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Bureaucratic incompetence is corruption

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The IRS is blaming employee mistakes for the allegedly permanent loss of 24,000 emails at the center of the Lois Lerner/Tea Party discrimination scandal. The agency posits its excuse — that the email washout was the result of a simple error — as an alternative to some conservatives’ accusation that IRS employees acted corruptly and maliciously.

Every time a government agency or employee is caught up in something that appears to be illegal, immoral, ill-advised or self-serving, the inevitable internal review yields a benign-sounding reason at the heart of the matter: Nobody meant to do bad. They just messed up. Honest mistake. There’s no motive, no evil intent — only incompetence, a failure of oversight, a workflow in need of further refinement.

But perhaps we should back away from the granular and regard the bureaucracy in its entirety. One scandal, involving real people with real names and personalities, can always be chalked up, plausibly, to good intentions undone by bad systems.

But take a macro-scale view of the same phenomenon, multiplied hundreds or thousands of times at every level and layer of government.

We can infer that those who work in government believe that scandals are more palatable to the public if they can be explained without condemning (or even identifying) anyone’s motives. If systems are to blame instead of people — if well-meaning people press the wrong buttons, email the wrong documents or naively confide in the wrong reporter — then the public is satisfied that nothing more can be done to correct an affront to their interests. It’s just another perpetrator-less crime.

This view presumes the system is inert and immovable. It’s not a variable; it’s too big to consider as a contributing factor in government malfeasance. If a scandal, at its core, can be blamed on systemic flaws, everyone shrugs and sort of ruefully says, “That’s too bad.” Life goes on.

That’s a dangerous place for the zeitgeist to be. Take a step back and ask: Malice or mistake — what’s the difference?

At this scale, among government agencies, programs, employees and (lest we forget) elected servants — all of whom aspire to supervise the overlapping interactions and obligations of 330 million people (plus the rest of the world) — what really distinguishes institutionalized incompetence from outright evil?

Certainly not outcomes. In today’s United States, it’s difficult to tell the difference between a scandal that arises from base human instincts and one that arises from someone’s ignorance of a metal gadget’s owner’s manual. The cumulative devastation of 1,000 culprit-free scandals is hard to distinguish from the devastation wrought by one good, unapologetic, rapacious, bloodthirsty, concupiscent political regime.

None of this is to argue that many, if not most, of the failures of America’s bureaucracy owe to anything other than dumb ineptitude. Most probably do; we could even grant, for the sake of argument, that they all do. That concession gets rid of the left’s beloved saw about conspiracy theorists and smoking guns. If we remove malice from the equation, there’s no sinister personality, no secret evil, behind all the bad things government does.

So what? The present age is sufficiently dystopian to allow for personal metaphors to circumscribe impersonal things, and there is much about the American system that is — yes — evil. There is much about America that continues to be very good, as well; but our institutional strengths have been in a state of decadence for a long time.

But that’s a topic unto itself. Until a tipping point’s worth of Americans come around to the idea that soulless system-blaming is just as outrageous and inexcusable as naked corruption, we’re stuck with more of the same.

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