The Merits of Red Tape

My city is gearing up for municipal elections in October. Several campaigns are already well underway. Many lawn signs are already staked in the ground.

The slogan for one would-be mayor’s campaign is, “Opportunity for all…Not red tape!” The sentiment aims at one of the biggest frustrations many of us have with bureaucratic institutions: the myriad of procedural bottlenecks that seem to hamper forward thinking and efficiency.

But I, for one, am a reluctant supporter of red tape. It is a necessary, self-regulating ingredient in democracy. Imagine the consequences if it was all eliminated: official plans, zoning regulations, public participation procedures, etc. — gone! Now what?

Let’s suppose that I, as a cyclist, got myself elected and convinced my fellow counsellors that the city needed more bicycle lanes. In fact, let’s put bike lanes on every street! Of course, there are a mountain of legislative and fiscal obstacles to this stunt, but in our imaginary world, the red tape doesn’t exist. So we plough ahead with our agenda.

Great, right? If there was no red tape at all, we could actually get stuff done!

But in our excitement, we overlook a confounding reality: If our elected council has it in their power to arbitrarily redesign the function every street in the city at their whim, the next council has equal capacity to undo everything that was done. Sure, we can put all the bicycle lanes in, but in four years, all the bicycle lanes can just as easily be removed.

Clearly, this chaos is neither efficient nor productive. The fact that higher levels of government require municipalities to adhere to specific, longterm, legally binding plans creates a maze of hoops and “obstacles” that hinder the willy-nilly, so-called “freedom” of haphazardly building at will. For me, I’d rather have red tape than not have it, as tiresome, frustrating, and impeding as it is. Make no mistake: red tape isn’t fun — but that doesn’t mean it isn’t important. People say red tape is inefficient, but it seems far more inefficient in the long run to just whimsically do whatever feels best in the moment.

When a political hopeful comes along promising the end of bureaucratic inefficiency and the elimination of growth bottlenecks, I find it somewhat amusing. First, they apparently seem to have little understanding of the Leviathan that is modern democratic legislation (which many a confident candidate hath already sworn to overthrow in the past). And secondly, more importantly, they don’t seem to respect the idea that red tape might actually have a purpose that ultimately serves the greater, longterm good of a community. At very least, the notion that red tape exists for the benefit of the citizenry doesn’t appear to register on their radar of political ideas.

Red tape is the saving grace of democracy: it’s the thread of continuity that allows us to survive the idiosyncratic folks we elect to govern us every four years. There’s nothing like a good, stinky pile of bureaucracy to help assure that the ridiculousness, radicalness, and craziness of the characters we elect is a bit more benign and manageable.

I think it’s time we take a second look at red tape, and critically examine the rhetoric of the politicians who try to convince us that it gets in the way of progress.

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