The Trouble with Bureaucracies Isn’t Recklessness

A brilliant observation from p. 359 of Frank Knight’s 1921 book Risk, Profit, and Uncertainty:

The real trouble with bureaucracies is not that they are rash, but the opposite. When not actually rotten with dishonesty and corruption they universally show a tendency to “play safe” and become hopelessly conservative. The great danger to be feared from a political control of economic life under ordinary conditions is not a reckless dissipation of the social resources so much as the arrest of progress and the vegetation of life.

The last century or so has proven Knight correct, on everything from the precautionary principle being applied to chemical and environmental regulations, to risk assessment of new products, to much of what OSHA and CPSC do, to government dietary guidelines, to the larger nanny state movement.


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