point about the dangers of rational arguments that assume equality among parties involved. The argument was in fact quite nicely framed, but it was a risky move. But I do think there was a bit of a touché moment there, but it didn´t last for too long!

  6. Putting aside “egregious,” what interests me here is the range of possible bureaucratic behavior: from rule-following oblivious to circumstance, the indifference that I recall Herzfeld describing, to officials empowered to exercise judgment in terms of broader and sometimes contradictory values that I find in Japan. I associate the latter with Confucian and other imperial traditions, thinking simultaneously of district magistrates in imperial China and district officers in the British empire. I wonder if the official who issued the citation was a particularly officious individual who might have done otherwise or, alternatively, entrapped in a bureaucracy where where obsessive rule-following is the norm.

  7. The reason I asked about bribing is that it reminded me of a certain pattern I had described to be by a fellow grad student in an Eastern European country (I will note that it is one of the countries outside the EU and leave it at that). As it was described to me, people would sometimes have to pay a fine or pay some bureaucratic fee. This fee was always more than the individual could pay and sometimes the target of the fine/fee did not know if there was an actual law on the books that mandated that that was the actual amount he or she was supposed to pay. After some negotiation, the fine/fee was reduced to reasonable amount which clearly was going directly to the official taking the fee. A receipt was given indicating that the didn’t have to pay the fine/fee with some excuse about it being an error or indicating an amount that was less than was actually payed out. I think the implication was supposed to be that the cop and official were in on the whole thing.

    A similar phenomenon was described to me by an archaeologist leaving a field site who had to pay an “insurance” fee to have equipment return with him on a flight. He got a receipt showing that he paid but when he tried to reimburse it for travel expenses there was no actual record of him having payed a fee nor was their any indication that such a fee actually existed his chosen airline.

  8. The owner categorically refuses to even consider paying any fine. He looks around the street and tells us that this is about jealousy.

    You would probably have to do a ton of ethnography to figure out what is behind this statement, but I think it fair to say that your bureaucratic entanglement was probably anything but impersonal.

  9. This episode seems related to a phenomenon I have observed over and over in Mexico, but do not fully understand anthropologically. Many laws and rules are set up so that one cannot avoid breaking them. This gives the authorities the ability to step in and exact a fine (or punishment, or fee, or bribe, or whatever) whenever they feel like it. Traffic laws provide a clear example. You drive into a town on a highway with, say a 60 mph speed limit, and all of a sudden the speed limit is 15 mph. If you slow down to that speed, you will cause an accident because everyone is driving 60 or 50 mph.The traffic cop can pick and choose who to pull over (gringos are a top choice, I can say with experience). I have seen this same phenomenon in many other domains of Mexican law and society. The rules are so strict that either it is logically impossible to follow them, or else so inconvenient that no one in their right mind follows them. And when you do try to follow them (like slowing way down because the motorcycle cop is sitting in his regular spot), it makes no difference; if they want to nab you, they will think of something else. I have long been struck by this kind of practice, but I don’t understand it socially or culturally. Any suggestions?

  10. Any suggestions?

    Any number! Impunty; there is a diachronically mishmashed and enmeshed “system” of infrastructure, jurisdictions, and laws; jurisdiction overlaps and/or is unclear; the municipales are very poorly paid and supplement their incomes by motorists who suggest they might be able to settle the fine on the spot; the transito is pulling the driver on the pretense of a moving violation but actually suspecting or at least hoping to find something else; the end of the quota period is coming up; the cop’s wife and/or boss yelled at him earlier that day…

  11. What would it take to provide an “anthropological understanding” of the phenomenon exemplified by the case to which Ryan has drawn out attention? Does it suffice to provide an ethnographic account in which the incident is explained in terms of a mixture of personal motivation and local culture and circumstance? Or do we need to consider the fact that similar behavior is endemic and occurs all over the world? I recall hearing the phrase “speed trap” used by my parents to describe a technique for filling the local treasury or the pockets of local officials in small towns along highways in the U.S.A. Having worked in China, I am aware of the subtleties involved in both legitimate and illegitimate uses of “hung boa” (red packets stuffed with money) that are used as gifts and frequently shade over into bribery when given to those from whom favors are desired. Anyone looking for similar examples has only to consult the Wikipedia article on “Baksheesh,” a term applied variously to alms, tips and bribes throughout much of South and Southeast Asia. If corruption, more broadly conceived, is included, ponzi schemes, insider trading, and political contributions may also require attention. Where, in the face of all this data, does anthropological understanding begin or end?

