Best of Los Thunderlads

(The following was originally posted by Acilius on 13 May 2008, as a note on the June 2008 issue of The Atlantic.)

A lively, pleasant read this month. 

Some articles about Barack Obama.  Joshua Green’s “The Amazing Money Machine” leads to the idea that no two successful presidential candidates use the same fundraising model. 

Marc Ambinder’s “HisSPACE”, about Obama’s ideas on using the Internet to make government operations more visible, contains this sentence:

Communication and transparency are virtues only up to a point; as students of bureaucracy know, both eventually become an enemy to efficiency. 

But of course it is precisely at the point where transparency becomes an enemy to efficiency that it becomes a virtue.  The last thing we want is a really efficient bureaucracy.  An inefficient bureaucracy is a nuisance, a waste, a headache.  A truly efficient bureaucracy can make life so easy for its clients that it leaves them no opportunity to achieve or create anything.   

Transparency is like all other institutions of democracy: worth everything in the fighting for, worth nothing once achieved.   Even a moderately efficient bureaucratic system can absorb the formalities of democracy and domesticate them thoroughly.  Nietzsche wrote about this several times.  In Twilight of the Idols, he issues his customary harsh dismissal of the institutions of liberalism (”reduction to the herd animal!”,) but does then qualify his contempt:

As long as they are still being fought for, these same institutions produce quite different effects; they then in fact promote freedom mightily.  Viewed more closely, it is war which produces these effects, war for liberal institutions which as war permits the illiberal instincts to endure.  And war is a training in freedom.  For what is freedom?  That one has the will to self-responsibility.  That one preserves the distance which divides us.  That one has become more indifferent to hardship, toil, privation, even to life.  That one is ready to sacrifice men to one’s cause, oneself not excepted.  Freedom means that the manly instincts that delight in war and victory have gained mastery over the other instincts- for example, over the instinct for “happiness”… How is freedom measured, in individuals as in nations?  By the resistance which has to be overcome, by the effort it costs to stay aloft. (from section 38, as translated by R. J. Hollingdale in the Penguin Classics version)

Needless to say I would not endorse any of this without reservation.  But I do believe that the proper growth of the human person requires freedom; that “the will to self-responsibility” is a major part of freedom; that freedom can exist only where all power has definite limits; and that the only thing capable of limiting power is conflict with an opposing power.  Conflict itself, not documents or other formalized procedures resulting from conflict, is what ensures freedom.   So in that limited sense I agree with Nietzsche. 

Gregg Easterbrook’s “The Sky is Falling” looks at the possibility of a disastrous meteor strike, analyzing as an example of inefficient bureaucracy NASA’s failure to live up to Congress’ mandates to map the inner solar system.  Locked into a metric which calculates success as a function of the number of astronauts deployed, the space agency wastes billions pointlessly repeating its Nixon-era triumphs, leaving undone work that might, quite literally, save the world. 

“In the Basement of the Ivory Tower” gives “Professor X” the opportunity to speak the unspeakable- some of the students he teaches in two-year colleges are wasting their time taking classes when they would be better off working.  Not that it’s their fault; jobs which never involve a bit of research or sustained sequential reasoning now routinely require four-year degrees. 

www.theatlantic.com

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