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Personal Responsibility In A Bureaucratic World

In recent weeks we have seen corporate employees sitting in front of Congressional Panels and denying responsibility. We didn’t cause the Great Crash. We didn’t screw up the oil well. We didn’t act irresponsibly about the brakes on our cars. Peterr put up a list of horrors that weren’t anybody’s fault. Apparently the new rule is that when something bad happens in a bureaucracy, no one is responsible, or everyone is, which is the same thing.

Hannah Arendt wrote often about the Nazis including the important book,The Origins of Totalitarianism. She reported on the trial of Adolf Eichmann in 1961 for the New Yorker, which led to her book, Eichmann in Jerusalem. Describing him, she coined the phrase, “the banality of evil”, by which she meant to convey that he was not motivated by hatred or anti-semitism, but merely by the desire to have a good career or some similar everyday impulse. She explored the ramifications of that idea in some of her later works. She gave a lecture in 1965, collected in Responsibility and Judgment, in which she discussed personal responsibility in bureaucracy.

The crimes of Eichmann were horrible and depraved beyond measure. Arendt’s examination of his actions and beliefs helps us to understand less horrifying actions taken by other bureaucrats. The people responsible for the disasters in the Gulf and at Bhopal are not in the same category of depraved, but their actions caused a tragedy. Someone knew that the blowout preventer tests were faked, and that it had a leak. Someone knew that the schematics for the BOP were wrong. Why didn’t they say something? The disaster at Bhopal was not a surprise, Union Carbide scientists warned of danger, and outsiders did too. Somehow, these warnings didn’t bring action. Why not? What happened to their moral structures, to their knowledge of right and wrong?

Arendt tells us that as Hitler’s power increased, and it became clear that he was their future, many Germans, but not all, swapped their moral structures for the Nazi moral structure. This wholesale replacement of one set of morals for another makes that arduously constructed set of morals we got as children look like nothing more than manners, customs and conventions, which can be changed overnight for another set of manners, customs and conventions. So much for such quaint notions as the categorical imperative, rational thought and, sad to say, the ability of religion to influence people in their public lives.

Corporations and governments create their own manners, customs and conventions, their own corporate culture, and people who want to get ahead know that a precondition to success is to live that corporate culture. Then, when the bankruptcy of that culture is revealed by a predictable catastrophe, as at the Upper Big Branch Mine, or the Great Crash, the bureaucrats defend themselves by saying that they were just doing their jobs, just working in the system, that they were merely cogs, and if they hadn’t done it someone else would have. Eichmann raised the cog defense too. Arendt responds that Eichmann is being tried in a court, so when he raises that issue, the Judge asks: Why did you become a cog? Why did you agree to do that job? The position of cog may be relevant to punishment, but it is not relevant as to liability.

Most of us work in bureaucratic settings. We are used to the idea that we have to do distasteful things, and we just do them. It is uncomfortable to judge other bureaucrats when we know we might act the same way. We often say that organizations demand obedience. The bureaucratic organizations that dominate society couldn’t function without obedience to orders. Arendt reminds us that adults don’t obey, they consent. If you consent to behave in accordance with your corporate culture, and your behaviors result in catastrophe, you are at fault. Unwillingness to judge others because we might do the same thing in the same position is a way of ducking our own responsibility to judge our own actions.

We hope that there will be accountability for the people whose actions or inactions caused Peterr’s list of disasters, but the sad fact is that punishment is unlikely. Apparently, if you can live with yourself afterward, anything is permitted. The worship of economic efficiency has ruthlessly stripped out conscience and all other considerations for the bureaucratic servants of corporations.

image: Gears (!!) by ToniVC (flickr)

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