I’ve been reading a bunch of official reports about prescription drug abuse, a very serious problem with a great dearth of good ideas for what to do about it. The reports consist of the usual mix of truth, falsehood, and bullsh*t, in the technical sense defined by Harry Frankfurt. Much of the last is of the “that-there-is-a-nail-therefore-this-here-a-hammer” variety: in polite company, you really can’t point to “prevention” as an answer without some indication that there is at least a mildly effective prevention program available, or that one could be developed. But the prevention providers are influential, and would have their feelings hurt if their idol doesn’t get its ration of incense, so in the “prevention” language goes.
Congress insists that policies have numerical goals. But since no one understands the problem, there’s no way to compute the likely consequences of any given set of programs, even if you could specify resource levels. So why not put in a goal of a 15% reduction? Like chicken soup, it can’t do any harm, since no one is accountable for meeting it or not meeting it.
This stuff is enormously depressing to consume, in part because you often can’t tell whether the people who wrote it (1) are dumb enough to believe it (2) think you’re dumb enough to believe it or (3) are just engaging in the b.s. ritual, in which both sides understand that no cognitive content is intended.
But – having been on the other side of the process – I can tell you that it’s infinitely more depressing to produce, especially because the rubric of the production ritual bans calling out the taurine waste product for what it is: call that “second-order b.s.”
B.s. presents problems in both public management and public ethics.
On the management side, it’s one reason people whose intellectual integrity is strong and whose stomachs are week flee public service. And precisely because b.s. isn’t clearly distinguished from actual content, its presence reduces the value of policy documents to coordinate and focus efforts: no one can tell whether a given program or goal is genuine or not, and therefore no one can tell how much work deserves to be put into mounting the program or meeting the goal.
The “we-have-the-finest-X-in-the-world” b.s. can be harmless flattery directed at some agency whose help you need, but it also creates a barrier to criticizing the performance of X.
On the ethical side, some of the ordinary folks who read the documents will surely be taken in, and systematic deception of the citizens by the government is a terrible practice.
But b.s. isn’t easy to root out, for some of the same reasons Glenn Loury lays out in his analysis of political correctness: omitting the proper b.s. will get you labeled as an unbeliever. And b.s. is one way of expressing values: an especially important way if there’s nothing actually useful to do to implement those values. And of course diplomatic ritual has a very high b.s. content, but omitting a reference to “the great friendship between the people of the United States and the people of [wherever]” would be understood as a deliberate insult.
So far as I know, this problem isn’t covered in courses on public ethics (at least, it wasn’t when I was part of the teaching team for that course at the Kennedy School) or public management. Should it be? Should students be asked to think hard about when they should produce b.s. to order and when they should protest? When they should require others to produce b.s. and when they should refrain? When they should let b.s. pass and when they should call it out?