The Grapes of Wrathful Bureaucracy

bureaucracy-1016178_960_720Bureaucracy. It’s a nasty word that literally means “power of office.”

Kafka saw it in the anti-Semitic environment in which he grew up. Orwell saw it in the terrible dictators of the Second World War And Steinbeck saw it in the more disguised—and more dangerous iteration–in Dust Bowl America. Rand saw it everywhere: people were not free to interact with others in a completely voluntary way.

Steinbeck illustrates bureaucracy for us in a scene from The Grapes of Wrath.  A Dust Bowl sharecropper is being evicted after years of failed crops leave him unable to repay loans. The land is being farmed by huge tractors now, and the displaced farmer can only look on while representatives from the bank come to repossess the land. Watching, the farmer reflects on how owning property—something that is being lost to him—changes a man:

“If a man owns a little property, that property is him, it’s part of him, it’s like him. If he owns property only so he can walk on it and handle it and be sad when it isn’t doing well, and feel fine when the rain falls on it, that property is his, and some way he’s bigger because he owns it.”

The farmer laments how all that changes when a large, non-human entity is in charge of the land:

“Let a man get property he doesn’t see, or can’t take time to get his fingers in, or can’t be there to walk on it—why, then the property is the man. He can’t do what he wants, he can’t think what he wants. The property is the man, stronger than he is. And he is small, not big.”

The farmer then asks, “Who can we shoot?” In other words, who can he appeal to—fight, even—before his land is taken? He realizes that no one man is responsible for the evictions. Although the farmer notes that “the bank [that is repossessing his land] is only made of men,” he’s told that “the bank is something else than men. It happens that every man in a bank hates what the bank does, and yet the bank does it. The bank is something more than men… men made it, but they can’t control it.”

That is bureaucracy.

Steinbeck illustrated the problem with big, faceless organizations like banks. The larger the entity, the smaller the man. In general, people working for such entities are all castrated agents serving a n’er seen master.

I see it in my own career. A public school teacher, I see policies come and go over the years, changing with the fads of education. Plenty of them I disagree with. Plenty of them most experienced and competent teachers disagree with, many that seem detrimental to student learning. Yet I’m up against a behemoth of a machine: policies set by bureaucrats that don’t spend time in the classroom, or spent a year or two and then couldn’t handle it. Even unions seem to care only about pay and increasing union power rather than student learning. No one “owns the land” to touch it and know it. Everyone is less powerful than it.

The point here is the same one that the displaced sharecropper made: when a man is so far removed from making decisions, his job becomes nothing more than a paycheck. The man on the tractor, who has been ordered by the bank to knock down the houses of sharecroppers, used to be a farmer himself. When asked, “What you doing this kind of work for—against your own people?”, he answers, “Three dollars a day.” Questioning the system, he notes, “don’t feed the kids. You get a reputation for talking like that, and you’ll never get three dollars a day.”

And so with the causes of economic prosperity and failure largely invisible to the people, free markets provide an easy scapegoat—one that leads people running to the government for help.

“We’re sorry you don’t live in a house with an in-ground pool and drive your BMW to the Hamptons every weekend. There, there. Let Uncle Sam take you into his arms and protect you from the evil rich people that prosper at your peril.” And so people accept food stamps and tax breaks and welfare and see government as a friend.

It’s a comforting thought, the idea that someone is on your side and feels your pain. In The Grapes of Wrath, the closest thing the Joads found to a “home” was a government-run camp. It was the first time the children saw flushing toilets, and if the family couldn’t pay rent, they were allowed to work off their debt. Just like the idea of a benevolent government being “on our side,” it’s too comforting to question. And so without people questioning it—really questioning it in a meaningful way—the government feeds on its own power, becoming the monster Steinbeck warned us about, the thing that everyone works for yet everyone hates. “The Monster,” Steinbeck notes, “isn’t men, but it can make men do what it wants….When the monster stops growing, it dies. It can’t stay one size.”

How in the world did Hitler convince countless human beings to sentence others to death camps—and to carry out those horrific orders? It was the Monster.

In America, the government is one, too. It grows because it doesn’t want to die. Have you ever heard of a politician who wants to shrink government so small that his job disappears? Governments like to find and even create problems so that it can employ itself to fix them. And the less efficient the fix, the better: more government will be required.

In America, we face a more sinister threat to our freedom than a blatant dictator; dictators are easy to define and fight. We face a slowly-creeping menace, a weasel of a monster slowly feeding on our autonomy and building its own power until we have none. But while Kafka and Orwell seem to leave us largely without hope, Steinbeck and Rand embrace hope in the spirit of the individual. Steinbeck’s entire novel resonates that spirit, the spirit of the individual, the downtrodden, the powerless. The spirit of the novel is that if individuals think and stay together, they will prevail even if not for a generation or more. They are the spirit of Tom Joad. As the displaced sharecropper notes after learning he’ll have to leave land that’s been in the family for generations, “We’ve got a bad thing made by men, and by God that’s something we can change.”

Churchill seems to have understood the situation well: “The bigger the government, the smaller the citizen.”

It’s time to grow.

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