what to do about the guy behind the desk

A guy sits at a desk, resolving people’s requests and issuing orders. Most people who encounter him think he’s making their lives worse. What do you assume is going on?

  • Maybe it’s capitalism and the profit-motive. The guy is probably corporate, and if he works for the government, that shows that it’s a “neoliberal state” (captured by capital.)
  • Maybe it’s state-backed coercion: a denial of free choice. The guy is probably a state bureaucrat. If he works in the private sector, he still reflects the power of the government, which flows from the mouth of the gun. If free individuals were left alone, they wouldn’t come into a room like this.
  • Maybe it’s colonialism. Rooms with desks arrived with Europeans and replaced other (presumably better) ways of relating that were indigenous and traditional. Even if the guy behind the desk descends from indigenous people, his behavior is colonial.
  • Maybe it’s patriarchy. I intentionally called him a “guy” to suggest that his behavior might be gendered.
  • Maybe it’s a bureaucracy in Weber’s sense, a technology for coordinating specialized labor, which is much more productive than unspecialized labor. It is an unavoidable price of progress.

There can surely be truth to each of these theories, but it interests me how many different kinds of people sit behind desks giving out orders: corporate executives, civil servants, military officers, monsignors, mullahs, associate deans, chiefs of pediatrics, union shop stewards, Soviet commissars, Confucian officials ….

A desk sounds somewhat culturally specific, but with a change of furniture, one might imagine the same behavior from a Sumerian temple scribe, an Aztec huecalpixque (regional tribute manager), an iyase from the Kingdom of Benin, or a Tibetan abbot. Considering the globe as whole, the person behind the desk is probably not white, and quite often, not a man.

I would avoid the kind of root-cause analysis that asks which underlying bad phenomenon explains all such cases. For one thing, that style often implies the possibility of an innocent condition, one without profits, rulers, settlers, or guns. But revolutionary and post-colonial systems often put new people behind the same desks. The myth of innocence can be a cover for new forms of tyranny. Besides–and I realize this is almost unprovable–I think that problems such as limited resources, conflicting interests, and cognitive biases are built into human interaction and cannot be wished away.

I would also avoid a blanket denunciation of everyone who sits at a desk making unpopular decisions. Maybe this is a hard-working, underpaid, front-line public servant, just doing her best.

Here’s a way of thinking about the problem without root-cause analysis. Human beings have a wide range of techniques for organizing complex interactions in the face of endemic problems like scarcity, conflict, and cognitive limitations. These techniques are the ingredients from which we make our social recipes. Examples include officials making discretionary decisions–that person behind the desk–but also secret-ballot votes, lotteries, auctions, exchanges, gifts, public deliberative assemblies, randomly-selected panels, turn-taking, adherence to precedent or original documents, obedience to unseen powers, inheritance, chance (e.g,., flipping a coin), blind peer review, randomized experiments, popularity scores, endurance challenges, romantic partnerships, kinship relations, teacher/pupil pairings, and many more. I have omitted the really awful forms and, of course, failed to list the many tools that have yet to be invented.

We can combine these forms in many ways. Before we assess the guy behind the desk, we should understand which other ingredients are involved in the whole recipe. Maybe he was randomly selected for a short term of service. Maybe he was appointed enthusiastically by a popular assembly. These facts would change our assessment.

The situation might involve domination: arbitrary control over another. That is the case if the guy behind the desk can choose at will and doesn’t have to give reasons or face an appeal. The situation might involve oppression, if the guy belongs to a social group that regularly treats a different group in ways that reduce their human flourishing. But it might involve only one of those things, or neither. The person behind the desk might belong to the same social group as those in front of it and might have no scope for arbitrary decisions.

Yet we shouldn’t be quick to accept a situation that–per the original story–makes most people unhappy. Many actual systems are very bad, and for very bad reasons. They emerged from conquest, subjugation, and cruelty. They manifest both domination and oppression. These systems now enjoy enormous status quo advantages. Organizing to replace them is very hard, especially in the face of powerful incumbents and elaborate justifications. They may inspire fear and awe. For an individual, compliance may be completely rational.

We must challenge domination and oppression and cook up better social recipes. The reason is not to combat capitalism, statism or colonialism, but to free people from oppression and from domination. That requires building better structures, which is as important as disrupting the bad ones. And it means addressing the endemic challenges of flawed creatures who are in (partial) conflict under conditions of scarcity.

See also: both detailed institutional analysis and holistic critique; Complexities of Civic Life; citizens against dominationavoiding arbitrary command; civic education and the science of association;  a template for analyzing an institutionthe legacy of Elinor Ostrom and the Bloomington School; avoiding a sharp distinction between the state and the private sphere; etc.

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About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.