  12. It strikes me that what happened to you in Mexico is still rooted in relationships between the taco stand operator, police officer, judge, etc. Relationships are face-to-face, and hierarchy/status are very relevant. There is some of the anthropological “charm” associated with navigating such circumstances, and why you were able to get $1970 off the price of your ticket!

    A bureaucratic situation is a ticket I recently received after my graduate student son drove my car through a red light in San Francisco. An automatic cameral took a picture of him and my car, and then a ticket for $490 was issued to me. The ticket said if it wasn’t you in the car, you could get off by fingering whoever was driving. This struck me as being a bad deal, because if I fingered my son, I would still have to pay since he has no money.

    I sent a letter(actually two letters) to the court, saying “it’s not me,” and declined to finger my son (the form asked). I called a phone number which had an automated answering machine, which I worked through, and then spent 75 minutes on hold before I talked to a real person. That real person asked me if I’d fingered my son (answer: no) and told me my ticket would be reviewed by a judge two months later. Three months later I called them back, and the machine told me that my ticket was dismissed, though not the reason why. This was important to me, because I am leaving the country for the Holidays, and will be crossing the border again in January. I am hoping that a warrant will not have been issued by the computer for my arrest at that time.

    Such impersonality would be the hallmark of bureaucratic action which George Ritzer described as “the irrationality in rationality,” and Arlo Guthrie in the song “Alice’s Restaurant.” Take home lesson: Police in Mexico seeking bribes are sometimes easier to deal with than courthouse answering machines in San Francisco.

  13. Tony W wrote: “Take home lesson: Police in Mexico seeking bribes are sometimes easier to deal with than courthouse answering machines in San Francisco.”

    That’s pretty interesting that you came to this conclusion. Yesterday I was talking with a few of my friends, and one of them came to the same conclusion about the politics/bureaucracy here in Mexico versus some other places. His answer was that there’s actually a lot more room for negotiation at the everyday level–as compared to the automated catastrophes that you’re talking about in SF. I thought that was an interesting conclusion that my friend came to. His basic point was that in the US, for example, only certain people are able to negotiate, and everyone else has to deal with the rules, forms, lines, and automation. Here, he said, everyone can negotiate. Unlike your situation with the ticket. No deals.

    What I really appreciate about a lot of the comments here is that many of you are bringing up the fact that a lot of the underlying currents in the situation I recounted are in fact rooted in personal histories, relationships, and interactions. The phone call. The first official who was worried about doing things according to the law. The stand owner’s comment about jealousy. The discounted ticket after the legal debate faceoff. Etc. The bureaucratic system provides a platform for negotiation and enforcement, but individuals are the ones who push it in one direction or another. They pick up the phone and rat out their neighbor. Or refuse to pay fines. Or make appeals to their superior. And so on…

  14. @ John- I would suggest that an “anthropological understanding” of Ryan’s episode would both relate the episode to broader cultural patterns in Mexico, while also explicating such patterns in relation to other cultures. Yes corruption is found in all cultures. But why is it so much more common in Mexico, for example, in comparison to Canada?

    And my query concerned my observation that such practices of laws and rules that are made to be broken are in fact very widespread in Mexico, in all sorts of domains. So this is not a simple case of traffic cop corruption but rather a manifestation of a broad cultural pattern for which I feel I don’t have much of an understanding.

    So to me, an “anthropological understanding” involves both explanation and comparison.

  15. Michael, we are in broad agreement. I’m digging into details. Is there significant variation across regions within Mexico? Why Mexico vs Canada? Why not Mexico vs. Guatemala, Nicaragua, Costa Rica or Colombia? Why not Mexico vs China, India, or Egypt or Serbo-Croatia? I am seeing an all too familiar pattern here. Travelers familiar with one part of the world visit another and immediately start describing differences as specific to the area new to them, without considering whether they are, perhaps, more widespread. We see a lot of this in Japan studies, especially when people from the U.S.A. write about Japan/U.S.A differences as if the U.S.A. were representative of “the West,” when in fact Japan is a typical, close to the mean example of a developed country in distributions in which the U.S.A. is an outlier.

  16. And my query concerned my observation that such practices of laws and rules that are made to be broken are in fact very widespread in Mexico, in all sorts of domains.

    Do you have evidence that they are made to be broken? It could well be that there is some sort of intent, but there are a number of other possibilities. Laws might just be unenforceable. Catch 22s might not be the result of intent but rather of poor legislative planning and/or overlap. Conflict of laws is a tough enough nut when there is a transparent judiciary.

    So this is not a simple case of traffic cop corruption but rather a manifestation of a broad cultural pattern for which I feel I don’t have much of an understanding.

