September 21, 2005

Bureaucratic Machines 

Those in my line of work have to be pretty familiar with thermodynamics, and a fundamental rule of thermodynamics is that you cannot win, you cannot break even either.

Everytime energy is transformed from one form to another or used to produce work (moving objects around is an example of work), some energy goes irremediably lost as heat, and the efficiency of the process is always less than 100%. We can write this as:

(Energy In - Energy Out) / Energy In < 1

There is nothing that can be done about it; it's a law of nature that cannot be violated.

However, humans managed to build some pretty efficient machines: big alternators and electrical transformers have 95% or so efficiency; modern gas-fired water heaters reach 80-85%; fuel cell electricity generators achieve 50%; internal combustion engines 30-40%. At the lower end we have steam engines with a meagre 10% efficiency* and lasers, which are pretty inefficient - however, laser light has so interesting properties that efficiency is a very seconday concern.

Now consider some bureacratic machines, such as almost all of the EU and, say, Brent Council in London. The EU takes money from one pocket - as taxes etc - and gives back over 60% of this money as agricultural subsidies. The Brent Council takes most of its income with the council tax, and spends another 60% of it in... housing benefits.

It occurred me lately that there is an analogy between these bureaucratic machines and thermal machines: the efficiency of both is always less than 1.

Think about it: a bureocracy does not just exist, but it's made of people that need to be paid, and need building were to work; vehicles, computers, stationery, electricity... toilet paper and so on. All this does not come for free, but it's paid for with a part of the incoming money.

There are bureacracies that do something useful and I'm pretty comfortable with them (although bureaucracies spontaneously expand and ought to be kept in check), but those dedicated to money redistribution are a scourge, just money-eating machines. I even think that wealth redistribution is morally bad, but I know other people have different opinions.

* Can't really vouch for the accuracy of those figures: it's data that I read years ago and just pulled out of my memory.

Update 23/09: In the comments Tom points out that it is necessary to define the purpose of a machine (define what Energy Out is, in other words) in order to calculate properly its efficiency. True enough, but anyway not so relevant because the efficiency is always less than unity, no matter what.

For bureaucracies, the situation is a little more complicated. First, when I cited the figures about the EU and Brent Council balance I did not imply that their efficiency is 60%; instead it was meant to demonstrate that one important purpose of those bureaucracies is money redistribution. I think an egregious example was my flatmate, who at the same time paid the council tax and was receiving housing benefits. And the fact that a bureaucracy consumes resources only to exist is true regardless of its purpose.

However Tom is right on another aspect: after a little while, bureaucracies shift objectives, and their priorities become not the initial purpose, but self-sustainment and expansion. And often also graft, and perpetuating the same problem that the bureaucracy was intended to solve - because otherwise the whole structure should be dismantled.

It's not that all bureaucrats are evil (some are, tho), but they have a regulatory mindset, and like all humans are reluctant to let go what earns them a living. There is no feasible solution to this problem, but the guiding principle should be to reduce bureocracy at the strictest minimum. The disgraceful EU instead took the opposite way.


You write that the EU takes 60% of its tax revenue and pays it to Euro ag producers. How about the billions of euros that the EU gives to the "Palestinian Authority" every year? What is the motive for this big money? After all, the PA has continued its policy of terrorism against Israel and of encouraging Muslim extremism in general since it was set up in 1994 as a result of the disastrous 1993 Oslo accords. On the other hand, there is a lot of big money in Arab countries like Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, etc. Couldn't they finance their Arab brethren in the PA zones?

As to the EU reasons, it seems to me that Javier Solana, Chris Patten, and others want to reward the PA for killing Jews. To ask a relevant question, why don't they help the black Africans being massacred in Sudan over the past 50 years, on and off? Maybe their attitude toward Blacks is similar to that towards Jews.

How come nobody asks about the European poor? About the poor in France, Italy, Greece, Spain, etc., who could probably use a few spare euros, if they were not sent to afafat and now Abu Mazen? As for the machines you are thinking of, does the EU really care about advancing civilization, as you apparently have in mind? Not saying you are wrong, but does the EU care?


I see your points, but my post was about a different issue, actually.

The EU balance is only one example of the phenomenon I am describing - the waste of money in bureaucracies.


As Thomas Sowell argued, you have to define what you want a machine to do, before you can talk about its efficiency. The energy produced by a car's engine releases heat, shakes the car, and moves it forward. Only by choosing the last, can one then state how efficient the car is.

The same goes for bureaucracies. The incentive of any bureaucratic organization is ostensibly to achieve its stated goal (i.e. the March of Dimes was to cure polio). The members of a bureaucratic organization like the UN also spend time pursuing political aims, stealing money, committing crimes, and trying to perpetuate the problem which gives them their bread.

When you compare how many incentives there are in a bureacracy to achieve its stated goals, with how many incentives the bureaucratic structure produces in opposition to those goals, then you can state how efficient it is. But you first have to define the purpose.

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