Bureaucracy proves destructive to common sense

Tuesday, November 10, 2009 | 12:01 a.m. CST; updated 10:24 p.m. CST, Friday, November 20, 2009

Immortalized in 1924 as the Notre Dame backfield (Miller, Layden, Crowley, and Stuhldreher) by legendary sports writer Grantland Rice, his Four Horsemen were derived from the New Testament’s “Apocalypse"–Conquest, War, Famine and Death as described in Revelations. Here, I will indulge in a bit of literary license in modernizing the “Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse” by adding fifth destructive element–Bureaucracy.

Bureaucracy is the administrative structure of any large organization, with necessary authority relations, defined spheres of competence and is subject to impersonal or neutral rules. Sadly, particularly in government, bureaucracy often becomes a voracious entity in growing administrative functions of government through the power of permanent, non elected officials. The unelected then become central to the functioning of the state and largely above control by the people or their elected representation.

Government is a necessary tool—the absence of government, anarchy, is a state of lawlessness or political disorder absent of authority. However, bureaucracy unchecked is detrimental to freedom as the bureaucrat, perhaps motivated by the best of intentions or by the myth of self importance, is subject to all the nuances of human nature and will seize any opportunity to advance his/her sphere of influence.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in the administration of discipline in the lower levels of education, K through 12. Through a process of benign neglect, influenced by parental indifference, teachers burdened by disruptive students and the ever present threat of litigation, school administrators have largely succumbed to the bureaucratic method of adhering to a “one size fits all” mentality. Consequently, disposing of problems is reduced to following a rigid set of rules and regulations rather than applying judgment and reason to each individual case.

Examples of this abound—anyone who has not read or otherwise learned of at least one such occurrence is informationally challenged. As the point can be made without belaboring the issue, we will look at two instances of this misguided “zero tolerance” policy–that of a first grader expelled from school in a Delaware for having in his possession a “deadly” weapon as was a third grader from the same district for the crime of bringing a birthday cake to school along with a cake knife to cut it.

The most recent case is of Zachary Christie, a Cub Scout and first grader in Delaware’s Christina School District, who brought his new camping utensil to school—a combination knife, fork and spoon—to use at lunch. Zachary was ordered expelled and assigned to a “reform school” for 45 days of counseling. Due, in large measure to nationwide as well as local pressure, the district was forced to amend the punishment to one more befitting the transgression, albeit hardly addressing the trauma done a child.

This policy was enacted as an equally nitwitted response to case of the aforementioned third grader whose grandmother sent her to school with a cake for her birthday and included a cake knife in the package. An unbelievably bizarre action ensued—the teacher cut and served the cake and then reported the poor girl to the principal who ordered her expelled. The expulsion was overturned, but at what cost to a child?

One might argue that the system did work, that in both instances a wrong was righted. But that does not answer the obvious—why does not the principal possess the authority or the courage of his/her convictions to exercise a reasonable and logical dose of common sense to handle every day problems? Are the on-scene school officials not empowered or not considered competent to consider the age, intent, situation or character of their charges to render an appropriate decision—a decision supported up the chain of command?

If the answers to those questions are not in the affirmative, we are well on our way up that creek without a paddle. Most, if not all of us, have run afoul of similar bureaucratic nonsense; my most memorable occurred while preparing to board an aircraft. On my key chain was a 1 1/2 inch C-ration can opener with a 1/4 inch blade (a P-38 or a John Wayne to infantrymen), which was confiscated on the spot. To this day, I am uncertain as to the possible hazards of this “weapon;” I doubt it would intimidate a flight attendant nor would it force the flight deck door.

Societal rules are a necessary evil, but overzealous regulation breeds loss of freedom. To one schooled in the '40s and '50s, a boy without a pocket knife is out of uniform. Have we reached that point in society that bureaucrats mandate our individual choices, usurp individual personal responsibility and punish all for the sins of a few?

If that is indeed the case and considered “progress,” I am saddened to be ending a journey which began for me with such promise—but to those with time remaining, I enjoin you to resist the intrusive bureaucratic intrusions into your day-to-day lives.

J. Karl Miller retired as a colonel in the Marine Corps. He is a Columbia resident and can be reached via e-mail at

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Albert Wallach November 12, 2009 | 8:30 p.m.

I recently had a similar experience at the VA offices on 18th St. by Union Station in ST.Louis. I was stopped at the entrance because I had my John Wayne from the Korean War days on my car key chain. As service officer of my VFW Post I had driven a veteran from Fenton to the VA office for an appointment. I asked did thy have any place I could leave my keys at the entrance. No. I had to walk a block back to the parking lot, keep my car key, and leave the vet I was assisting in the foyer of the building until I returned and passed through security. Common sense seldom prevails. I am 83 years old and maybe I needed the exercise. The Colonel is right.

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