Outside of the D.C. Beltway, state capitols and city halls, bureaucrats receive something less than adulation from citizens. And libertarians often lead the chorus. But some bureau employees are necessary. One libertarian who recognized this long ago was Leonard Read, in “The Worrycrats,” part of his 1972 To Free or to Freeze.
Even when government is limited to codifying the taboos, invoking a common justice, and keeping the peace, there is…an operating staff: a bureaucracy…[following] procedures.
In other words, even a nation of “laws and not men” needs some people to enforce what laws there are, even though those people will often have far worse incentives in their bureaucratic determinations than in their private relationships (why America’s founders were so keen on carefully monitoring their behavior).
However, despite the necessity for some bureaucrats to defend legitimate laws, some clearly deserve our mistrust. Read called them Worrycrats.
Worrycrats…are a special breed of totalitarian bureaucrats who spawn rapidly as society is socialized. These people concern themselves with our health, education, welfare, auto safety, drug intake, diet, and what have you. Worrycrats today outnumber any other professionals in history, so rapidly have they proliferated.
Why should we mistrust them?
The activities of these worrycrats in no way resemble a free market operation. Freedom in transactions has no part in this political procedure. Citizens are coerced to pay these professional worriers whether they want their services or not. A nongovernmental operation of similar nature would be called a racket.
I question the propriety of our being coerced to pay worrycrats to worry about us. We worry enough on our own without paying to have our worries multiplied.
What is the evidence for the plethora of bureaucrats who want us to worry more?
Observe the massive outpourings of the worrycrats—over TV, radio, and in the press—about lung cancer, heart failure, mercury, cranberries, cyclomates, seat belts, groceries, and so on. Unless one sees through all of these unsolicited oral and verbal counsels, he is going to be unnecessarily concerned…ordinary fears and worries substantially multiplied…[but] fear and worry are far deadlier menaces than all the things from which the worrycrats pretend to protect us.
What are the qualifications of worrycrats as more effective worriers for us than we are? Little more than know-it-all overconfidence, reinforced by ignoring huge differences among individuals.
Are these political saviors really concerned about your welfare and mine? Actually, they do not know that you or I exist…What…[do] they know about what is good or bad for me…What is their competence…they are not experts when it comes to your welfare or mine.
Suppose that these worrycrats are the world’s most advanced physicians and scientists. Would they know enough of what is injurious or helpful to you or me to justify forcing this information upon us or frightening us about it?
Individuals vary widely…there is no average person!
I care not who sits behind the worrycrat desk…Prescribing for and presiding over 200 million distinctive, unique individuals is no more within man’s competence than… directing the Universe. Contrary to socialist doctrine, we are discrete beings—not a mass, a collective.
In fact, those worrying on our behalf may actually be undermining our health and well-being.
[There are] many illustrations of how death is hastened through fears, anxieties, rage, worries…The outpourings of the worrycrats tend to multiply our stresses, anxieties, worries…literally scaring us to death.
That does not mean there is not a role for government with regard to our health, but the role is essentially the same, rather than multiplied compared to other areas of the economy.
Ideally, there is a role for government with respect to health, education, welfare. That role is to inhibit misrepresentation, fraud, violence, predation, whether by doctors…or others. No false labels! No coercive impositions on anyone!…all of us should be prohibited from injuring others. Actions that harm others—not what one does to self—define the limits of the social problem and of governmental scope.
Americans are now confronted with an even vaster crazy-quilt of federal executive agencies, mandates, regulations, czars, etc., than when Read wrote (just under 50 years ago). Those bureaucracies now house phalanxes of worrycrats who inhibit choices individuals and groups would take in search of their own growth, fulfillment and well-being as they saw it, by infringing our right to choose how to live our lives, so long as we do not violate others’ equal rights.
Much that worrycrats do interferes with individual choices and mutual agreements with regard to risk. They try to scare us into “voluntary” compliance with what they decide is good for all of us, despite the huge variance in preferences, circumstances, health histories, etc., among us. Failing that, they move to forcibly override what we would choose because while they may not know us at all, supposedly they still “know better.”
It is not hard to see how such do-gooder regulations harms our economic health. What if mining, logging, cab driving, etc., were hugely restricted because they are “too risky,” even though people chose to take those risks voluntarily. Similarly, aren’t police and fire personnel, health care providers, etc., exposed to elevated risks? Should we ban those jobs? Asking the questions provides the answers. Even though there are vast differences in risks across many professions, that does not justify over-riding the choices adults make to bear those risks.
We are also faced with risk-justified restrictions and impositions that can actually impose greater risks in other areas. A good example is traffic-calming policies that may well increase heart attack deaths more than they decrease traffic deaths, by causing congestion that slows emergency vehicle response times. But there are many more.
Those also include many “green” policies that increase other forms of pollution and environmental hazards, such as wind farms (e.g., disposing of blades or the massive carbon emissions from the cement required) or battery backup systems, electric vehicle mandates, etc. (e.g., with cobalt and rare earth metals), or even kill oil pipeline projects, moving oil transportation into trucks with far greater pollution and risk of environmental harms. FDA regulations that unduly delay life-saving drugs in the name of safety fall in the same category. Similarly, efforts that force up energy costs reduce economic output and incomes, reducing the resources available to improve our health.
Leonard Read described worrycrats as practicing chicanery. And it is striking how much the scope of that chicanery has expanded since he wrote. But many people have started to see that as a result of the multiple forms of malfeasance COVID provided cover for, including a notable increase in more direct coercion and more violations of individual rights (e.g., mask mandates and the CDC’s unconstitutional ban on evictions). And Read ends his article with a good reminder for those thinking of such issues today:
You know yourself better than anyone else does. Better that you turn yourself toward what you think is your advantage than be turned by a worrycrat toward what he thinks is your advantage. You at least know something, whereas he knows nothing of you as an individual.