We create societies, we implement them, we adapt them to our needs, or to what we accept and codify as our needs. We build the structures, we choose people to manage them and to serve our purposes.
Then why in the world we have such an insanely illogical bureaucracy? The only possible explanation must be we don’t truly value life. Societies don’t seem to, and since we are part of those societies, we created them to fit our requirements, we don’t value life as well.
Have you ever watched Les Douze Travaux d’Astérix? I must have watched it at least twenty times. I loved it when I was a kid. It was terribly funny. The story in brief is about the indomitable Gauls having to complete twelve tasks in order to be declared divine and thus be left in peace by Julius Caesar’s legions. Obélix and Astérix as the best Gaul warriors must achieve the result of clearing each task on behalf of their people. One of the most arduous trials was travail number eight, consisting in obtaining the Permit A 38 in the “builiding that sends you mad”. What appears to be a banal assignment turns out to be a mind-boggling odyssey in the hodgepodge of pre-modern bureaucracy that nearly sees our heroes defeated. As I watched the sequence in my childhood, I was partly uproariously amused, partly assailed by a nameless anxiety. Even as a child with no experience of the adult world, I perceived the lethal nonsense that is bureaucracy as we civilized people know it.
I will ask again: why in the world, on average, our bureaucracy is such an intricate amass of inconsistencies?
Yes, I changed my previous question a little, intentionally adding the “on average” part of the sentence.
When we reached Iceland, we were scared stiff of the thought we would soon have to visit various offices and departments to regularize our position in our country of choice. We were scared stiff because we knew from Astérix’s example and from our own experiences in Italy that bureaucracy and everything it involves is an illogical amass of mind-boggling inconsistencies that three out of four times ends sending you mad. One out of these four times it doesn’t simply send you mad, but also makes you bloodthirsty and dangerous for the rest of the world. That’s why we read so often about tragedies happening in post offices, banks, schools, and other similar public places.
Back home, I used to spend more time in post offices than in my bathtub, and when I was an university student in Rome, I used to spend more time in line to get a bloody mark on my academic transcript than studying my textbooks. Everything involving the public administration was source of ineffable anguish, as I knew very well I would have to waste days and months just for some triviality that could actually be solved in no more than five minutes. Five minutes, yes. This of course if bureaucracy wasn’t intended to be the pile of nonsense it is. In a sci-fi utopia were civilization would be at its peak and everything would possible, and where everybody would be immortal, young, healthy and eating pizza forever, that is. But reality is different: life is short; time runs away while our pizza gets cold and we become old and unable to digest it; we realize with horror we have to waste our precious time restraining ourselves from strangling the lady behind the counter that instead of being efficient is only thinking about her sixth coffee break.
But I digress. I was talking about Iceland.
Iceland’s take on bureaucracy is the following: bureaucracy is a lot simpler than the rest of the civilized world thinks it is. Icelanders have better quality of life also because, acording to this simple statement, they don’t spend half their lives as slaves of the nonsense of administration’s traps. Their system is cleaner and more efficient and the employees seem to be actually doing some kind of pertinent work while they’re behind the counter. They don’t look like they’re only fantasizing about the Martini they’re going to gulp down at the nearest bar or about the suitable shade of red they’re going to use to paint their nails to match the color of their fiancé’s new car. I was amazed realizing I could collect my mail at one of the main post offices in Reykjavík in less than three minutes, without having to send explosive glares at the employee because she was chatting with her colleague instead of moving her ass off the revolving chair. I was amazed as well we could obtain the kennitala at the National Registry without having to pay daily visits to them for at least fifteen days in a row. Also, administrative offices in Iceland seem to be quite literate in the use of an email, whereas in the best case in other countries you’ll have somebody sending out an automated reply. But it’s more likely you won’t get any kind of reply unless you go yourself and ask twenty times to twenty different persons. Have you ever known what impotence really is? Try contacting the Italian Post; try contacting another administrative Italian office; try contacting your Italian Internet provider or your phone company. How does it feel? That is impotence in its ultimate form.
I would be led to think it’s a matter of demographics. Iceland and its population are so small. Everything must be simpler. But on a more careful analysis, it’s not simply a matter of numbers. In Italy, just to make the same boring example, even in offices located in small towns, you can’t hope to get your things done in a reasonable amount of time. It’s a question of education and respect for the time and for the work of others. Nobody in some of the usual highly bureaucratized countries gives a damn about you when you are on the other side of the lousy counter. It’s not an interpersonal exchange that exists between the normal citizen and the bureaucrat: for the citizen it’s a war of nerves, for the bureaucrat it’s a negligible interruption between coffee breaks and chattering before going home. And how could it be any different, with employees that are totally oblivious of their own role and that most of the times aren’t at all specialized, not to mention that they have no motivation whatsoever to make things work properly?
That’s what is different about Iceland. People seem to know about the value of time. Quality of life is higher also because time is valued differently. Despite the general atmosphere of relaxation that is often feared by foreigners and that can be rather confusing at times, in Iceland you can hope to invest your time in activities that are useful to you, instead of pursuing forever the infamous Permit A 38.