At lunch on Sunday, I found myself sitting between a doctor and the master of a Cambridge college, who were having a competitive whinge about the ways in which bureaucracy and de-professionalisation were wrecking their lives. Actually, said the Don, the colleges were still run pretty sensibly, which is to say without management. The university as a whole is being persecuted by the Government, just as the Health Service is. The doctor complained bitterly and with every reason that the number of administrators employed by the NHS has risen from something like 5,000 to something like 100,000 in the last fifteen years. What’s more, they all change their minds about what needs doing every three years or so.
I found myself wondering whether there is any natural upper limit on the number of bureaucrats. Some people doubt there can be. Certainly, introspection suggests that managing work can easily expand to fill all the time available for actually working.
But there is a more hopeful example in the banana. Bob May used to go around, when he was the Government’s Chief Scientific Adviser, that we shared 50% of our genes with a banana. In fact we share them with almost any multicellular organism. They are the necessary “housekeeping” genes, which regulate and make possible the transactions between our separate cells, and keep us functioning as organisms, rather than cancerous agglomerations. So, I suppose from the point of view of the original, autonomous bacterium, they are all a part of the bureaucracy.
The moral of this is not very comforting: in nature, 50% of everything is bureaucratic. That is the limit to which our human institutions must also tend, if we are to take cultural evolution seriously. I expounded this theory, and then, since it was a buffet lunch, went off to get some more food. When I returned, the table was deserted.