Friday, September 28, 2012

Venetian museums and government bureaucracy

Spending a month in Venice, Italy, has afforded me opportunity to visit the city’s great museums. The museums here differ from those I have visited in most other countries. First, there are no security screenings and the few guards consistently display an apparently relaxed attitude, sometimes openly napping while on duty. Second, the museums presume that their visitors will behave appropriately. Visitors, if they chose, could touch most of the art and other items on display. Similarly, no protective measures prevent a person from jumping off upper level outdoor areas or from upper story windows. These observations prompted some musings about government bureaucracies.

In the United States, the pervasive government attitude is zero tolerance of fraud (use for private purposes), waste (less than optimal efficient and effective use), and abuse (misuse that is neither fraud nor wasteful, such as intimidation of the public or employees) of public resources. Even the appearance of waste, fraud, or abuse of government resources is verboten. Ironically, this policy actually promotes extensive waste. New incidents of misuse frequently trigger new countermeasures to prevent the problem’s recurrence; the net cost of the preventive measures often far exceeds any potential loss to fraud, waste, and abuse.

Venice has a low crime rate and probably does not have places that terrorists deem high-value targets. The vast majority of tourists who visit the museums do so to appreciate the art and want the art to be preserved. The guards maintain a visible presence and gently instruct tourists who miss a sign or do not understand it about the rules (e.g., no flash photography or sitting on certain pieces of furniture). I’ve visited ten major museums here and not seen any damaged art, excepting a couple of pieces damaged by well-intentioned but inept professional art restorers. Even with a lack of railings, protective glass, etc., and the paucity of guards, visitors treat the art and displayed items respectfully.

If one reasonably presumes that an occasional unintentional act or intentional incident of vandalism damages a precious object, the Venetians seem to make much better use of government and institutional resources than is the norm in the United States. Given the poor condition of the Italian economy, zero tolerance for fraud, waste, and abuse would necessitate closing most museums or charging such an exorbitantly high admission fee that few people would visit.

Zero tolerance often connotes bad ethics. When life or limb literally depends upon zero tolerance for errors, then redundant systems to ensure no mistakes can be appropriate. Performing critical airplane repairs correctly and ensuring that a surgeon operates on the proper body part are examples of when zero tolerance can make sense. But many times, in societies increasingly dependent upon automation, zero tolerance for errors reflects shoddy thinking (achieve zero tolerance because we theoretically can), incorporates excessive cost into the effort, unnecessarily restricts human freedom, and unhelpfully diminishes personal responsibility.

Much government regulation falls into this category, a reflection of our lack of trust in government and one another:

The crippling effects of lack of trust become especially disturbing when we consider that the United States has been on a downward slope of trust since the 1960s, when 58 percent of Americans said that they trust others. Today that number is 34 percent. (Paul J. Zak, The Moral Molecule: The Source of Love and Prosperity, p. 176)

Life is messy. That is one of the morals of the story of Adam and Eve’s expulsion from the Garden of Eden. Zero tolerance implies intolerance for the messiness that results from human ineptitude, human selfishness, and factors beyond one’s control (aka chance). The Venetian attitude toward protecting their city’s cherished art and heritage offers a helpful corrective to people and communities frustrated by bureaucratic bloat.

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