Economics

How Bureaucracy May Have Cost Lives in Uvalde

Why did they wait?

That question must haunt the families of the nineteen children and two adults who were massacred in Uvalde, TX last week in light of recent revelations about the police response.

Accounts of what happened have been shifting and inconsistent. But, according to a timeline published by the Associated Press, while children were trapped with the killer in two adjoining classrooms, as many as nineteen armed officers waited in the hallway outside for over an hour before a rescue was finally executed.

During that time, some of the trapped children called 911, begging for police to be sent in. On one of those calls, gunshots could be heard.

“Roland Gutierrez,” reports The New York Times, “who represents the area in the State Senate, said the family of one of the children killed told him that their daughter had been struck by a single bullet to the back and had bled to death. ‘It is possible she could have been saved, if they had done their jobs,’ Mr. Gutierrez said.”

Just as “justice delayed is justice denied,” rescue delayed can be rescue denied.

A harrowing video circulating online shows family members desperately pleading (some of them screaming) with officers outside the school to rescue their children. Two officers seem to have one man detained on the ground.

Again, why did they wait? The question has undoubtedly baffled many around the world, especially parents of young children. Such a delay seems unfathomable.

While “why it happened” is even less certain than “what happened,” certain reports about the police response raise important considerations about government delays in general that may be relevant to this troubling question.

Why Bureaucracies Are Slow

It is important to remember that all government law enforcement agencies are bureaucracies. And all bureaucracies have certain behavioral tendencies owing to their institutional structure and the incentives that structure generates.

The great economist Ludwig von Mises analyzed these tendencies and incentives in his 1944 book Bureaucracy.

In that book, Mises identified “slowness and slackness” as among the inherent features of government bureaucracy that no reform can remove.

We have all experienced the “slowness and slackness” of government bureaucracy: with the post office, the DMV, the public school system, etc. That’s why the animated movie Zootopia had sloths working at the DMV and everyone got the joke. And police bureaucracies are no exception to this reputation.

Why is this so? In part, it is due to another indelible feature of bureaucracy: that it is, as Mises wrote, “bound to comply with detailed rules and regulations fixed by the authority of a superior body. The task of the bureaucrat is to perform what these rules and regulations order him to do. His discretion to act according to his own best conviction is seriously restricted by them.”

Sometimes a delay is simply due to the fact that the government employee is too tied up in red tape to respond in a timely manner. The timely response may be outright prohibited by the rules. Or the delay may be owing to Kafkaesque procedural mazes that first must be navigated or chains of command that must be climbed for permission.

Lethal Red Tape

This may have been a major factor of the possibly deadly delay in Uvalde. According to The New York Times, command on the scene,

“…fell to the chief of a small police department created only four years ago to help provide security at Uvalde’s eight schools. Its chief, Pedro Arredondo, had ordered the assembled officers to hold off on storming the two adjoining classrooms where the gunman had already fired more than 100 rounds at the walls, the door and the terrified fourth-graders locked inside with him, the state police said. (…)

Officers were told, under Chief Arredondo’s direction, that the situation had evolved from one with an active shooter — which would call for immediately attacking the gunman, even before rescuing other children — to one with a barricaded subject, which would call for a slower approach, officials said.

That appeared to be an incorrect assessment, according to the state police director, Steven McCraw: Gunfire could sporadically be heard inside the rooms, including on continuing 911 calls by the children.”

The Times also reported:

“The degree to which some law enforcement officers on the scene disagreed with the decision to hold back became more apparent on Saturday, as more became known about their frustrations in the protracted chaos of Tuesday’s shooting.

Specially trained agents from the Border Patrol, who arrived more than 40 minutes after the shooting had begun, had yelled for permission to go in and confront the gunman. ‘What is your problem?’ they asked, according to an official briefed on the response.”

If any officer on the scene earlier harbored a similar disagreement, it may not have made a difference, because “his discretion to act according to his own best conviction,” to use Mises’s words, would have been seriously restricted by “pedantic observance of rigid rules and regulations”

Again, Mises considered such features of bureaucracy to be unreformable. Why? He argued that it is the only way that a government bureaucracy can be made at all accountable to the public. A bureaucrat with a free hand is even more dangerous than a bureaucrat with his hands tied.

“If one assigns to the authorities the power to imprison or even to kill people,” Mises wrote, “one must restrict and clearly circumscribe this power. Otherwise the officeholder or judge would turn into an irresponsible despot.”

“Ultimately,” reports the Times, “the police officers assembled outside won permission to enter the classroom. A team of tactical officers from the Border Patrol and local police agencies breached the door and killed the 18-year-old gunman, Salvador Ramos, after he had killed 19 children and two teachers inside.”

The officers who confronted and killed that murderer of children did a magnificently heroic deed. But we have to wonder whether any of those deaths were due in part to bureaucratic delay—to the need for officers on the ground to “win permission” to save lives? We may never know. And even if so, are such delays unavoidable when it comes to responding to crime? Mises seemed to think so, believing that “coercion and compulsion” (including policing) must necessarily be delegated to government, and so is unavoidably bureaucratic.

The Bureaucracy Blob

Whether he was right about that or not, Mises argued that the problem with bureaucracy is not that we have failed to reform it, but that we have overextended it far beyond what he, as a classical liberal like America’s Founders, regarded to be its proper domain of protecting rights.

Instead, bureaucracy has encroached on matters that properly belong in the hands of families and the market: institutional domains that don’t require rigid rules and regulation to stay accountable.

Families tend to be held accountable by human nature: like the familial love that drove Uvalde parents Jacob Albarado and Angeli Rose Gomez to immediately race to successfully rescue their children themselves, at the risk of their own lives and in defiance of the officials.

And in the market, producers are held accountable to consumers by the pursuit of profit and the avoidance of loss: market dynamics that help keep places like amusement parks and retail stores for the most part expeditious and safe.

Governments have recourse to neither familial love nor profit and loss, and so must resort to what Mises called “bureaucratic management,” which is inherently slow and less responsive to its “customers,” even when those “customers” are literally begging for prompt service, like the Uvalde parents who begged for government agents to rescue their children.

Mises characterized the blob-like tendency of modern bureaucracy to absorb more and more of human life as a march toward totalitarianism.

“It is quite correct,” he wrote, “as the opponents of the trend toward totalitarianism say, that the bureaucrats are free to decide according to their own discretion questions of vital importance for the individual citizen’s life. It is true that the officeholders are no longer the servants of the citizenry but irresponsible and arbitrary masters and tyrants. But this is not the fault of bureaucracy. It is the outcome of the new system of government which restricts the individual’s freedom to manage his own affairs and assigns more and more tasks to the government.”

For example, our system of compulsory schooling has assigned educating and securing our children for most of the day to the government. And to the extent that private gun ownership is regulated, we have still further restricted the individual’s freedom to protect his own family and more fully entrusted the security of his children to the government.

Parents should realize that, as the appalling delay in Uvalde may exemplify, bureaucracies are institutionally unworthy of that trust.

This article was adapted from an issue of the FEE Daily email newsletter. Click here to sign up and get free-market news and analysis like this in your inbox every weekday.

The post How Bureaucracy May Have Cost Lives in Uvalde was first published by the Foundation for Economic Education, and is republished here with permission. Please support their efforts.

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