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Our Disastrous Bureaucrats

The story of Marty Hahne, the magician who received a regulatory notice from the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture that he needed to file a disaster plan for his rabbit, has been around a while, but this week it made the Washington Post, so now it is officially certified by the (still-unregulated, for the time being) mainstream media:

Hahne is a slight man with the stage persona of an exuberant doofus — he seems continually surprised by his own tricks. He has been doing magic shows full time for 27 years, on cruise ships and on land. That means he has experienced most of the troubles a magician can expect: overexcited kids who wet themselves after he brought them onstage. A shipboard drunk who threw up on his props. A rabbit so mean it growled.

But he did not expect the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

“She said, ‘Show me your license.’ And I said, ‘License for . . .?’  ” Hahne recounted. This was after a 2005 show at a library in Monett, Mo. Among the crowd of parents and kids, there was a woman with a badge. A USDA inspector. “She said, ‘For your rabbit.’ ”

Hahne was busted. He had to get a license or lose the rabbit. He got the license. (The inspector did not respond to a request to tell her side of the story­.)

In the past decade, the same thing has happened to other children’s magicians across the country, according to Mark Daniel, president of the trade association KIDabra. . .  They checked and were surprised. It was the law.

“It was on the books 40 years,” Daniel said. “And nobody knew anything.”

The story behind it illustrates the reality of how American laws get made. First Congress passes a bill, laying out the broad strokes. Then bureaucrats write regulations to execute those intentions.

And then, often, they keep on writing them. And writing them.

It’s not just the feds who are in on this culture of overregulation.  Local governments can be just as bad, such as the Coralville, Iowa, police shutting down 4-year-old Abigail Krstinger’s sidewalk lemonade stand because she lacked a $400 city permit—a feat duplicated in Midway, Georgia; Appleton, Wisconsin; McAllen, Texas, and more than three dozen other cities across the country that were reported in the media. Some parents were slapped with $500 fines for allowing their kids to sell lemonade without the proper (expensive) permits.  Local bureaucracies have even restricted or stopped annual Girl Scout cookie sales drives.

Time to cue Tocqueville again.  Increasingly it appears we have arrived at the kind of governance he warned about in his late chapter in Democracy in America entitled “What kind of despotism democratic nations have to fear.”  He described a “soft despotism” that “would be more extensive and milder” that the tyrannies of history, but which “would degrade men without tormenting them.”  Tocqueville struggled to give this phenomenon a meaningful term:

I myself seek in vain an expression that exactly reproduces the idea that I form of it for myself and that contains it; the old words despotism and tyranny are not suitable.  The thing is new, therefore I must try to describe it, since I cannot name it.

It is ironic that a profound thinker from France—which came early and hard to governance by bureaux—would fail to conceive the formal term bureaucracy, but his description certainly hits the mark better than just about any thinker with the possible exception of Max Weber.  The climax of de Tocqueville’s argument is one of the best-known passages of his great book:

Thus, after taking each individual by turns in its powerful hands and kneading him as it likes, the sovereign extends it arms over society as a whole; it covers its surface with a network of small, complicated, painstaking, uniform rules through which the most original minds and the most vigorous souls cannot clear a way to surpass the crowd; it does not break wills, but it softens them, bends them, and directs them; it rarely forces one to act, but it constantly opposes itself to one’s acting; it does not destroy, it prevents things from being born; it does not tyrannize, it hinders, compromises, enervates, extinguishes, dazes, and finally reduces each nation to being nothing more than a herd of timid and industrious animals of which the government is the shepherd.

It’s not just conservatives who criticize bureaucracy and “red tape.”  The Clinton Administration decried unresponsive government and conducted a major “reinventing government” initiative that purported to streamline federal agencies and actually succeeded in reducing the number of federal civilian employees.  But the rebellions never seem to succeed, or at least not for long.  Bureaucracy seems to have settled in as the dominant center of gravity in American government; de Tocqueville feared this outcome:

I have always believed that this sort of regulated, mild, and peaceful servitude, whose picture I have just painted, could be combined better than one imagines with some of the external forms of freedom, and that it would not be impossible for it to be established in the very shadow of the sovereignty of the people.

Strong letter to follow.

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