The Paradoxical Comfort of Bureaucracy


Back in the days when your grandfather was still looking at your grandmother with inquisitive lust, I spent about 18 months on an aircraft carrier. I was a draftee in the French Navy, untrained for anything and possibly the lowest man on the totem-pole. I was 21 when I got out. In good time, I attended the university and graduate school in the US and I became a scholar in organizational theory (a pretty good one if I say so myself).

But my brief military experience remains vivid in my memory. In part, that's because everything you do at 20 tends to live in the brain in Technicolor and in Panavision. In part it's alive in my mind because interesting things happened there. When I write now about my naval period, I feel almost forced to apply a bit of organizational analysis to my memories. It's a slightly disturbing experience because being a small cog in a bureaucratic organization, a state organization at that, unexpectedly fails to evoke bad feelings.

It's disturbing because life and work within a bureaucracy is at the antipodes of libertarian utopian imagery. It's disturbing, additionally, because government routinely acts as the principal agent of routine state oppression in societies with a constitutional government such as the US. This malaise is also an opportunity. I believe that people who think of themselves as libertarians, even those with a mere libertarian bent, don't spend enough time thinking about disconfirming evidence, about experiences that run counter to their main existential choices. Here is a brief analysis, one that may speak a little to the issue of why some people are attached to bureaucracies in spite of their libertarian leanings.

In the navy, for days and weeks on end, I lived in an environment made entirely of steel except for the small patch of linoleum I cleaned every morning and the occasional spare piece of rubber connection. To be completely accurate, I have to specify that there were also plastic curtains around the bunks and part-cotton sheets inside. And the metal surroundings were all not especially unpleasant. Perhaps, if you are going to venture on the treacherous ocean, it's good to do it in a vessel made of thick sheets of steel joined together by large and visible steel nuts and bolts.

I felt the same about the organizational environment as I did about the physical environment of the ship. In general, I felt safe on the aircraft carrier. There were several reasons, some of which it costs me to remember because doing so constitutes a confession of sorts.

First, there were well-thought-out and well-rehearsed routines for everything, at least for everything that I knew then and, to a large extent, even for what I now know. (I never experienced naval combat, but I think the same principle prevailed there.) You could believe that whatever happened, the people doing something about the whatever would not be improvising a response. You could also be confident that their response would be familiar — familiar to them, that is, however alien it seemed to you.

Perhaps, if you are going to venture on the treacherous ocean, it's good to do it in a vessel made of thick sheets of steel.

Even my living-quarters close neighbors, the bosun's mates who were operating under the influence of alcohol most of the time, projected an air of competence. Bringing two small boats smoothly side by side in a choppy sea did not seem to tax the young guys who I would have bet could probably not negotiate the gangway to get themselves ashore for a fresh drink.

The second behavioral factor contributing to this feeling of safety was chronic overstaffing. I think that personnel redundancy is a general organizational principle in navies, military organizations, as opposed to merchant fleets, for example. The aircraft carrier is a special case because of its multiple functions. So I will focus on the case of a small destroyer that is similar in size to many cargo-ships of the pre-container period. My considered, serious guess is that the crew of a destroyer was at least three times larger than the crew of a freighter of similar tonnage. Or, to put it another way, the captain of a small freighter of the day could easily have boasted: “I can run this destroyer with my eighteen men. Just put ashore its current excessive crew of sixty. We will do the job, no problem. Perhaps, leave one gunner behind; no big deal.”

Overstaffing is a luxury that ensures that few if any organizational members will be stressed by overwork, except perhaps at the very top. There were telling details supporting this perspective, details that would have bespoken laziness in any framework other than a military one. Thus, when the officer on watch on the bridge made an announcement over the ship's public address system, he did not conclude his address with a greeting or introduce himself or give a summary, nor did he hang the mike himself. He had an enlisted gopher standing by to make these small gestures for him.

Another way to speak of overstaffing is to refer to underwork. My boss was the Chief of Operations, the third ranker on board. He had one full yeoman, a guy who had signed up voluntarily and who had been more or less trained by the navy. I, a draftee, had received no training beyond boot camp. My boss agreed early in our acquaintance that his assistant-yeoman, myself, was to deliver each day a given, limited amount of work. The amount was one single typed stencil. That would have been the amount of typing a careful, well-trained professional typist (working on terra firma) could easily have supplied in one hour. The key to understanding the apparent waste is this: At any one time, my boss the Operations Chief knew that he could put seaman Delacroix to work to do the urgent or the unexpected — hand-carry a message, sharpen his pencils, or pick up his laundry in a raging storm — without sacrificing any other aspect of his, the Chief's, responsibilities. So the abundance of underutilized work capacity was a source of comfort for all aboard ship; it implied that those with serious responsibilities were unlikely to be overwhelmed by them.

