The value and cost of bureaucracy

In ”Competition and the Efficiency of Bureaucracies,” Gary Becker writes:

Bureaucracies are large complex hierarchical organizations governed… by formal rules rather than discretionary choices. This apparent rigidity in the decision-making process does not necessarily make bureaucracies “inefficient” because they may have advantages of scale and scope that offset their disadvantages of inflexibility and remote decision-making.

This struck me as a good, quick summary of why bureaucracies have drawbacks — and why they can be the best way to do things even with those drawbacks.

A similar thought, coincidentally, popped up in a presentation about the evolution of board games, sent to me the other day by a friend. Games journalist Quintin Smith, giving a talk about all the ways board games have evolved, started talking about the wargame “A Few Acres of Snow.” The discussion starts at 19:53 in the presentation.

This is a sickeningly well-designed game. This is just beautiful. It’s a wargame about the French and English fighting for control of their Canadian colonies, which sounds like whatever it sounds like. It uses deck-building to simulate the logistics of running a war in a foreign country.

Okay, I’m not selling this.

The point is, you have your deck, and your deck represents soldiers, the Indians you’ve recruited, the priests, the home support, the boats. More importantly, it contains cards for every piece of territory you control. And the territory cards are relatively useless, which means the more you spread yourself, the more land you spread yourself over, the less control you have.

Every hand of cards you draw is a story, because you need soldiers, and then your deck, which is basically your subordinates, says, “We don’t have any soldiers, not now.” “We need boats!” “No boats, they’re all somewhere else.”

And you just can’t do this! The amazing thing is, it’s a war game, but really, you’re fighting your own logistical battles. And it’s amazingly tense. Because if your deck would do what you wanted it to for just one turn, you could hit Montreal and you could take it and you could end the game. But it never gives you that.

And the coolest thing about this is, there’s actually a sort of administration card. As a general, you can say, “This is a mess. We need administration.” And the administration card, when it comes up in your hand, lets you remove cards from your deck permanently — with the twist that there’s no way of getting rid of the administration card. So if you build an administration, there’s no way to remove it. It’s like you’re permanently deciding, “We need more desks! We need people sort of running the war for me.” And then that starts getting in your way as well. (Emphasis added)

The way in which clever game design can replicate real-world experiences in ways beyond just moving pieces on a board (for another example, see my post on the supply-and-demand mechanics in the board game “Power Grid”) continually impresses me. The entire structure of an entertaining card game ends up replicating the insights of academic experts into the strengths and drawbacks of the bureaucracies that are inevitable in modern life.

(This post has been edited.)