Tuesday, October 21, 2014

The rise of Homo bureaucraticus

...and the evolution of the precautionary principle.

The rise of the precautionary principle since 1900

The precautionary principle is a defining characteristic of Homo bureaucraticus, a gender-neutral offshoot of Homo sapiens. Along with its symbiotic partner the expert, a species of hominid parrot, Homo bureaucraticus is now common all over the northern hemisphere.

The traditional definition of the precautionary principle is as a post hoc justification of actions and policies already decided, but it works even better as one of the keys to rise of Homo bureaucraticus.

Most of us are acutely sensitive to personal, family and tribal risk. It’s an ingrained feature of our survival antennae, part of our animal nature. Homo bureaucraticus takes this a step further. If it sees a risk, any risk, then bureaucraticus instructs an expert to slap a precautionary principle on it – the favoured one being avoid and blame.

Bankers go a step further and engineer negative risks for themselves and their cronies – ie other bankers, but that's another story.

Risk wasn’t always so amenable to manipulation though. Before Stonehenge was built, when even the most upmarket kitchen utensils were made of flint, risk was a far more serious business than it is today. Although...

What was the risk of not building Stonehenge? Is Homo bureaucraticus an older species than we have hitherto supposed? It’s an open question.

Anyway, among many other disadvantages our technical civilisation has made risk rather less risky. We may get away with stupidities but Homo bureaucraticus always gets away with stupidities. Much like banking in fact, only with bureaucraticus the risk is parked on voters...

Nope on reflection it’s not much like banking, it’s exactly like banking.

Even so the system copes. It may sag a little but on the whole it seems to cope. Not that we’d ever know if it couldn’t cope. Not until afterwards when bureaucraticus claims it’s all our fault for electing idiots. Which admittedly is something we do rather often.

So without the lure of a very substantial gain Homo bureaucraticus isn’t prepared to take risks under any but the most compelling circumstances. If it ain’t worth it don’t do it – that’s the bureaucraticus mantra.

Doing isn’t the whole story though because doing includes thinking and saying and telling. In other words bureaucraticus doesn’t take risks with language either, not even with that covert language trickling through its head as it reads the report it told an expert how to write.

So it is no surprise that the rise of the precautionary principle has seen a parallel and very energetic promotion of risk-free language. Political correctness we call it. As usual the risk of not speaking plainly is bound to fall on the peasants – not on bureaucraticus.

Ironically it could turn out to be a risky business not taking risks. 


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Sackerson said...

Hmm, shouldn't like to say...

Or as a some dam' lawyer said when we wanted the Council to prohibit knife-carrying Rastas from wandering into our school ("public property", he said), "Yes, well... that IS a point of view..." while avoiding eye contact and stirring some papers in front of him with a forefinger.

Paddington said...

Please don't badmouth parrots. They are highly intelligent, problem-solving animals. As for the real objects of your ire, I couldn't agree more. They are reducing risk to the point that we stall progress.

We also have the associated stupidity that too many people in the US now assume that we can eliminate all risk.

A K Haart said...

Sackers - the bureaucrats see a number of competing risks from the sound of it. Buridan's ass.

Paddington - it's as if civilisations need risk. If a taste for risk is diverted into other channels they fail.