The principle of overstaffing, or of an underutilized work force, ran throughout and up and down the complex organizational chart of the aircraft carrier. There were three apparent exceptions. First, some menial functions might be understaffed for a short time. Second, one crucial but rarely performed task apparently failed to command sufficient personnel. Third, the most industry-like subpart of the ship's organization seemed to be perennially short of qualified bodies.

First, the menials. It might happen occasionally and for a brief period that some small functional department was short one man. That would always be in areas of activity where overworking the remaining men, by giving each the equivalent of half a civilian work load, for example, would not seriously endanger other operations. I am literally referring to peeling potatoes and to cutting hair while at sea. It was common practice among petty-officers to bribe the crewmen thus rudely put upon, with a couple of bottles of beer. (Yes, there was and there is alcohol on French naval ships. Their crews may not shoot straight but they are not stressed!)

A second exception to the rule of underutilization of personnel still puzzles me a little. There was only one old senior petty-officer on board who was able to steer the huge ship through certain narrow harbor entrances in very stormy seas. This scarcity perplexes me because the task was in no way comparable in its importance to peeling potatoes, for instance. The preservation of extremely expensive matériel and possibly the safeguarding of many lives demanded that this skill be available.

Yes, there was and there is alcohol on French naval ships. Their crews may not shoot straight but they are not stressed!

I have no solid explanation for this queer penury. Here is my best guess though: most of the functions to be performed on the ship could be reduced to small gestures that could in turn be described concretely and thereby routinized. Most of those functions could be reduced to routines that were easy to learn even for the moderately gifted. Producing in advance of need a ready supply of people to perform those functions was not a big deal. Those common functions demanded only carefulness for successful performance. By contrast, the ability to drive a gigantic floating object battered by winds and contradictory wave conditions through a narrow passage depended on tacit knowledge.

Tacit knowledge is knowledge that is difficult to transfer deliberately. It's what can be learned but cannot be taught, or only taught to a limited extent. Tacit knowledge is found also in art, in dress-designing, in bread-baking and of, course, in the brewing of beer. I mean with respect to the latter that it's easy to brew beer and fiendishly difficult to brew good beer. Because much of tacit knowledge cannot be taught, precisely, it may often be in short supply. Alternatively, it may occur naturally more commonly than is objectively necessary (as with artists, for example). Such oversupply does not receive much notice, naturally. Only shortages are noticeable.

The third exception to the principle of overstaffing keeps sticking in my mind because it does not make obvious sense in spite of my best efforts.The flight deck crewmen often complained of overwork. Their jobs were both essential (obviously, we were on an aircraft carrier) and as minutely divided and routinized as anything, anywhere on earth. So, if the principle of overstaffing did not apply to them, it was not because their work relied on tacit knowledge that was hard to find. Neither were they expendable like the potato jockeys I evoked earlier. I just don't know for sure why they said they were overworked. This want of an explanation mars my nice analysis, but I must almost leave it at that. I say “almost,” because I sometimes had the thought that being overworked — or proclaiming oneself overworked — was cool for flight deck personnel but not for other crewmen.

They, the flight deck crewmen, had to work day in and day out with pilots whose own exalted status was likely to create different emotions around them. Come to think of it, I had an intuition about that cultural proximity factor right then. I spent much time observing landing and takeoff maneuvers on the flight deck from a safe spot. And I was well aware of aviation crewmen’s complaints about overwork. Nevertheless, their complaints never troubled my own sense of comfort, although my tiny office, with me inside, bent over my typewriter, could have easily been wiped out by a single misdirected landing.

I hope the reader understands that the few preceding paragraphs constitute a kind of regrettable but real declaration of faith in well-designed bureaucracy. Of course no one asked that particular bureaucracy to be efficient. It was expected only to be effective, to get the job done, almost irrespective of cost.

Editor's Note: This essay is adapted from Delacroix's as-yet-unpublished memoir, “I Used to Be French: An Immature Autobiography.”

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