Friend of the Jg Handle and G. both work in large bureaucracies. Handle, who is Jewish, wrote this reflection on the experience, which he has graciously agreed to allow as a guest post:
The funny thing is that not all government is like that.
Not yet.I feel in a reflective mood this morning.
Many philosophers ask, “Why is there evil?” Some say free will, others original sin.
My religious tradition says, “Evil is in the very nature of things. Suffering, predation, disease, decay, decrepitude, entropy, these are all parts of life and nature and have been features from the very beginning, since the creation, and will be with us until the end. The real question is why is there any good? That is new, rare, surprising when less rare, and that is the mystery the answer to which, and the implications of that answer, is where we will find rewards.”
We are all poor sinners. And yet, somehow, also there are saints.
My experiences have given me a similar attitude and perspective on government.
Public Choice, Political Economy, Game Theory, and the long History of bad government and worse bureaucracies across all the great expanses of human experience tell us it is senseless to do other than presume that all actors will behave like the stereotypical bad bureaucracy, and much worse, all the time. That the whole endeavor is hopeless, futile, and obvious folly.
And the great wisdom that flows from the humility inspired by that real truth is that the bigger things get in scale and scope, the worse things will be.
And yet, amazingly, astoundingly, unaccountably, there are some people – even whole offices! – which do their jobs admirably well. In the government!
They could push back, they could ignore or avoid, but they don’t. They get the jobs done, without the sticks of threats of punishments, and without the carrots of material reward, or even the reputational awards of any kind of esteem or prestige that anyone would care about. They are good despite the system’s structure, and even despite themselves, as if they can’t help it.
For this they earn something like the workplace equivalent of love.
Maybe they know that on some deep, subconscious level, and maybe they don’t, but they act like this possibility of love itself it what makes it all worthwhile.
Maybe they are not doing it to be loved, but, like Adam Smith said, “to be lovely.” A tree falling in the woods with no one to hear it cannot feel proud in being loud. But a person being lovely, even if not loved by any other person, can feel the warm and satisfying emotion of being worthy of being loved by other lovely people.
But that just deepens the mystery. Why enjoy being worthy of love, but without love? Why would anyone be built to have that socially useless kind of feeling, even make real sacrifices without any apparent benefit?
Some will answer habituation or conditioning, but that can’t be it, because we all try to do it to every child, and in most cases it doesn’t take. One could say, “special children,” and of course that’s partially true, but it simply raises yet another question of where these specials come from.
I think perhaps both our traditions will agree that maybe that feeling of liking being lovely, of being worthy, is perhaps just a variation of liking being loved, because they are actually and actively being loved for being lovely, just not by the mere people around them.
And these people, God bless them, are the highly refined lubricant that, sometimes it seems, is the only thing that keeps the whole thing running with some semblance of competency and effectiveness. I’ve seen offices of dozens seem almost constitutionally incapable of collaborating even if they “want” to, and somehow, at the end of the day, the one good person from one team reaches out to the one other good person on the other team, and somehow the work gets done. Partially that’s due to my observation that these people always seem to quickly find, recognize, and form relationships with each other. Lord help us if they fall below a critical mass of commonality.
The system doesn’t deserve them, it certainly didn’t make them, but we all benefit a little from the gift of this unearned grace.
Maybe these saints come from a kind of well that is drying out without replenishment, and they will not always be with us, and the supply will continue to dwindle. And the only thing keeping the machine going then will be the much the cruder oils of non-spontaneous orders: fear, money, ambition, selfishness, monitoring, micromanaging, and so forth.
But then again, maybe not. Good is a mystery, and we can pray that it is mysterious enough that nothing we know of can extinguish it altogether, and the great boilers that power a whole good society can be rekindled from a single, tiny ember, glowing however faintly. Maybe this inextinguishability is the greatest gift of all.