Red Tape

Red Tape: Its Origins, Uses, and Abuses

Copyright Date: 2015
Pages: 100
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  • Book Info
    Red Tape
    Book Description:

    Death, taxes, and red tape. The inevitable trio no one can escape. That wry sense of reality colors Herbert Kaufman's classic study of red tape, the bureaucratic phenomenon that all of us have encountered in some form-from the confounding tax form filled out annually to the maddeningly time-consuming wait at the driver's license bureau.

    The complaints about red tape, Kaufman concedes, are legion. It's messy, it takes too long, it lacks local knowledge, it is out of date, it makes insane demands, it increases costs, it slows progress. It is, in short, a burden and many times there is no measurable positive outcome.

    Kaufman takes us on an unblinking tour of the dismal landscape of red tape. But he also shows us another side of red tape, one we often forget. Red tape is how government protects us from tainted food, shoddy products, and unfair labor practices. It guarantees a social safety net for the elderly, the disabled, children, veterans, and victims of natural disasters. One person's red tape is another person's protection.

    This reissue is a Brookings Classic, a series of republished books for readers to revisit or discover, notable works by the Brookings Institution Press.

    eISBN: 978-0-8157-2661-6
    Subjects: Political Science

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
    (pp. vii-xiv)
    Philip K. Howard

    Herbert Kaufman was one of the twentieth century’s keenest observers of the inner workings of government. His first book,The Forest Ranger, published in 1960, describes how 792 semi-autonomous forest rangers—each with jurisdiction over vast swaths of federal land—were able to make reasonably consistent decisions about grazing rights, timber harvest, fire protection, and scores of other necessary choices regarding the use of public resources. Kaufman draws a vivid portrait of a public culture in which rangers had internalized certain professional values, aided by what might be called soft oversight and a rotation system that kept the rangers from...

    (pp. xv-xviii)

    Red tape is everywhere and everywhere it is abhorred. How can any product of the human mind be so unpopular yet so widespread and so enduring? That is the mystery to which this book is addressed.

    Lexicographers seem to agree that the term red tape derives from the ribbon once used to tie up legal documents in England. Because the common law gives great weight to precedent, every judicial decision must have been preceded by a thorough search of the records for guidance and authority. Such a system presumes that records of every transaction are punctiliously filed and cross-filed. We...

    (pp. 1-24)

    Once in a long while, a voice is raised in defense of red tape. Or at least in explanation of it.¹ These voices are almost never heard. They are drowned in an unceasing chorus of denunciation. Everybody seems to hate red tape.

    I say “seems to” because the apparent unanimity conceals significant differences. One person’s “red tape” may be another’s treasured safeguard. The term is applied to a bewildering variety of organizational practices and features.

    Still, a common set of complaints is embedded in most definitions even though the complaints refer to different specific irritants. When people rail against red...

    (pp. 25-48)

    In suggesting that responsibility for the massive outpouring of government requirements and restraints decried as red tape is widely shared, I do not mean to imply that we manufacture red tape deliberately. For the most part, we do so without realizing it. That we do so inadvertently, however, does not alter the facts about the origins of the outpouring. All of us together produce it.

    Every restraint and requirement originates in somebody’s demand for it. Of course, each person does not will them all; on the contrary, even the most broadly based interest groups are concerned with only a relatively...

    (pp. 49-84)

    On the surface, red tape resembles other noxious by-products we generate in the course of making things and rendering services we are eager to have. More of what we want means more of what we don’t want as well. More automobiles mean more pollutants in the air. More electric power means either more air pollution or more radioactive wastes to dispose of, perhaps both. More food means more runoff of fertilizer into our water. More metals and minerals mean more slag heaps. Increased convenience in packaging means more solid refuse. Similarly, it appears, the more values the government tries to...

  8. NOTES
    (pp. 85-100)
  9. INDEX
    (pp. 101-106)
  10. Back Matter
    (pp. 107-109)