The lunacy of bureaucracy

Khyaati Acharya
Insights Newsletter
16 May, 2014

20th century German-language novelist, Franz Kafka, said that “every revolution evaporates and leaves behind only the slime of a new bureaucracy.”

Clearly, the man was not a fan of bureaucracies. In fact, “Kafkaesque” is how we now describe the worst aspects of bureaucracy.

The very etymology of the term, ‘bureaucracy’ is pejorative. It was coined around the mid-1700s by French economist Jacques Claude Marie Vincent de Gournay, a portmanteau of the French word for office (bureau) and the Greek word for political power (kratos). It was a satirical critique of a growing obsession with ‘bureau-mania’ and the complex and inflexible administrative systems involved.

The inefficient and costly nature of bureaucratic red tape was made all too evident this week, when The New Zealand Initiative attempted to ship in 60 copies of a book in time for an event at which the book’s author, James Allan, was the speaker.

The process endured to obtain said books through Customs was nothing short of a bureaucratic nightmare.

As it turns out, it was easier to get Nigella Lawson into New Zealand.

We assumed – perhaps naively – that shipping James Allan’s books would be a relatively simple task. After all, they were only books, hardly a security threat (unless one took extreme exception to the title, Democracy in Decline). Plus, all necessary details had been disclosed, including the total value of said books.

Yet, despite initially being given the option by NZ Post to use a broker or go through the process directly, Customs insisted a third partly was needed to release the books. The broker then insisted all documentation be resubmitted, despite it already being ordered and attached to the parcel.

The difficulty encountered was particularly nonsensical given that said books were only coming from across the ditch. So much for greater ease of trade supposedly fortified by our Australia-New Zealand Closer Economic Relations Trade Agreement.

Having been told the books would be delivered, the broker and the courier failed to arrange drop off, meaning they had to be personally picked up. Adding insult to injury, customs charges amounted to almost half the value of the package, excluding the broker fee.

Austrian Economist, Ludwig von Mises, considered that bureaucratic systems ‘should be the target of universal opprobrium’, a view as needed today as it was in 1944.

If this is the trouble and expense over bringing in a relatively trivial quantity of books, the cumulative unnecessary costs for major importing firms, or more accurately their customers, would be huge. 

Our ordeal begs the question of how much more efficient businesses could be if we could eliminate excessive layers of red tape. There must be more efficient ways of conducting compulsory checks and balances?

Reducing unnecessary red tape is surely something most voters would applaud.

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