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Once, I was an IC4 (Incident Commander (4). Well, as a mere title and qualification, that was one I held until leaving my seasonal work with the Bureau of Land Management, and I suppose it is valid even now, nearly 20 years later. But I was an acting Incident Commander (4) for about 16 hours in 2005, as a 23-year-old newlywed in my 5th year of wildland firefighting. That was never intended as a career, and I certainly never treated it as a career. But I figured out a few things pretty early on. There is a good amount of downtime in wildland firefighting, a job that depends on the weather, but always keeps you hanging around (and paid) just in case you’re needed. A lot of that time is spent doing odd jobs, which is great for a Montana kid who is fairly well-rounded; we put up fencing, we framed buildings and hung drywall, we did forest-thinning projects. Sometimes we just drove around “keeping an eye on things.”
In my second year, I was on a truck with a friend who was an economics and mathematics double-major in college (he earned his Ph.D. in economics and is now an econ professor); I had bounced around a bit too much, having a partial pre-med degree, a partial engineering degree, all rounded out with a few years of intensive history and literature (emphasizing Russian history) to earn a bachelor’s of science in the vaguely named “liberal studies.” From an engineering school. That year, the friend and I spent a good deal of time discussing each others’ areas of study. He worked on reading my copy of The Gulag Archipelago while I worked on reading his copy of Human Action, and we spent hours discussing these topics. We also spent a lot of time joking. With a sense of humor that resonated with some, but which tended to go over like a lead balloon among some of the more serious career bureaucrats (as you can imagine from the two mentioned books, we both tended pretty strongly libertarian).
Over the course of one fire, which we put out and had to camp on for a few days (to ensure that it did not start back up again due to smoldering embers), we decided to create a “top ten list,” which consisted mostly of inside-jokes from our fire crew. We got a little carried away, and the final version was a top 100 list, which we typed up, printed, laminated, and taped to the fire station bathroom walls. And then we both got fired.
Well, we didn’t get fired. But the station manager certainly tried. He was a very small man in his late 40’s or maybe early 50’s, single. I won’t go into much more detail except to say that he was what I would describe as a seasoned bureaucrat. His name is Bob. He possessed an ego that was built through years of justifying his own existence by inflating his own importance and that of his agency, as seems to be the primary function of well-seasoned bureaucrats. He may not have been humorless, but he did not share my humor, and anything that verged on self-deprecation was not merely un-funny, it was insulting and deeply offensive. The top 100 list had been written not by insiders – career firefighters – but by outsiders who happened to temporarily reside on the inside and therefore enjoyed all of the same knowledge and understanding of the way this agency operated, without carrying any of the fidelity and emotional/egotistical attachment to the agency itself. It was, to put it mildly, self-deprecating. It was also somewhat biting in its sarcasm. While the vast majority of these 100 jokes were purely inside jokes, plays on our various names or silly things that we had done for the past few years (one joke referenced an elaborate insect fighting arena that several of us had painstakingly constructed over the course of several hours of down-time, another joke referenced the common and traditional time-waster of hacky sack, beloved by wildland firefighters, I assume globally), there were quite a few jokes that took on the nature of a more biting social commentary.
All were observations, however. The length of one’s lunch break seemed to increase exponentially with GS level, for instance. The department tended to spend money much as one would expect, it being “other people’s money,” so to speak. We would roll 5 trucks to a single-tree fire in order to log 24 hours of hazard pay for all involved. Helicopter fire-spotting routes sometimes tended to follow elk trails, with all on board hoping to draw a tag for the areas being scouted. Crews would sleep on fires without ever building camp, in order to claim an additional 8 consecutive hours. And, as often happens in bureaucracies, advancement had far more to do with time-served and qualifications technically obtained; at most levels, it is not a meritocracy.
We were not fired, though, because we were federal employees who had not engaged in any sort of behavior that would enable this man to fire us, though he tried his absolute hardest to find something, anything, over the course of the rest of that summer, and into the off-season. He called me in January after I had filed my automatic rehire paperwork, asking why I had lied on the application. I pointed out that I had not lied on the application; he had misunderstood the form in question, perhaps in his zeal to submit a rejection. I kept that job for three additional years, finally leaving to attend law school … some would say foolishly; but even having learned to game the system, and even had I been able to make a decent (possibly better) living of it, I am no bureaucrat.
