The King of Ruffle Bar and the Insanity of Bureaucracy

In anthropologist Edward Hall’s 1976 book Beyond Culture,  he describes a story of a wild dog that lived on the small, otherwise uninhabited island of Ruffle Bar, which is just off the coast of Brooklyn and Long Island. The dog, nicknamed “The King of Ruffle Bar,” seemed to be in good health and had sustained itself for about two years. Some well meaning person heard about the dog and reported it to the local ASPCA. That’s when the bureaucratic wheels began to spin into motion.

Officials became very concerned with capturing the dog, even going as far as using a helicopter to hover over the island daily. It continued to evade police, eventually attracting a national audience as the they continued in vain to corner him. The New York Times reported that police stated the dog “looked in good shape.” Indeed, the police had been aware of the dog for at least two years prior and were content to leave him on the island. “Why don’t they leave the dog alone?” one officer asked. “The dog is as happy as a pig in a puddle.”

Representatives for the ASPCA said, “When we catch the dog, we will have it examined by a vet, and if it is in good health, we will find a happy home for it.” (Italics added)

Hall notes that if the story were a fable, there would be no doubt as to its interpretation. It is clearly a story about a little man against a big bureaucracy, which is probably why it received national interest. But more notable, is the reaction of the ASPCA, which would not have been content until the dog was placed in a controlled setting. Hall writes:

“The ASPCA became obsessed with capturing the dog.  Once triggered, the ASPCA involved the police with a remorseless, mindless persistence that is too terrifyingly characteristic of bureaucracies once they are activated…

The delusional aspects have to do with the institutionalized necessity to control ‘everything,’ and the widely accepted notion that the bureaucrat knows what is best; never for a moment does he doubt the validity of the bureaucratic solution.  It is also slightly insane, or at least indicative of our incapacity to order priorities with any common sense, to spend thousands of dollars for helicopters, gasoline, and salaries for the sole purpose of bureaucratic neatness.”

The bureaucracy, when activated, can be very dangerous because reason cannot abate it’s quest for uniformity. Hall notes that this is primarily a western problem, not one shared the world over.

“We in the west are alienated from ourselves and from nature,” he writes. “We labor under a number of delusions, one of which is that life makes sense, that we are sane. We persist in this view despite massive evidence to the contrary.”

The story about the King of Ruffle Bar is replayed over and over in American society, except we are the animals the government continually seeks to cage. Consider this story from Philadelphia, where a woman who attempts to feed children is handed a $600 fine. The reason? Zoning regulations state it’s a residential area, and she’s handing out food.

Pay special attention to the bureaucrat in this video. His sense of self-righteousness is apparent, as is his commitment to the rules over common sense.

The state bureaucracy cannot abide inconsistency. It must stomp out irregularities even in defiance of reason. The western tendency to value conformity over reason is, in its most benign form, a mere inconvenience, but once activated, laws are potent tools for control and harassment. Not all bureaucratic misadventures are so tame however, and at their worst, the power of the written word can be deadly.

Update 1/31/2013: Consider the ongoing expulsion of kindergartners from their schools because they bring toy guns to school. Yet another example of officials’ unwillingness or inability to think rationally?

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