Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Bureaucracies and Working the System

For my write-up today on W.A. Swanberg's Norman Thomas: The Last Idealist, a book about Socialist Norman Thomas, I'll use as my starting-point something that Swanberg says on page 196:

"Because [Thomas] became known as an easy mark, he constantly heard from friends of friends or utter strangers who begged him to solve their problems.  Bad treatment of anyone by anyone distressed him, but it was worst of all if someone was mistreated by a branch of government that was supposed to protect him.  He was invariably spending valuable time looking into the case of some man said to be unjustly imprisoned, someone claimed to be falsely confined in a mental institution, someone in a snarl with the immigration authorities or even a widow in need of food or hospitalization."

Bureaucracy can get annoying, especially government bureaucracy.  That's why there are right-wingers and libertarians who do not favor big government and believe that the private sector rather than the federal government should handle a number of domestic concerns.  But Norman Thomas, while he desired a society in which people would cooperate and do the right thing without the State looking over their shoulders, himself supported policies that would arguably expand the role of government: higher taxes on corporations and the wealthy, public works projects, and nationalization of basic industries.  How could Thomas, who criticized the state when it impeded on people's civil liberties and sought to help people who were hurt because they were trapped in a governmental bureaucratic maze, support a larger role for the government?  Perhaps he believed that the government did not necessarily have to be a bureaucratic mess.  In any case, it's interesting that Thomas' experiences with government bureaucracy did not turn him off to having some faith in government, as it did with Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan.  And why would it?  Thomas could see that the private sector wasn't that great either, that businesses did not always do the right thing, for a number of them exploited their workers and did not pay them enough.

Many on the Left argue that there are plenty of times when the government can act efficiently, and they appeal to European social democracies and the lack of bureaucracy in Medicare.  But then there are critics of these systems.  There are conservatives who contend that national health care systems don't grant patients access to certain forms of care in a timely manner, and that Medicare's lack of bureaucracy is what allows Medicare-fraud to be such a problem.  All systems have their flaws, I'm sure.  The key is to evaluate them and decide which one has fewer flaws.

Another thought: it's hard to navigate the maze of bureaucracy.  I remember when I was a smart-alecky right-wing teenager, and I was debating a liberal substitute teacher.  She was preaching about the plight of the poor, and I replied that there are ways for the poor to get help.  Her response was that not everyone had the education to know about their options.  I pooh-poohed her answer at the time, but now I understand what she was getting at.  It's not easy for a number of people----including myself----to know what their options are, and to be aware of which options are the best.  That's why I can sympathize with Thomas' disappointment when people were given the shaft by the government: not everyone knows how to work the system once he or she has been abused by it.

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