Featured post


A Waiheke Island Myth Part 1 On Waiheke Island, New Zealand, a myth has grown up among a handful of people in the Rocky Bay Village th...

Follow Waiheke Notes by email

Wednesday, 29 August 2007


There are two kinds of people in government, the elected and the employed. In the employed group are public servants and bureaucrats. In the elected are statesmen (public servants who make speeches) and politicians (bureaucrats who make speeches).

Public servants are people who take that title seriously and work hard and conscientiously for their country or community without fear or favour. A prime example is our Attorney-General, who blew the whistle on the politicians who had stolen taxes to fund their electioneering.

Then there are the bureaucrats. I feel immensely sorry for them. They remind me of Victor Hugo's words: 'The malicious have a dark happiness.' They are dysfunctional people, they have low self-esteem, and therefore have impaired wiring in the emotional centre of their brains, the place where all our decision-making begins. So they tend to make decisions that are not in their best interests or in the best interests of society. The strength of that tendency depends on the seriousness of the impairment involved in a decision. But the more they make decisions with it the worse an impairment becomes. The habit becomes set in psychological concrete. The mechanism is the same as the one at work in serial rapists. That is the neuroscience of it. We, unfortunately, must live in the consequent 'reality.'

The English poet T.S. Eliot neatly skewered the two parts of the problem. In one place he said, 'The wounded surgeon plies the steel that questions the distempered part', and in another, 'Half the harm that is done in this world is due to people who want to feel important. They do not mean to do harm. But the harm done does not interest them.'

Only half? He should have lived under the Auckland City Council.

In bureaucrats we have people with impaired wiring making decisions about other peoples' lives, although they are not well-equipped to manage their own--wounded surgeons presuming to operate on everyone else. They are addicted to self-importance to compensate for their internal inadequacies. They need to feel big and powerful because they are actually small and weak. That is why they overspend. Spending huge amounts of money makes them feel important. Overspending is part of their addiction. And like drug addicts they fund their addiction with other people's money. But instead of mugging them in the street with a gun they do it with grossly inflated rates notices. That puts the problem crudely, but captures the essence: it is psychological.

The difference between politicians and statesmen has been crystallised as: 'A politician worries about the next election. A statesman worries about the next generation.' For public servants and bureaucrats that could be re-stated more finely: 'A bureaucrat worries about survival; a public servant worries about the community.'

Bureaucrats have the wrong psychological profile to be in public positions. But people with that profile are attracted to jobs in which they can feel far more important than they really are. Normal people are also attracted to those positions because they really can do a good job, and want to: they want to serve their communities. But once organisations get a particular character it is very hard to change, because the people doing the hiring tend to hire people like them, so a place with a bureaucratic bent keeps it, bureaucracy becomes institutionalised, and normal people working in it feel helpless because they are.

If you are outside the normal range of humanity there are three things you can do (except when disease is the cause). The brain is very plastic, so you can work your way back into normal range. Or you can try to lever everyone over to where you are, then you can call yourself normal--which explains political-correctness: it is just psychological abuse, the lever aimed at your mind. Or you can stay where you are, regard normal people as inferior and 'prove' it to yourself by getting a position where you can lord it over them. Your bad wiring will of course tell you that you deserve the power because of your vast superiority.

Democratic rule is meant to be the people decide and public servants carry out their decisions. But because so many in public positions have the wrong psychological profile, what we have is bureaucrats deciding then asking the people to approve.The best we get is a choice between their unreasonable options. They forget that they are our servants, they behave as our masters.

In the first three pages of a chapter headed The House of Circumlocution in Little Dorrit, Charles Dickens mocked bureaucrats and politicians, calling them the Barnacle Family, whose leading branch is the Tite Barnacles. Their only skill is survival; they can cling to the official rock; but they never do anything. To read the extract, plus other anti-politician stuff, click here. The antidote to all bureaucratic and political folly, and the underlying difference between it true public service, was captured thousands of years ago in the Bible (Proverbs 4:7): 'The first thing is to acquire wisdom; gain understanding though it cost you all you have.'

But you cannot expect people with unreasonable brains to be reasonable or people with foolish brains to be wise. They are not wired for it. It's like expecting a toaster to take digital photographs. The poor thing can't do it. Wrong wiring.

The solution to the problem is to use our vast neuroscientific knowledge, and change the system so that no one is allowed into any public office, elected or employed, without going through a battery of tests to make sure he or she is in the normal range of humanity. Any bureaucrat or politicians already in must be identified and assisted with targeted counselling. (And in case you were wondering, I did go through such tests when applying for a management position years ago, and passed, and got the job.) Sadly, the solution is very unlikely, because the people who would have to agree to it and implement it are politicians and bureaucrats. Catch 22...