Friday, July 19, 2019

On the Divided Nature of the Civil Service

At some point a few years ago, the predictive power of my models of permanent government improved significantly when I stopped conceiving of the government as a single monolithic entity with a single set of preferences. Rather, one usually gets a lot further by conceiving of different parts of the government as separate fiefdoms, with different aims, different power structures, and different allies.

The standard version of this is to distinguish between the politicians and the permanent civil service. It's definitely true that these groups often diverge a lot. You saw this most flagrantly during the 2013 government shutdown, where in response to mild threatened funding cuts, the Parks service put up barricades to shut down the Washington Mall, even though a) it's just some statues and grass, b) it's not clear what the Parks service even does there, and c) it takes less work to just not show up than to show up with barricades to ruin tourists' vacations. If you don't have this in your mental model of the world, I honestly don't know how to help you. But it seems that, even when just considering the actions of the bureaucracy as a whole, similar things apply. A lot of the time, there isn't even just one civil service.

For the US in particular, one occasionally runs into situations where if one is forced to ask "what does the US government want to happen?", the only conceivable description is that the US government is insane, evil and schizophrenic. To me, the cleanest example of this was the late Obama era policy towards Syria, where the US as a whole was supporting three out of the four sides of a civil war. The State Department and the CIA seemed to be gung-ho about regime change at any cost, supporting the "moderate" Sunni rebels, who kept on defecting to ISIS. ISIS was clearly undesirable, but apparently still viewed as better than Assad. While there wasn't any explicit support for them, the constant drumbeat that Assad had to go, and the fact that ISIS were almost certainly the most poised to take over the place, came across as at least tacit support. The Department of Defense was supporting the Kurdish rebels, who were fighting against ISIS. But they were also supporting the Turks, who were periodically fighting against the Kurds, because they were long-term important Defense allies.

Now, if one were forced to explain all this in terms of what "the US government" wanted, the only plausible models would seem to be that the US was just an agent of chaos, supporting everyone fighting everyone else, or that the US had gone completely mad and no longer understood the predictable consequences of its actions. If you break things down into component departments, it looks slightly less insane. Still somewhat insane, mind you, but not completely self defeating given any coherent set of policy aims.

Not only that, but you even get similar dynamics operating at times within government departments. You see this with immigration policy in Australia, and from what I hear in Canada too. Australian legal immigration is a hard-assed, skills-based, points-based system that aims to let in only people likely to be useful contributors to the Australian economy. But meanwhile, the Australian refugee processing apparatus seemed determine to wave in almost anyone, accepting 9 out of 10 claims of boat people. Including, hilariously, the captain of the people smuggling ship Captain Emad, who was also granted asylum, which suggests that they either had no ability to discern true claims from false claims, or were so worried about false negatives that they just accept any old story. If you take this seriously, it suggests that there isn't even one coherent immigration policy. Otherwise, why would it make sense to take in the highest performing migrants and every freebooter and scammer who turns up in a boat with a sob story, but not the people in between? I mean, it's not impossible to rationalise. But doesn't it just seem much simpler to posit that the refugee processing section is stuffed with bleeding heart leftists who stamp in anybody, and the other sections are much more skeptical?

This alternative theory also explains something about the Australian government's offshore processing of refugee claims. The government was eager to process claims almost anywhere except the Australian mainland - Christmas Island, Manus Island, Nauru, Papua New Guinea, you name it. Most people naively focused on the symbolism aspect - asylum seekers don't get to come to Australia! Fine, sure. But what else do all these places have in common? They're basically out of the reach of the Australian court system and existing refugee processing apparatus. It seemed to be easier for the Liberal government to set up an entirely separate parallel system of refugee processing than to reform the existing system which it was nominally in charge of.

You see a similar dynamic at play in the US as well. The only government agency that seems to genuinely support Trump is ICE, since they stand to get more money and power if his policies get through. Meanwhile, an antifa goon actually tried to assault an ICE facility with a rifle and "incendiary devices", and got killed for his troubles. The left seems to have figured out that ICE is in fact aligned with Trump, and is targeting them specifically. You sure don't see them trying to bomb the INS, which assigns citizenship to migrants.

This may sound like an argument that everything is inscrutable and you need to know endless detail about every part of the government, but this isn't really the case. Most the bits of the permanent government are at least center left in their aims and ideology, if not outright leftist. So there usually isn't that much conflict about broad objectives. Things tend to get interesting when the there's departments whose functions involve generally right wing tasks - border enforcement, the armed forces, policing, prisons. This is where the tension between the left wing slant of public servants and the right wing nature of people drawn to the particular job tend to be at odds. It's perhaps not surprising that the authors and commenters on Second City Cop seem far more sensible than Chicago's actual elected officials. They also seem substantially more sensible than Chicago's actual police chiefs of the past, who are basically political appointees.

It's not just that nobody is in charge of Moloch. It's that Moloch isn't even a single entity in charge of itself.


  1. If you want a look at the nuts and bolts of american border enforcement, has a lot to say about it. And he's written for VDare so he has a bit of clout in that sphere.

    The way he puts it, when INS was merged with customs inspection into Customs and Border Protection, the customs inspectors took over and purged the immigration inspectors. USCIS, I assume, is still running things the way they did in the INS days, but I suspect that they were the more bleeding-heart faction of INS.

    1. Huh, that's super interesting. I didn't realise there were two factions within ISCIS, but it totally fits the story.