The Coastal Commission and Bureaucracy
As is usually the case with me, I started down one path in writing something and wound up taking quite another.
I started to write about the problems with the Coastal Commission, having written about some of the benefits, and demurred because first, I was uncomfortable talking abut my own direct experience with them (which is pretty substantial) because of that pesky pseudonym issue, and second, it began to look more and more like a litany of generic complaints about bureaucracy.
That started me thinking more generally about bureaucracy, which led me to another of those “aha” moments I’m prone to, and the realization that this takes me a little closer to an understanding of ‘4th Generation Liberalism’, as I’m wont to call it.
So what I want to do is set out some comments on bureaucracy, using as core examples the bureaucracy of land-use regulation with which I’m pretty familiar, and trying to tie it a bit to some examples from managing software development with which I’m also pretty familiar.
So here’s the outline I’m working to:
I. Introduction: the nature of bureaucracy, and the problem of rational despotism (today’s article).
II. Next up – Rational management of irrational processes; software development.
III. Finally – Some concrete suggestions.
My experiences in dealing directly with the Commission and staff convinced me that it was an organization that could charitably be called despotic. Now what do I mean by that?
A despot is an absolute ruler, whose power is . The term comes from the Greek term for the master of a household, whose power was domestic, rather than political.
And in many cases, modern bureaucrats are despots. How can that be? Wasn’t bureaucracy supposed to be rational and im? Wasn’t it supposed to represent the triumph of rationality?
Max Weber talks about it:
[The calculability of decision-making] and with it its appropriateness for capitalism . . [is] the more fully realized the more bureaucracy “deizes” itself, i.e., the more completely it succeeds in achieving the exclusion of love, hatred, and every purely , especially irrational and incalculable, feeling from the execution of official tasks. In the place of the old-type ruler who is moved by sympathy, favor, grace, and gratitude, modern culture requires for its sustaining external apparatus the emotionally detached, and hence rigorously “professional” expert.
The theory of modern public administration, for instance, assumes that the authority to order certain matters by decree–which has been legally granted to public authorities–does not entitle the bureau to regulate the matter by commands given for each case, but only to regulate the matter abstractly. This stands in extreme contrast to the regulation of all relationships through individual privileges and bestowals of favor, which is absolutely dominant in patrimonialism, at least in so far as such relationships are not fixed by sacred tradition.
From my direct experience, and I’m sure from others who can chime in, bureaucratic management of land use has become in large part an exercise in ‘patrimonialism’. What do I mean by that?
In the beginning, there was zoning; it specified specific types of uses for neighborhoods, in an effort to make sure that slaughterhouses would be moved away from homes, and that stamping plants would not be built next to shops. This grew out of the horrible conditions in many early industrial cities (in ‘Gangs of New York’, note that while the real gang battles were much tamer, the real physical conditions were much worse).
Within zones, physical standards began to be set, to assure, among other things, that apartments would have light and heat, and that some effort would me made to limit the susceptibility of buildings to fire, and to make sure their inhabitants could survive fire.
The modern ‘tenement’ building in New York, with lightwells and fire escapes, is a testament to these physical standards.
Over time, the physical standards got more complex, as layers and layers of new land-use and physical development regulations were created, and fairly soon, we find ourselves in a situation where the regulations overlap, are ambiguous, and often mutually contradictory.
So the expert interpretation of the zoning administrator is required.
In the idealized bureaucracy, the zoning administrator…the interpreter and enforcer of regulations…is a dispassionate professional, and most of the ones I know try as hard as they can to fit into that role.
But the fact that they and they alone are the interpreters, judges, and guides through these regulations means that for the average citizen, they are the zoning code, and their interpretation…their decision…is absolute.
Because the average citizen doesn’t ‘speak the language’, or have the specific knowledge to pull the relevant bits out of the code books, have the resources to hire someone who can, or have access to the local politicians to have them intervene, they are absolutely at the mercy of the bureaucrat, and the administrator’s power becomes entirely . I have known of ZA’s who have ‘mislaid’ files, delayed hearings, and otherwise impeded the planning process because an applicant was simply annoying.
When planning is local, there are some limits to this kind of despotism; the local citizen has some access to the Mayor, or to a city councilman, or to the local press. In a mega-city like Los Angeles, there isn’t much access, to be sure (which is one of the reasons why the city came close to being broken up, and why there are now several thousand new members of community ‘neighborhood councils’), and at the Coastal Commission level, where the elected officials are state legislators and the Governor, the average citizen effectively has no recourse outside the administrative process.
They do have recourse, of course, to hiring or buying access. They can hire me or one of the dozens of ‘expeditors’ like me for $150/hour; they can hire high-powered attorneys at $250 – $400/hour; they can spend thousands of dollars to attend fundraisers for legislators and the Governor and gain access as a donor.
And it takes time. My advice to clients looking at significant projects in the coastal zone was to budget three years, between applications, hearings, and legal maneuvering.
What this cost in time and money does is to segment applicants into two classes: those who can spend and wait, and those who cannot. Those who can, usually win; those who can’t take their chances.
So the small homeowner or developer has no recourse except to comply with any demand made by the coastal staff, no matter how thinly grounded in the law they might be.
Now, I believe that the Coastal Commission staff acted aggressively not to line their own pockets, but to protect the coast in the best light they knew how. There were clear instances of corruption on the appointed board (Mark Natanson went to jail, and Gray Davis got $8.4 million in donations from applicants with permits pending), but no one has made a credible accusation against the staff.
And their general efforts have definitely meant that California’s coast is less overdeveloped and mansionized than, say, Florida’s.
But they’ve created a two-tier system (not that the rich and powerful didn’t get or buy better before) where the gap in treatment between the ‘connected’ and the ‘citizens’ has never been greater.
And the consequence of that is profound, in the loss of legitimacy of the government, as I’ve discussed in the past.