Government isn’t the only problem

Working in a college, I’m at the front lines of a significant problem: wasteful bullshit jobs. In fact, I am writing this post to procrastinate editing a bureaucratic report (that nobody cares about) that has been slowly grinding the joy out of my life for the past several months. I have to write this report for the benefit of regulatory oversight which, ironically, is supposed to ensure that I use my privileged position for the benefit of society instead of wasting my efforts on pointless or destructive outlets.

In my case, this bullshit aspect of my job is a predictable outcome of working in a state sponsored bureaucracy. But the same disease afflicts private industry too.

If I’m the head of a Fortune 500 company, I have incentive to increase profitability of my company, but I have competing interests too. Most importantly I have to maintain my position of power within the company. Bruce Bueno de Mesquita and coauthors have laid out the logic of the situation in The Dictator’s Handbook, and The Logic of Political Survival–in a nutshell, I have to worry about competition for positions of power within any hierarchy. This requires engaging in cooperative rent-seeking to keep the right people happy. If I don’t, I risk losing my position to a sycophant who will.

We shouldn’t be surprised to see Niskanenian logic show up in these situations. Corporate flunkies are like a private army that can help me keep my position of power even if they don’t contribute to the profitability of the firm. Even if I want to maximize profits, if I have to worry about keeping my position, I have to engage in some of this costly, inefficient rent-seeking.

In other words, “firms maximize profit” is an approximation that brushes aside methodological individualism. Don’t get me wrong, there’s evolutionary pressure on firms that will push in that direction. But within a firm there’s evolutionary pressure preventing the firm from fully maximizing. (In other other words, if I survive this report I’ll have to start reading up on corporate governance.)

This logic is a natural source of bullshit jobs, even in a free market. Regulatory capture should make it worse, but we’ll never completely eliminate it.

On a more speculative note, I think we also have to worry about culture. For one, our current culture drives the demand for increased regulation. For another, we prize work for work’s sake to the point that most people would rather see someone fritter away their brief experience as a sentient being than see them fail to live up to social expectations. Such notions, I think, are behind the surprising lack of riots in the street you might expect in a world where most people know we face this problem of bullshit jobs. But I’ll leave any further speculation for the comments.

tl;dr: Our economy is beset with bullshit jobs that sap our creative capacity and crush our souls. And pretty much everyone knows it. Government is part of the problem, partly because regulation creates demand for paper-pushing, and partly because anti-competitive regulation converts lively, profit-seeking firms into private bureaucracies in their own right. But there are deeper problems: our willingness to abide, and the fundamental logic of hierarchical organizations.


  1. The extraterrestrial next door Adam Hadhazy,
  2. Reporting reports: colonial medical institutions Jonathan Saha, Colonizing Animals
  3. The best way to defeat totalitarianism? Treat it as a joke Anna Aslanyan, Spectator
  4. Bureaucrats in the Defense Department: An ethnography Jonathan Wong, War on the Rocks


  1. The two afflictions that enhance the challenge for returning vets David French, National Review
  2. The varieties of Muslim faith become a vital form of diplomacy Bruce Clark, Erasmus
  3. How the Inkas governed, thrived and fell without alphabetic writing Christopher Given-Wilson, Aeon
  4. Qatar’s progress on its improbable World Cup David Conn, Guardian

Legal Immigration Into the United States (Part 20): Transitional Measures and Conclusions

We must recognize than any orderly system used to select and admit immigrants involves a degree of bureaucratic slowness. Hence, the existing family preference-based program would have to be extended for several years, maybe as long as ten, while accepting no more new applications. It’s likely that the compromise solution would even have to be some sort of measure that guarantees that the last direct descendants and direct ascendants of existing immigrants have been accommodated.

To remedy the labor rigidity consequent on the abolition of family preference as the primary source of admission, the US might re-instate a new version of the 1942-1964 bracero program. I refer to a system of admission of temporary contractual workers guaranteed a minimum wage and decent living conditions by employers for a stated period. Temporary immigrants admitted in this manner would have no expectation of permanent admission to the US. The problem of “stay-overs” could be solved through a conventional bonding system. (I am puzzled about why bonding has not yet been tried in connection to immigration.) The work sojourns would have to be made renewable in law so that the US might preserve the option of keeping temp. workers who had acquired valuable and rare skills during, or even before their first, or following stay in-country. In exceptional cases, temp. workers in such a program could be channeled to the new F-1B program, perhaps with credit given for experiences working in the US and for cultural adjustment.


