Tuesday, July 24, 2012

The Trouble with Big Anything

Everyone is tut-tutting and serve-them-righting about the NCAA penalty dealt out to Penn State, home of the nasty Sandusky child-abuse scandal.

What a monster; how could they let it happen, etc.

But let's get real.  Of course nasty things like that will happen at a big bureaucratic organization.  The only reason we all know about the Penn State case is that it included college football and a legend in his own time, Joe Paterno.  That makes it bait for a national scandal.  But suppose the Jerry Sandusky in the case were not an assistant football coach but just some average Marginalized Studies department professor.  Who would care then?

The fact is that we are in two minds about Bigness.  Conservatives hate Big Government and love a scandal about government waste, fraud and abuse.  But we kinda like the armed forces and their hierarchical military spirit.  Liberals hate Big Business and love to report on, say, Big Oil laying waste to the planet with horrible oil spills.  But they love Big Government and all its caring compassionate programs that help the poor and the marginalized.  At least everyone hates the DMV.

But what about Big University?  Liberals hate the football program; conservatives hate the left-wing indoctrination.  Big Philanthropy?  Conservatives love to hate the liberal foundations like the Ford Foundation and the Rockefeller Foundation.  Big Religion?  Liberals love it when Catholic priests are caught covering up child abuse.

But I wonder if it's time to look at the problem of bigness in general.  The Penn State case shows the problem.
In 1998, a boy’s mother reported to police that Sandusky had showered with her son in a Penn State facility. An investigation began that Penn State officials were eager to see go away...

A janitor saw him in November 2000, but didn’t report it for fear “they’ll get rid of all of us.”...

Paterno and the others “repeatedly concealed critical facts relating to Sandusky’s child abuse from the authorities, the University’s Board of Trustees, the Penn State community, and the public at large.”
Everyone is creeping around, like a moral mouse, looking after Number One, anxious not to rock the boat.

It seems to me that the answer is that we need a lot fewer big hierarchical institutions around.  It's not just that they tend to cover up criminality, but that they are notably fragile and resistant to change.  Over the years they run down delivering less and less for more and more money.  They are a conspiracy against cooperation and adaptation.

I was reading a book about Prussia the other day, H.W. Koch's History of Prussia, and learned that the Prussian state bureaucracy had won for itself tenure and pensions by 1820.  That is eighteen-twenty!

Shades of government bankruptcies in 2012!  All bureaucrats want, in any big organization, in any era, is to get tenure and a pension.  Then that they can do nothing for the next ten, twenty years while they collect their salaries.  And then the glorious moment arrives when they retire and start to collect their pensions!

It is surely our job to make sure that the bureaucrats don't get it.  Because when we have guaranteed tenure and pensions to some special class of people it means that the rest of us are more at risk.  Like right now.

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