Just before leaving, I made national news. I had become an IC4 in the same way I had not gotten fired: by understanding how a bureaucracy works, and by taking advantage of those very things we were mocking in our top 100 list, while productively utilizing that aforementioned downtime. The agency regularly offered courses, many of which were prerequisites for further courses, and all of which resulted in various qualifications being given. While most people viewed these courses with a sense of dread, and therefore avoided them, I did the exact opposite. They were an opportunity to fill days and even weeks, and however boring (or sometimes even difficult) they might be, there was a payoff. I was sent on assignment (firefighters are often sent to other states at various times because of the seasonality of fires, which would be burning in Arizona while snow was still falling in Montana) to different states and offices, and would sign up for every class I could find. I ended up being certified in a fairly ridiculous number of things, for a non-career firefighter; structure triage, class-b chainsaw, urban interface, helicopter crewman, etc… etc… etc… I ended up becoming an Incident Commander 4 (the lowest level, for the smallest fires).
Which resulted in my rolling up to a fire early one morning in an engine – the first to arrive, and therefore assigned as incident commander. I walked the fire, directing crews to do various things, dig line here and there, saw down trees, put out hot spots, until the fire was pretty much contained. Toward the end of the afternoon, I radioed the chief of a crew that was working down in a little coulee on the edge of the fire to ask how their progress was going. He said that it was starting to get a little hot, and he could use a few bucket drops from the helicopter. So I radioed the helicopter, whose crew chief said no. He didn’t outright refuse, but he told me that they are a national helicopter crew, not our local helitack, and that they were supposed to be reserved for complex fires, not local ones. He wasn’t supposed to be here in the first place, he said, and it was of absolute importance that he get back to the station so that he could be available for those far more important, far more serious matters for which his crew is specially intended. I said I just needed a couple of buckets to put out this hot spot and then he could go. He persisted; it would take too long… this is not a complex fire, and we have no need for a national helitack crew … we did have a need, of course, but we lacked the proper designation. The man on the ground observes the need – the guy in the long yellow shirt, green pants, and filthy red cap, dripping sweat while holding a pulaski and a radio, telling me that things are getting a bit hot down here – he observed the need. The man with the papers in one hand and a pencil in the other – having attained such lofty heights through sheer longevity and maybe a little sweet talk … well, he is the organizer. He is the planner, and he is the self-described expert. And he says that a national helicopter doesn’t belong on a local fire. The crew chief appealed to that authority, and the national helicopter left.
Winds tend to change at dusk. The helicopter returned at dawn. To a national fire. When I left a few days later, no longer an IC4, I left a fire that was now staffed by a national team. A team of experts. The sorts of people who only come out to a complex fire that has long since merged with several smaller spot fires after that evening wind blew up our coulee and jumped the next. I drove away and stopped at the top of a hill that gave me a fantastic view of a massive plume that looked like those clouds down in White Sands, New Mexico.
I went home and packed my bags for law school, my outsider-on-the-inside view of bureaucracy feeling like a living, growing organism that might lay still until its next inevitable though unsolicited feeding. I put my red-card, that somewhat comical memento that was filled with never again to be used qualifications into my wallet. And once it went national, they renamed my fire.
* * * * *
There is no problem so big that the government cannot step in and make it worse.