In summary: I deplore two features of current public discussions of legal immigration: They are ill-informed to an astonishing degree; and, they are often crude, lacking in both subtlety and imagination, like an argument between two people who keep cutting each other off. Unless one formulates a systematic alternative to the current system, one squarely separating immigration based on altruism from merit-based immigration, immigration based on the expected immigrants contributions to American society, the helter-skelter liberal project will continue to prevail. It is now prevailing by default in the minds of  most Americans. Those who have the energy to resist it too often limit their response to a blind “No!”In the end,  if no countervailing project emerges forcefully, we will witness the establishment of a statist one-party system in the US. Libertarians, among others, should hurry to confront their close friends and relatives who toy with the dangerous delusion of open borders.

[Editor’s note: in case you missed it, here is Part 19; you can also read the entire essay at the “LongForm Essays” section of the blog.]


  1. Collapsing certainties: art and its social and cultural setting Partha Mitter, Cairo Review
  2. Native Americans: victims of bureaucracy Michael Adamson, the Freeman
  3. Native American reservations: “socialist archipelago” Andrei Znamenski, Mises Daily
  4. The rise of Russia’s GRU Military Intelligence Service Christian Esch, der Spiegel

NATO, Kendrick Lamar, and the answer to free riding

Edwin’s post giving one cheer to NATO brings up the old rift between European and American libertarians on foreign policy and military alliances. As usual, it’s excellent and thought-provoking. Here’s what he got out of me:

International relations splits the classical liberal/libertarian movement for a few reasons. First, consensus-building on both sides of the pond is different, and this contributes strongly to the divide over foreign policy. American libertarians lean isolationist because it aligns closer to the American left and libertarians are desperate to have some sort of common ground with American leftists. In Europe, leftists are much less liberal than American leftists (they’re socialists and communists, whereas in the States leftists are more like Millian liberals), and therefore European libertarians try to find different common ground with leftist factions. Exporting the Revolution just doesn’t do it for Europe’s libertarians.

Edwin (and Barry) have done a good job convincing me that trans-Atlantic military ties are worth the effort. But we’re still stuck at a point where the US pays too much and the Europeans do too little. Trans-Atlantic ties are deep militarily, culturally, and economically. Tariff rates between the United States and Western Europe are miniscule, and the massive military exercise put on by NATO’s heavyweights highlights well the intricate defense connections between both sides of the pond. Night clubs in Paris, London, Warsaw, and Los Angeles all play the same Kendrick Lamar songs, too.

Politically, though, the Western world is not connected enough. Sure, there are plenty of international organizations that bureaucrats on both sides of the pond are able to work in, but bureaucracy is only one aspect of getting more politically intertwined with each other (and it’s a damn poor method, too).

In 1966 economists Mancur Olson and Richard Zeckhauser wrote an article for the RAND Corporation showing that there were two ways to make NATO a more equitable military alliance: 1) greater unification or 2) sharing costs on a percentage basis. The article, titled “An Economic Theory of Alliances,” has been influential. Yet almost all of the focus since it was published over 50 years ago has been on door number 2, sharing costs on a percentage basis. Thus, you have Obama and Trump bemoaning the inability of Europe’s NATO members to meet their percentage threshold that had been agreed upon with a handshake at some sort of bureaucratic summit. You have Bush II and Clinton gently reminding Europe’s NATO members of the need to contribute more to defense spending. You have Nixon and Carter prodding Europe’s NATO members to meet an agreed-upon 3-4 percent threshold. For half a century policymakers on both sides of the Atlantic have tried to make NATO more equitable by sharing costs on a percentage basis, and it has never panned out. Ever. Sure, there have been some exceptions in some years, but that’s not okay.

What has largely been lost in the Olson & Zeckhauser article is the “greater unification” approach, probably because this is the much tougher path to take towards equitable relations. The two economists spell out what they mean by “greater unification”: replacing the alliance with a union, or federation. I’m all for this option. It would make things much more equitable and, if the Europeans simply joined the American federation, it would give hundreds of millions of people more individual freedom thanks to the compound republic the Americans have built. Edwin, along with most other European libertarians/classical liberals, acknowledges that Europe is free-riding, but are Europe’s liberals willing to cede some aspects of their country’s sovereignty in order to make the alliance more equitable? Are they ready to vote alongside Americans for an executive? Are they ready to send Senators and Representatives to Washington? Or are they just pandering to their American libertarian friends, and telling them what they want to hear so they’ll shut the hell up about being ripped off?


  1. Confucianism and meritocracy James Hankins, American Affairs
  2. Lots of ideological axes to grind Scott Sumner, EconLog
  3. Did the notorious Zinoviev Letter ever exist? Alan Judd, Spectator
  4. That time when Chile conquered Peru and Bolivia Stefan Aguirre Quiroga, History Today