    I’ve heard Mexican friends say a version of the same regarding U.S. drug laws and the enforcement of them. There is some cultural patterning going on with them (willful ignorance is as culturally patterned as anything else), but culture is only one ingredient in the law and society mix. Is the existence of the DEA primarily about culture? Or is that agency just an ill-conceived piece of machinery that keeps operating due to the pressures and constraints of federal budgetary and electoral considerations?

  17. This discussion reminds me of Durkheim’s assertion that “crime is necessary” to mark out the morality that is society. This often makes Americans in particular uncomfortable because it means right and wrong, good and bad are relative, and not absolute. Nevertheless it is perhaps a good way to frame Ryan’s description of bribery/fines in Mexico, as well as John’s comments about how Japan/US studies often work out to be a comparison between the US which is assumed to be the western normative, as opposed to the exotic Japanese other.

    I would expect that Japanese though do tend to commit the same methodological pattern in their own studies of the US. I.e. that Japan is normative while the “other,” which is the US (or China or Europe) is what highlights this Japanese norm. John, am I on the right track?

  18. I’d have to say that bureaucracy is completely within the realm of humanity, and is fully human. The various forms of bureaucracy are simply organization adaptations to getting more than 150, or so, people together for a common cause.

    In my experience with organizational studies, and working within large bureaucracies, it does seem like 150< people is about the critical mass where communication begins to get choked up, and consultants get called in. I would think that complex forms of organization are as much of a human adaptation as flint tools, or trigonometry.

    Also, having worked in inner city, poor communities, city halls, NGO's, Mexico, Japan, and Afghanistan -the issues that each face in terms of corruption, bureaucracy, and politicing are all the same responses to similar ecological/economic conditions at different levels of scale and type. If you tell me that there are four particular social variables present at a government office, then I will predict with high accuracy what level of corruption you'll find, and what type of corruption. I saw very little difference between the kind of caustic and rationalistic corruption I studied in Afghanistan, with that which caused the financial crisis on Wall Street, for example. Everyone there, however, was working with the assumption that it was somehow a unique cultural form among the Afghans; rather than understanding it as the predictable outcome of a set of incentives, oversight, and opportunity. We truly are one species, and I think anthropology as a whole should get back to the basics and start parsing out what variables predict what type of human behavior in a given time and place. We'd then become very useful and sought after.

    In order to do this, we'd need to get back to the kind of cultural relativism similar to the type of deductive reasoning that a physical anthropologist uses to examine other primates. There is a huge place for the traditional inductive data gathering found among lone anthropologists, but at this point in the development of the science, we know enough and have the necessary databases to start looking at social patterns, and predicting where we will find them globally and then going to see if they are there. If what we predict to be there is there, then we have solid theory building. To be judgmental about human behavior is to be angry about being human. A primatologist doesn't get angry about chimps flinging poop, and that's all we are in the end; chimps flinging poop.

  19. The more bothersome case is when we are not talking about bureaucratic “inconveniences” but bureaucratic structures that cause wide-spread suffering. Most of the cases being discussed here seem to focus on relatively minor ill-effects of bureaucracy. Rick H talks about some “larger” cases, but links immediately to corruption–which I think it’s a different issue entirely. Bureaucracy can cause suffering all by itself, it doesn’t need to be corrupt.

    The case I have in mind is the U.S.-led sanctions regime in Iraq. There you basically had a system set up where analysts in offices would be told to see if a certain item, say, gauze or Elmer’s school glue, could possibly be used by the military (and as the military is usually made of up people, most things people can use can be used by the military), so an analyst in the office in the U.S. says sure, this could be used by the military in such-and-such way. This goes a level up to the next guy who compiles recommendations on tons of items and gives them a check or an X, which is delivered to a U.S. 661 committee UN person, who just puts a hold on anything with an “X” (we’re talking about rubber for tires, glue, refrigerated trucks for transporting medicine, filters for water treatment). And those are just the few items that actually make it through the process, even more of them just don’t get that far, because you only have so many analysts to research products, and everything that the country could possibly want to import has to be reviewed and deemed non dual-use. So most of these just go onto automatic holds.

    Then you have applications that actually DO get approved, except it has taken, say, 6 months if it was a really really fast approval, and by that time the market price of 300 tons of material X has changed by $10.00 a ton, and the approval has to be for the exact amount of product at the exact price, but no supplier will sell for that price anymore, so the process has to be started all over again. And this really is a case of bureaucracy causing a lot of these problems–not just bad policy or “imperial interests” or whatever. The policy itself looks, on paper, a lot better than war, for all parties: sanctions on products that can lead to the strengthening of a dictator’s military (bankruptcy not bombs!!), with exemptions for “humanitarian” goods. The problem is in the clunky, uncooperative, unresponsive structure set up to carry out the policy.

