Capitalism was supposed to reduce red tape. Why is bureaucracy worse than ever?

Last month, I became a customer of Time Warner Cable, New York’s favorite quasi-monopolistic provider of patchy broadband that’s worse than the internet in Bucharest. Given the firm’s reputation, I was genuinely surprised at how smoothly it all went, up to the point at which I’d entered my debit card details. (I know, I know; in hindsight it seems so obvious.) Then the trouble began. It took five visits from engineers, plus countless phone calls, to get things working; the job required a specific ladder, but the booking system seemed serially unable to dispatch a van equipped with one. Finally connected, I went online to cancel the stopgap internet service I’d been using from another company, only to find that online cancelation wasn’t allowed. And yet, how weird is this: when the day came for Time Warner to process my first month’s payment, everything went off without a hitch.

No part of this tale of bureaucratic tedium – nor all the stuff I’ve left out, because I don’t want your death from boredom weighing on my conscience – will surprise anyone living in the United States, the UK, most of Europe or much of the world today. Our lives are spent grappling with bureaucracy: filling in online forms; listening to recorded voices claiming that “your call is important to us”; lying to Apple about having read 56-page iTunes Terms of Service agreements; cursing the stupidity of HR departments, government agencies or university subcommittees.

But there’s something strange about this utterly familiar aspect of modern life, as the anthropologist David Graeber notes in his new book, The Utopia of Rules: it’s the opposite of how the free-market world’s meant to work. Capitalism is supposed to be “dynamic, free, and open”; even those of us who favor a big role for government in promoting social welfare tend to accept that this comes at the cost of more red tape. We oppose free-market fundamentalists – but we grudgingly concede that the world for which they yearn would probably involve less brain-meltingly tedious admin.

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