I may have studied Russian history and read dozens upon dozens of books that explored communism, fascism, and totalitarianism in its various forms, but I did not start using that phrase until years of working with governments in the United States. In 2020 and 2021, I have used it so regularly that it rolls off the tongue as naturally as “good morning,” or “very nice to meet you.” In March of 2020, a doctor friend said to me “This isn’t what it is being made out to be, but I can guarantee you it will be among the most talked about events of our lifetimes,” and she was right. Histories will be written, and the honest ones will all be titled with some variation on the above truth. In March, when I was talking with my doctor friend, I held to a view of the United States that proved to be less reliable than I assumed. Noting the extreme reactions that politicians and the media were having to numbers that were being projected by individuals whose history of prognostication consisted almost entirely of wildly exaggerated doomsday scenarios (be it aids, mad cow disease, the swine flu, etc…) followed by calls for draconian government interventions to control human behavior, in conjunction with a seemingly brand-new push toward testing the healthy under the assumption that they simply may not know they’re sick, I posed a hypothetical, which at the time seemed ridiculous.
Imagine, I suggested, what would happen if we tested everyone for the common cold (whether coronavirus or rhinovirus and via the PCR method which magnifies viral particles that may or may not be a cause of illness), whether they were sick or not. If positive, and the person subsequently dies (or if the person tests positive at death, because we are testing everyone under this scenario), we refer to it as a death by cold. We regularly publish numbers of positive tests, numbers of deaths, and this dominates our news cycle 24/7. I was not suggesting that CV19 is equivalent to the common cold. I was merely asking this as a hypothetical question – if we did this for known illnesses, be it the cold or the flu, what would that look like? I asked this question before any states had even engaged in the never before thought possible action of locking down entire societies and quarantining the healthy.
What I envisioned was, in a lot of ways, what we actually saw in response to COVID-19. But I never could have imagined the sheer destruction that has resulted. This is because, as an attorney, I assumed that governors would be barred from assuming dictatorial powers, as our “state of emergency” statutes clearly do not allow for these long-term (or even permanent?) emergencies, nor does our constitution allow for utter disregard of individual liberties and separation of powers. As an American, and particularly as a Westerner, I believed that the public would simply never put up with anything lasting more than a week or two at most. I believed, along with Neil Furguson, that “it simply wasn’t possible.” But then it was. And I was wrong. I had envisioned the making of a mountain from a molehill; I had envisioned sensationalization and the stoking of fear; I had envisioned the displacement of ordinary risks in favor of a laser-like focus on one single risk, which, just as the PCR test magnifies the virus itself, resulted in an insanely disproportionate view of this particular problem; but what I never envisioned was the voluntary relinquishment of our individual rights and self-governance and the handing over of the entirety of our lives to Bob.
What should (hopefully very soon) go down as the worst manmade global catastrophe in human history is something that has resulted from the empowerment of bureaucrats. We have many examples of the disasters that have resulted from communist rule, or the tyranny that results from despotic rule, and we have just passed the one-year mark of what may be a years-long example of the disaster that results from bureaucratic rule.
I will borrow from Ludwig Von Mises, and his book that seemed to read less like an economic primer and more like an explanatory text to accompany my time with the Bureau of Land Management, as he discusses the problem of the bureaucrat:
In this field [public administration] the discretion of the officeholders and their subaltern aids is not restricted by considerations of profit and loss. If their supreme boss – no matter whether he is the sovereign people or a sovereign despot- were to leave them a free hand, he would renounce his own supremacy in their favor. These officers would become irresponsible agents, and their power would supersede that of the people or the despot. They would do what pleased them, not what their bosses wanted them to do. pg.310, Human Action.
Mises very succinctly describes a problem that is caused by the simple temptations of human nature; but what does it mean when an agent does what pleases him? If he is an expert in the field of epidemiology, shouldn’t we expect him to simply be guided by “the science,” and to use his knowledge for the betterment of mankind?
