Bureaucracy in America may well be the subject and therefore the title of my next book, and its theme would be Tocqueville meets James Q. Wilson. Tocqueville, as I mentioned in my note about the nanny state here a couple weeks ago, described the form of “soft despotism” that America needed to fear, but which he didn’t quite have a name for. James Q. Wilson’s 1988 book Bureaucracy is still perhaps the best general treatment of the subject, but is a bit dated in some ways, as the administrative state (the more comprehensive term for how we are misgoverned today) has advanced in several important ways since Wilson wrote.
One of my main hypotheses is that bureaucracy has grown most, and in many ways is much more severe, on the local level than the national level. Conservatives rightly decry centralization in Washington, and the corruption of American constitutionalism certainly comes chiefly from Washington, but the effects are playing out much more fully on the state and local level. One snapshot of the problem comes from Prof. Stephen Oliner of UCLA/AEI, who recently published a paper, “How Long Did It Take to Plan That Building?”, analyzing how the building permit process has lengthened across the country. It was not surprising to find that the planning process has become fairly long (about 28 months); the more revealing finding is the geographical distribution of the length of the planning process, as shown in the “heat map” Oliner produced. (As a good example of how out of hand this has gotten, a local Power Line reader has documented his more than three-year fight to get a building permit for a house on sloleaks.com.) I suspect we’d find a fairly strong partisan political correlation to this pattern if we work on it.
Meanwhile, if you really want to get pitchfork mad, check out this news report from KABC-TV in Los Angeles from last week (just 2 minutes long), about how the Los Angeles Unified School District shut down a girls softball tournament because they didn’t have the proper permits. This tournament has been run on school grounds for several years with just verbal permission from school principals, but this year the tourney was informed that it needed a permit. Only one problem: when they applied for the permit, they were told that they were too late to get one. Apparently it was impossible for any of the six-figure educrats at LAUSD (they have something like 200 administrators in the school bureaucracy in LA who make over six figures) to expedite a permit. So instead they sent one of their educrats to shut down the tourney while it was in progress on Martin Luther King Day (no irony here). Watch the educrat explain (or rather not explain) to the TV reporter that he had to shut down the tourney, and then see if you can keep from wanting to start boiling tar and rounding up feathers.