There is a pattern, a recurring blindness, in the approach of the administrative state to everyday human life. Let’s consider a few examples of recent political idiocy and the common thread that unites them:
- The Scholz Government hopes to convince more Germans to opt for public transit by tinkering with fares and introducing a universal €49 ticket. The offering, which collapses regional ticket schemes into one simple, relatively cheap monthly subscription, is now more than 50 days old, and preliminary data show it’s changed hardly anybody’s habits. The vast majority of the 11 million subscriptions sold so far have gone to longstanding public transit users; less than a tenth have been purchased by new customers. Surveys show that interest is concentrated in the urban centres, while rural populations have no use for the ticket because everybody drives cars there. Calls for improving transit offerings in the countryside are half-hearted and bizarre; the whole concept of public transit requires dense, concentrated populations.
- For some years now, the German state has deployed extravagant subsidies to convince consumers to buy electric vehicles. While adoption has been substantial, the dream of 15 million EVs by 2030 remains very far off. Subsidies aren’t enough to counterbalance the substantial cost of the batteries, leaving conventional automobiles with an enormous competitive advantage at the cheaper end. Also too, it seems that the core market for EVs – relatively well-off Germans who take mostly short trips and primarily charge their vehicles at home – will soon be saturated. For those who have longer commutes or must frequently travel long distances, the limited range and insufficient charging network are disqualifying.
- I’ve already written about proposed Government legislation to compel all Germans to transition to heat pumps, beginning in 2024. Massive controversy compelled substantial changes in the law, which has been blunted in many respects, but remains worrying. Because not everybody lives in buildings that are suitable for heat pumps, the law in its original form would have required massive renovations across broad sectors of the housing market, effectively wiping out billions of euros in personal wealth. If enacted in its original form, it might well have rendered many prewar buildings basically uninhabitable.
- Bizarre proposals to mitigate the dangers of warm summer weather, accompanied by strange state media hysteria about recent warm summer temperatures, are similarly oblivious. The proposals are based on French plans, which foresee imposing bans on school trips and large gatherings in the event of extended heat waves. While rules like these have the potential to destroy ordinary summer activities for millions of people, they won’t save any lives. Summer mortality spikes are confined almost entirely to the old and the sick, not schoolchildren or sports fans.
- Lockdowns and mass vaccination also belong in this list. These policies arose from the myopia of public health mandarins, who regarded everyone in their jurisdiction as equally likely to spread SARS-2, equally likely to die from it and equally able to endure months of rolling house arrests and an indefinite marathon of mRNA injections. They were wrong in every respect: the virus was only ever dangerous to a very small segment of the population, there was never any purpose in vaccinating the millions of people who had recovered from SARS-2 infection, and even according to officially accepted, heavily massaged statistics, the vaccines have no measurable upside for any healthy person under 50.
Underlying these policy initiatives and many others is a highly abstract bureaucratic conception of the individual, what I’ll call the Administrative Man. This is how state bureaucrats everywhere approach their subject populations, and it is an unavoidable artefact of routine bureaucratic processes like regulation and taxation. In this conception, everybody is more or less the same, subject to nudging via the same incentives, requiring the same protections from the same risks, and likely to benefit from the same one-size-fits-all solutions. The highly differentiated lives that people actually lead – their vast differences in personal circumstances, wealth, individual preferences, religious beliefs and political opinions – are at best ignored, at worst considered a massive inconvenience. There is an unstated, unconsciously harboured bureaucratic vision of a country made up entirely of Administrative Men as the ideal receptacles of bureaucratic solutions, which are of course always correct, except when the people fail them.
The image of the Administrative Man, while heavily abstracted, is not without some intriguing specific characteristics. These will vary from country to country, but we can derive some of the features of the German Administrative Man from our five examples. He appears to live in cities or at least in towns, not in the countryside. He’s certainly an apartment dweller, and he’s more likely than not to rent. He’s actually somewhat well-off, but not wealthy; he’s older and probably not in the best of health. He leads a fairly withdrawn, local life, with limited interest in public events. All in all, it seems fair to call him a composite figure, combining features of the civil servants most responsible for this vision and of the ageing voters who support the major political parties.
Our states are some of the most powerful and overextended in history; no system has been so well positioned to impose its vision of politics and culture on its subjects ever before. A few weeks ago, I wrote about the political mechanics of the rainbow revolution, but the all-consuming interesting of Western politicians in ethnic and sexual diversity surely admits of other interpretations as well. You could say that there is an eagerness to confine human variation to those areas of least concern to the institutional apparatus, and thus to ‘celebrate’, or actively promote, all those diversities which are of least consequence to the administrative ideal. Modern states actually want highly uniform, undifferentiated populations, and they hope to confine personal expression to sexual, ethnic and consumerist spheres. The Administrative Man may be straight or gay, he may be from any continent – these details hardly matter for the regulators.
The Administrative Man is not real, and no amount of bureaucratic intervention can ever bring him into being. What’s more, the state itself seems only intermittently conscious of and profoundly uninterested in the distance between its abstract administrative model of humanity and the reality of human variation. Ours aren’t the hard authoritarian regimes of the Warsaw Pact countries, which sought to beat their subjects into a uniform mass via economic deprivation and overt repression. They’re rather soft authoritarian systems, which operate via sophisticated messaging campaigns and realigning incentives – approaches which are always limited from the beginning by the deep inaccuracies of the administrative vision.