Friday, February 09, 2007

Bureaucratic Systems and Ptolemaic Systems

Was reading "From the Archives", whose author seems to be a pedant after my own heart, (hat tip to Tyler Cowen) which got me thinking about regulations and then to thinking about scientific theories, particularly Ptolemaic system (i.e. geocentric).

Now I was told once that the way ancient astronomers developed the geocentric system was, whenever they had an observation that didn't fit the theory, they slapped on another epicycle or other widget to solve the problem. And the theory worked, from Aristotle through Ptolemy right up to Galileo it corresponded with observations as well as any competing system.

Well, that's a metaphor for the way bureaucratic systems develop. Some policy maker lays out a set of bureaucratic rules, or forms, or organizational structures that seems to fit the situation as they understand it. But then the bureaucracy gets hit by members of the public (i.e., their customers, clients, users, or whatever hell buzzword is in favor) with unexpected situations--reality is more complex than the theory. So the policy makers come up with some solution, often a compromise among interests, sometimes half-assed or make-shift, that gets added onto the bureaucratic rules, gets made another form in the set of forms, gets a special office in the bureaucracy (i.e., Doug Feith in DOD). And time passes, more situations come up, more fixes are made. Pretty soon a once effective bureaucratic system gets constipated, because there's too many twists and turns in the pipeline for the s... to flow.

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