The bureaucratic mindset
Matthew Yglesias has already poked fun at this interview with the new head of DC’s Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs, but the entire exchange really has to be read to be believed. It’s not that Nicholas Majett is a bad guy, or particularly stupid, or indifferent to the community he’s working for. He self-consciously describes himself as a civil servant, which suggests that he at least recognizes that local government should do more than pay his salary. And if you need an explanation of a zoning ordinance or something, I’d wager that you won’t find a more knowledgeable source. But Majett’s view of city-level regulations is just incredible. He sees nothing wrong with the fact that you have to consult a lawyer to start a small business. Better yet, he can’t think of a single regulation worth repealing or amending:
We don’t enact laws. That’s done by the legislature. I can’t think of a law on the books that says ‘you must do this’ that I think is antiquated, that shouldn’t be. I think we should move more towards information technology, allowing people to apply for things online. But I think the laws are designed for safety and welfare. And I think once you start stripping requirements, then you are making it more risky for a visitor or a tenant or whatever.
This could be a convenient launching point for another anti-government tirade, but anyone who’s encountered a customer service hotline knows that large, hierarchical institutions in the private sector are plagued by many of the same problems that beset the DC bureaucracy. I think we’ve undergone something of a cultural sea change in which personal discretion has been largely replaced or superseded by a dry sort of legal formalism. Part of this is a result of scale – some institutions are so big they need a regulatory framework that is more uniform but less forgiving – and part of it is an understandable reaction to a system that placed too much power in the hands of local representatives (here, I’m thinking mainly of the Jim Crow-era South), but it occurs to me that maybe the pendulum has swung too far in the other direction. If you’re the head of DC’s Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs, I want you to have some authority to repeal or amend bad laws. I also want you actively thinking about the efficiency, fairness, and desirability of current regulations. And if you’re a customer service rep at my local big box retailer, I want you to make it right instead of passing my complaints up the chain of command. But that never seems to happen, and I’m desperately searching for a holistic platform that revives the idea that individual discretion and personal relationships have a place in the public square.