Every now and then there's a news story about a bureaucrat who does something that seems monumentally stupid to the rest of us, often hurting some innocent citizen in the process. Once upon a time I thought that government bureaucrats were either evil -- mini Hitlers who live to inflict pain and suffering just because they can -- or moronic -- someone who is too dumb to get a job in the private sector.
I've now changed my mind. I don't suppose that, on average, the people hired to enforce mindless regulations are any more ethically challenged or of lesser intelligence than the rest of us, and there is probably a wide range of reasons why anyone in particular might take a government job.
I think the answer is more simple, and can be demonstrated by the bad example recently set by administrators at the Jensen Beach High School in Florida:
It was prom night, which for many seniors is arguably the second most important day on the calendar, right after graduation. Students, especially girls, spend months planning for it, and parents spend a lot of money on dresses, makeup, limousines, and corsages. School administrators know this. They understand, or should, that it is hugely significant to their students. And what's important to students should be important to administrators, at least if the claim that they're in it for their students is anything more than just a platitude.
The Jensen Beach administration required all of its students to sign an agreement that they could be breathalyzed if there was reasonable suspicion of alcohol. So far, so good. Students have been killed on prom night because of alcohol; the school's interest in keeping the prom alcohol-free is legitimate.
It seems that forty students rented a bus to take them to the prom. Apparently there was an empty champagne bottle and glass on the bus from a previous rider. We know it did not belong to any of the students, because every one of them tested negative on the breathalyzer. But we're getting ahead of ourselves.
When the bus arrived at the prom, the school resource officer took a walk through the bus and found the bottle. Apparently he didn't look too closely, because if he had, he would have noticed that the bottle had been empty for some time. Bottles that have recently been emptied are wet and dripping; bottles that have been empty for a while are dry because the liquid evaporates. Even a resource officer and school administrator should remember enough high school physics, never mind have enough life experience, to know that. But let us concede that an empty champagne bottle, wet or dry, probably is suspicious enough to justify hauling out the breathalyzer, and if that's all that had happened, it would be unremarkable.
That is not all that happened. It took authorities a half hour to get the breathalyzers set up. It then took them another hour to test everyone. And by that time the prom was over, and the students were told to go home. After spending all that money, their special night consisted of hanging out outside the dance hall for two hours being tested for alcohol. No one tested positive, by the way.
The students may have signed an agreement to be breathalyzed, but we very much doubt that the agreement contained a provision that the process would take two hours and cost them attendance at the prom. Adding insult to injury, students who complained were disciplined. Can't have future free citizens of a free republic challenging an administrator's authority, no siree.
Now, how would reasonable people have handled this situation? First, they would have been prepared, with adequate breathalyzers and staffing, to complete the tests in minutes rather than hours. It was completely forseeable that a busload of students might show up at the same time, and there is something to be said for being prepared. That way, the school's safety concerns could have been met and the students still could have made the prom.
Second, when it became apparent that the students really hadn't been drinking, they could have dispensed with testing everyone.
So, why didn't they do any of those things? For two reasons. First, because for an administrator, there is no downside to inflicting misery on other people, so bureaucrats tend to be less cautious with other people's interests. It's not the school administrators who had to pay all that money for dresses and makeup that ultimately went for nothing. If the students sue the school, it's not the administrators who will have to pay any judgment or settlement; that will be the taxpayers. And a big step in the right direction, we think, would be to change the rules so that at least in egregious cases, at least part of the judgment does come from bureaucrats involved. That way, they have a stake in the outcome, and would be more inclined to ask if there's an easier way to do things.
The second reason is that nobody said "stop this". Once a bureaucratic process gets started, it continues to its end. I don't think the administrators said to themselves, "Let's make the students miss the prom just to be mean." Rather, once the process got started, whether the students made the prom became irrelevant. The only thing that matters to a bureaucrat is that the rules be followed, let the heavens fall.
We suspect that giving bureaucrats a financial incentive to mitigate the damage would probably go a long way toward fixing the second problem. Unless and until the law is changed, neither will bureaucrats.