Death and Red Tape
By Alberto Mingardi
Scott Sumner has already pointed out that, in these first weeks of the Covid19 crisis, governments are not proving to be as far-sighted and competent as our statist friends would like them to be.
One thing that most people realize now is how difficult is to get a new drug approved, properly tested, no matter how urgent is the need for it. Of course drugs ought to be properly tested and tried according to those practices that scientists consider necessary to proceed with their use on humans. But on top of that, there is a lot of ““sludge” – paperwork burdens and bureaucratic obstacles”.
Bureaucracy is pervasive in our societies and there is hardly any activity that goes untouched by it. Bureaucratic involvement is sometimes needed, but is almost never “user-friendly”. If you want a good visualization of that, watch the wonderful movie “Brazil” by Terry Gilliam. An inspired, and frightening, story about both totalitarian terror and the the blind, stifling burden of the bureaucratic mindset.
Cass Sunstein has an interesting column in which he points out different ways in which bureaucracy makes it harder for people to access welfare benefits, and also gives two reasons for government to simplify procedures in these hard times:
One reason for the current war on sludge is a new cost-benefit calculus: When countless people are getting sick or poor, the harmful effects of administrative burdens grow exponentially. In normal times, it might be acceptable or sensible to tolerate a delay, to protect against some kind of social harm or to require people to do some work to prove that they really do qualify for benefits. But we should be willing to accept less-than-perfect accuracy, or less-than-ideal safeguards, if that is the price for saving lives.
Another reason for the war on sludge is subtler — and even more fundamental.
Many people are now scared, confused or anxious about their health or their finances. They might be dealing with young children at home, or with sick or elderly friends and relatives, or with both. Because they are frightened and preoccupied, they don’t have a lot of mental bandwidth to manage sludge, whether it comes from the government or the private sector.
For many people, that’s true in the best of times, of course — which is one reason that any year is a good year to remove sludge. But in a time like this, the bandwidth problem is immeasurably worse for many millions of people.
I would add a variation on the theme of this second point. This dire situation implies that, in the short run, people seeking aid and help will be sometimes people who never needed, or thought about doing that, in the past. Navigating procedures is never easy and requires a special expertise that many simply lack. I think of small business owners and self-employed entrepreneurs, who evolved their businesses in order to minimize bureaucratic involvement, but also of some “informal” workers (think about sex workers, for example) who are unlikely to have experience in this department.