In that passage, Mises is discussing the role of the bureaucrat, he is not attempting to fully explore the problems that might arise within a bureaucratic technocracy; as such, he accurately describes the removal of limitations that might otherwise act as a check on the manager – these limitations being the preferences of the shareholders or sovereign people, who will be considering a great many things outside and beyond this particular manager’s expertise. He goes on to say that this reality therefore requires very strict rules and limitations on power, so that the manager is both constrained and held accountable. I would add that the bureaucrat, with his extremely limited focus, is only valuable if he makes up one very small part of what I might describe as the overall decision-making. The “bosses” (in this case, we are talking about the accumulated knowledge of an entire population, including preferences, values, and needs) may very well choose make this particular issue (the expertise of the bureaucrat) subservient to other considerations that make up their broader happiness. Consider this passage, from the same book:
The mathematical economist, blinded by the prepossession that economics must be construed according to the pattern of Newtonian mechanics and is open to treatment by mathematical methods, misconstrues entirely the subject matter of his investigations. He no longer deals with human action but with a soulless mechanism mysteriously actuated by forces not open to further analysis. In the imaginary construction of the evenly rotating economy there is, of course, no room for the entrepreneurial function. Thus the mathematical economist eliminates the entrepreneur from his thought. pg. 704, Human Action
When classical liberal economists talk about “emergent order,” they are referring to a phenomenon that occurs as a result of accumulated wisdom, information gained through individual pursuit of individual interests, which wholly unintentionally but nevertheless powerfully makes its way into the public sphere (e.g. prices that are established through consumer demand), allowing for the efficient allocation of resources without any one person ever analyzing what those resources are and where they might best be used. Taking some liberty with Mises and his above quote, I would analogize this with the tendency of any bureaucratic “expert” to consider only his limited field at the exclusion of all else – leaving aside entirely the possibility that this might render the epidemiologist disastrously incorrect even within his own field, as he incorrectly assumes that a virus might act upon a homogeneous society filled with people who are all alike, and who all behave the same.
If we consider this “expert” as one voice among the great many voices from which wisdom accumulates, he is a valuable resource. If, on the other hand, we create an artificial vacuum for this expert to operate in, but then implement his proclamations on the general public, outside that vacuum, the conditions under which his expert determinations would be true are rendered nonexistent, and we are left with expenditures at best, and coercion at worst, which have very real impacts upon the whole society, but not the impacts that would come anywhere close to solving the problems our expert has set out to solve. Sometimes, quite the opposite.
What we have done with this current manmade global catastrophe has been far, far worse. Mises discusses bureaucrats as essentially an extension of the manager, which exists in the private market as well. What he is not discussing is the monster that results from the marriage of those two passages that are hundreds of pages apart in his book: a technocracy, and the expert bureaucrat. All of these points to another problem-within-a-problem: not only does the elevation of “the expert” fail to inform our decision-making as a whole, but promoting one expert view among a field of competing views also serves to diminish the possibility of finding truth within that field, even if we are realistic about the limited practical value of the truth in question. The CDC may claim authority by virtue of its platform, but rarely is the advice of the CDC the same advice you would receive in a visit with your individual physician, far less does it reflect the actual behavior of that physician.
I became an IC4 because I was clever enough to take advantage of the bureaucracy. On a tiny scale, I created an example of one enormous problem with bureaucratic advancement – and that little organism of doubt has been fed through additional years of experience with bureaucrats in the highest levels of management. Advancement very often happens on paper. It does not depend on actual experience, nor does it depend on any actual record of success, value-added, profits, or losses. In the private market, one constraint that is placed on managers is the reality that failure is not without consequence. A bureaucrat may be much like a manager, with the important difference being that his path to “success” is destined to be much different, and may not be reflective in any way on his abilities. The very concerns that limit the value of a bureaucrat within a society also act to greatly limit the value of an individual within a bureaucracy.
Russia, Italy, China, Venezuela, Cuba, Germany, et. al., both historically and today, are all great examples of why communism and fascism do not work. They are all examples of why totalitarianism creates misery, quite apart from the economic devastation. 2020 has given us, on a far grander scale, an extremely expensive and destructive example of why technocracy cannot and will not ever work. The very existence of the self-interested technocrat tends to stifle debate and scientific advancement, diminishing by far his expertise. In other words, the renunciation of our supremacy in favor of his destroys both our liberty and the conditions that would allow his field to develop experts in the first place. In the end, we lose both freedom and knowledge.
Anthony Fauci recently issued a proclamation, that we might be permitted a return almost to normal, with conditions and permitted we submit ourselves in obedience to his authority … by next Mother’s Day.
That is, unless we declare ourselves to be, once again, a sovereign people.Published in