Red Tape: Its Origins, Uses, and Abuses

Front Cover
Brookings Institution Press, 2010 M12 1 - 100 pages

Most people talk about red tape as thought it were some kind of loathsome disease or the deliberate product of a group of evil conspirators or the result of bureaucratic stupidity and inertia. It is rarely discussed rationally, dispassionately, and analytically; most of us rage about it when it comes up.

In this book, Kaufman attempts a detached examination of the subject to find out why something so universally detested flourishes so widely and enjoys such powers of endurance. Part of the explanation is the protean character of the term "red tape"; each of us applies it to our own pet grievances, not realizing that other people's grievances are often quite different from our own. Underlying this variance, however, is a common core of meaning, and the first part of the book identifies that shared understanding.

The second part searches for the origins of the despised phenomenon in the federal government, and finds the source not in a clique of fools or villains, but in all of us. Red tape, according to this analysis, springs largely from the diversity of values to which people in our society subscribe, from the demands on government to which these values give rise, and from the responsiveness of the government to the demands. In this sense, red tape is of our own making.

Consequently, getting rid of it entirely—rewinding the spools, as it were-is a hopeless quest. The major proposals for eliminating it are found wanting in this regard (though there may be other reasons to favor some of these reforms); they may even generate as much red tape as they cut. That being the case, Kaufman concludes that a more fruitful policy would be to concentrate on relieving the worst of red tape's irritants so as to make bearable what we cannot end, and he explores several steps he believes will have this effect.

Although many readers will find this book depressing, most will probably acknowledge the persuasiveness of its argument. And some, like the author, will take heart from the analysis on the grounds that relief measures rooted in reality are much more likely to succeed than proposals for improvement based on delusive optimism and false hope.


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quite interesting n would like to read the whole version

Selected pages


Object of Loathing
Too Many Constraints
Pointless Constraints
The Scapegoats
Of Our Own Making
How Compassion Spawns Red Tape
Representativeness and Its Consequences
Diversity Distrust and Democracy
Rewinding the Spools
The Fruitless Quest for General Remedies
Treating Symptoms
Death Taxes and Red Tape

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About the author (2010)

Herbert Kaufman was a professor of political science at Yale University and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.

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