    Anyway, I’m sure I’m not 100% accurate on the description of some of these processes as I’m too lazy to consult my notes (and by “my notes,” I mostly just mean Joy Gordon’s book Invisible War), and there’s certainly more examples, but the general idea is there. The point being bureaucracies aren’t something to just be frustrated by or that cause inconveniences, or even that make certain services more difficult, they can be very active purveyors of large-scale violence and suffering. Especially when they are unresponsive to, you know, moral outrage and plain evidence of their own ill-effects (and we know how responsive big bureaucracies are…). So to answer your question Ryan, yes, I often feel decidedly anti-bureaucratic.

  20. Pretty interesting stuff both in the post and the comments. I must say, however, that I find it strange that Ryan and his friends didn’t think that they could get in trouble drinking beer in a taco stand. I’ve been living in Mexico for a long time and I would never do that. The stand is in the street, so you are actually drinking in a public space, something you very quickly notice is prohibited in Mexico (as it is in the US.)

    The other thing that I thought was kind of odd is the way that the bureaucratic process through which Ryan and friends had to go through is depicted as “typical” of Mexico. If anything, it is either a sign of important changes that have occured in the recent past or it is rather an occurrence that is not at all representative of interactions with police and the bureaucracy in Mexico. Generally speaking, I would say that this kind of thing doesn’t regularly reach the “big official”, but rather it is settled in situm with the officer that noticed the offense. I can’t find any sign of wrong doing (in the legal sense) in the whole account given by Ryan, which if you ask me, is once again not typical of the Mexico that I’ve known during all these years.

  21. @Etienne:

    “I must say, however, that I find it strange that Ryan and his friends didn’t think that they could get in trouble drinking beer in a taco stand. I’ve been living in Mexico for a long time and I would never do that. The stand is in the street, so you are actually drinking in a public space, something you very quickly notice is prohibited in Mexico.”

    Ya, it depends on the taco stand. The ones that are little more than taco carts and that are literally located in the street, well, you are pretty clearly located in public space. But this one exists in this weird gray area, somewhere between a taco cart/stand and an actual restaurant. There is a table. There are chairs. They have a register. It is located off the sidewalk, backed up to a small store. I have eaten at places like this for two decades, and in many cases people drink beer at places like this–whether or not the place actually has the permit to do so. One of the interesting things about all of this, at least for me, is what can happen in these kinds of gray areas when the RULES aren’t all that clear. Anyway, if we were clearly in the out in the middle of public space I would agree with you 100 percent.

    “The other thing that I thought was kind of odd is the way that the bureaucratic process through which Ryan and friends had to go through is depicted as “typical” of Mexico.”

    I don’t remember using the word typical. This is presented as a *specific* example based upon recent experiences.

    “Generally speaking, I would say that this kind of thing doesn’t regularly reach the “big official”, but rather it is settled in situm with the officer that noticed the offense.”

    Ya, that happens a lot. But it also depends on the issue in question. I think a lot of traffic issues are settled in situ, as you say. But not always. Sometimes things get settled in the street because that’s what people are used to expecting and asking for. But this case is really interesting to me because certain details made it necessary to go through the whole bureaucratic process (the documented phone call).

    “I can’t find any sign of wrong doing (in the legal sense) in the whole account given by Ryan, which if you ask me, is once again not typical of the Mexico that I’ve known during all these years.”

    There probably is no wrongdoing in the technical legal sense. But the taco shop owner sure felt that there was wrongdoing–mostly because he felt that he was dealing with what might be called “selective enforcement” of a pretty vague set of laws and practices. And, he has a point. Especially since people often drink beers at places like this without having state officials show up within about 5-10 minutes. Anyway, I am not sure what this says about the typical Mexico that you know, but it’s an example of one part of Mexico that’s out there.

    Thanks for your comment.

  22. @Rick:

    “A primatologist doesn’t get angry about chimps flinging poop, and that’s all we are in the end; chimps flinging poop.”

    On one hand I see where you’re going with this. On the other, though, I think there’s a lot to be said for that “2% difference” that Robert Sapolsky talks about. And a lot of what keep cultural anthropologists busy is exactly that difference, IMO. That’s what makes cultural anthropology different from primatology–even if each can be mutually valuable and informative. Just a thought.

  23. @Ryan

    Just a random thought. What is the likelihood that the selective enforcement was due to the fact that the beer drinkers appeared to be gringo tourists, more likely to pay up promptly and pay up more than a local beer drinker? If this were the case, it must have been startling to the policeman to see what he thought were easy marks turn into stubborn opponents who forced him to go to court.

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