President Donald Trump delivers a speech on July 6, 2017, in Krasinski Square, backdropped by the monument commemorating the 1944 Warsaw Uprising against the Nazis, in Warsaw, Poland. (Alik Keplicz / AP)
I could pretty much agree with Donald Trump’s list of enemies to Western civilization. In a speech during his recent trip to Poland, the president said our way of life was endangered by terrorism, cyberwarfare and Russian machinations in the Middle East.
But I cringed when he named as additional culprits "government bureaucracy … paperwork and regulations." Sure, I have muttered something like that when annoyed by some agency’s requirements. But Trump got it dead wrong.
Paperwork isn’t the bane, but rather the salvation, of the West.
Consider this scenario: Something seems wrong with your water bill. So you take your calculations to city hall, where a clerk explains that they use a different formula. "Show me!" you demand, and the clerk opens a volume of regulations to the appropriate page.
In some countries, the question would land you in a dossier of troublemakers. Indeed, we know when and where that stopped being so in our cultural heritage: Rome, in 451 BC.
Before that, legal disputes were adjudicated according to unwritten customs by a small group of "patricians." But ordinary Romans were no longer willing to trust that they were getting a straight story. They wanted it put in writing. The big shots kicked and screamed, but the little people went on strike until they got their way. Roman law was inscribed on Twelve Tables set up in Rome’s Forum for all to see.
That’s the ultimate ancestor of our own Freedom of Information Act. Ask for a piece of paper documenting what the government has been up to, and public officials have to give it to you. If they don’t, you can file some more paperwork with a court.
Bureaucracy gets a bad rap on bar stools and in books. Franz Kafka wrote a novel, "The Trial," about a man trapped in a bureaucratic labyrinth. He’s arrested, but for what? When he tries to find out, he discovers that "the court records, and above all the writ of indictment, are not available to the accused."
The sociologist Max Weber considered bureaucracy indispensable but fallible. Established to serve the needs of a nation, it can turn in upon itself — prioritizing its members’ interest over protecting the public’s well-being.
Yet other forms of government have a greater fault: administrators who either don’t realize they’re supposed to serve the nation, or lack the skills to do so. Until relatively recent times, public offices were awarded on the basis of who the applicants were, not what they might know. When a noble title was a general’s prerequisite, wars were won by the side that made fewer dumb mistakes.
Then Napoleon conquered much of Europe by offering military command to ordinary soldiers who showed prowess on a battlefield. His rallying cry was: "Every soldier of France carries a marshal’s baton in his knapsack."
Napoleon lost his empire, in part, by putting his relatives on the thrones of countries he conquered. Even so, he linked public service to education. Schools were established to train civil servants like engineers, teachers, lawyers and administrators. Admission was by competitive examination, and bureaucracies became repositories of knowledge. Science was their hallmark.
That link between objectivity and non-partisan civil servants took a hit in this country in 1925. A Tennessee school teacher, John Scopes, was tried and convicted of teaching evolution. State law essentially provided that when scientific knowledge conflicts with religious belief, science loses.
Echoes of that struggle can still be heard. In 1989, California’s Board of Education scratched a reference to evolution as "scientific fact" from its textbook guidelines.
That crack has widened to a crevice since Trump took office. Scott Pruitt, the head of the Environmental Protection Agency, aims to scratch regulations adopted to protect the public from pollution.
Remember: In Poland, Trump declared war on regulations.
He is also a climate-change skeptic. So too are Energy Secretary Rick Perry and Pruitt, who wants to set up opposing teams, a "red-team, blue-team" exercise, to debate the issue of human responsibility for global warming. The reds to challenge, the blues to defend an issue on which the scientific community has already voted "Yes."
Pruitt has given a hint of which team he wants to win. He reduced the number of scientists on the agency’s advisory board, reportedly in favor of business representatives who want freedom from environmental regulations.
Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos has little enthusiasm for public schools — secularized by Napoleon and well-suited for a pluralistic society. Her passion is private and charter schools, especially those where teaching is religiously inspired.
Trump himself has bad-mouthed the institutions that long have kept rulers honest and bureaucrats nonpartisan. He referred to a member of the judiciary as a "so-called judge." He calls the press a forger of "fake news."
He seems to long for a simpler age. Perhaps one long, long before little people would dare tell a big shot:
"We’re not moving until you show us the paperwork!"