Thursday, May 7, 2015

Bureaucracy or delegation - an historical argument.

From Spain was a weak state, and that still matters by Tyler Cowen. In this post, Cowen is citing an argument that the weakness of Spain in the 1500s was its non-existent and ineffective bureaucracy. The argument comes from The Long Process of Development: Building Markets and States in Pre-Industrial England, Spain and Their Colonies by Robin Grier and Jerry F. Hough.
The great weakness of the Spanish government was not its bureaucratic nature, but its inability to build an effective bureaucracy until the 1700s. Without an effective bureaucracy, Spain was doomed to a personalistic policy process in which options and tradeoffs often were not properly weighed. Rulers could not trust the market because they were incapable of taxing decentralized economic activity.

One example of the lack of bureaucratic capability during the 1500s and 1600s is found in the example of Philip’s attempt to conquer England with the Spanish Armada. Until the 1580s Philip’s “defense department” had only one secretary assisted by a handful of clerks, none with military experience.

As he prepared to launch the Spanish Armada to try to conquer England, he doubled the number of responsible defense officials to two – one for the army and one for navy!

The ships were largely rented from Genoa. Although many of them were sunk in the failed attack, Philip did not try to build a merchant fleet of his own to match Elizabeth’s rapid expansion of her armed merchant fleet at the same time.
I am sure there is some merit to the argument but I am also pretty confident that it is by no means the whole story; other factors were in play that were even more consequential than simply absence of effective bureaucracy.

I recall a passage, perhaps from V.S. Naipaul's The Loss of El Dorado or perhaps from his brother, Shiva Naipaul's Beyond the Dragon's Mouth: Stories and Pieces. In it, there is an account of a crime having been committed in Trinidad, then a Spanish colony. The primary suspect is imprisoned for a number of years while an exchange of correspondence takes place between the island Viceroy and King Philip II regarding how to dispose of the case. Two things stood out. First the picture of Philip II slavishly holed up in his castle office conducting correspondence about the most trivial issues in his colonies stretching around the globe from Trinidad in one direction to the Philippines in the other, scribbling, scribbling, scribbling. The second item was the elapsed time. The Viceroy writes the king about the crime and sends the letter off for its 2-4 month journey to Spain, not hearing back for 8-12 months. They had to go three or four cycles, each being 8-12 months, with the King requesting further clarification or additional information before making a decision. Ultimately a decision is made some four or five years after the event. This in an era when the average life span was some 30-40 years.

As often happens at Marginal Revolution, the most interesting part is not the post but the comment discussion. In this case, numerous readers are taking the authors to task with more facts and alternative interpretations. I think the following commenter has the rub of the issue.
ralph e. May 7, 2015 at 9:27 am

Geoffrey Parker in “The Grand Strategy of Philip II” identifies Philip II’s “refusal to delegate, zero-defects mentality, self-generated information overload and messianic outlook” as causing the failure of the 1588 Armada.

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