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December 1997
Volume 15, Number 12

Dilbert's Mistake
by Michael Levin

Scott Adams, creator of the comic strip Dilbert, emerged a few years back as one of the cleverest cartoonists in the long history of that art. His eponymous protagonist, by now familiar to everyone, is a software engineer with vaguely defined duties at a large technology firm. Dilbert's closest companion is Dogbert, a philosophical pooch with the self-professed aim of world conquest.

Adams at first was simply funny, and often devilishly insightful, mocking not only contemporary foolishness but the human condition in general. But a few years ago his orientation shifted. While from the beginning he had occasionally mocked the foibles of office life, his wide-ranging imagination suddenly contracted into an almost exclusive concern with the shortcomings of American corporate practices. Asked via e-mail about this change of focus, he replied that this was the direction most of his readers said they preferred. As a result, Adams became known as a commentator on business, and with that his star ascended.

Soon Adams was in demand as an industry consultant. He did the cover for a Newsweek story on the alleged intolerability of the workplace. Last Christmas his first hardcover, The Dilbert Principle, became a best-seller. Dilbertiana--mousepads, calendars, T-shirts, lunchbags--is now ubiquitous, prompting Adams to remark that "between here and oversaturation is a great deal of money."

It is ironic that Adams is being so richly rewarded by a market system for which he shows contempt. And as Adams has grown more cynical he has also become less funny. The reader who once gasped at his brilliance is now more likely just to smile. Adams's career calls to mind that of Dmitri Shostakovich, the Soviet composer intimidated by Stalin, once described as "a competent composer who used to be a genius."

To his credit, Adams does not indict American business for being greedy or exploitative. That staple of modern villainy, the evil executive, is never Dilbert's enemy. What Dilbert must constantly battle, rather, are stupidity, ignorance, shortsightedness, and contempt for both customer and vendor.

These management traits are epitomized by Dilbert's immediate superior. He is fat, middle-aged, bald but for two cones of hair growing behind his ears, and utterly clueless. This man thinks electricity can be sent by fax.

While subordinates talk, he daydreams about how ink gets into ballpoint pens. He is in awe of anyone with "executive hair" or a Stanford MBA. His only concern is to look good by making his subordinates look bad, or taking credit for anything they accomplish.

Dilbert wastes inordinate amounts of time at pointless meetings, mostly devoted to "empowering" employees and touchie-feelie schemes to make coworkers "teammates."

The other divisions of Dilbert's firm are even less productive (and outsourcing is a scam). Accounting is a hell patrolled by demons bent on sticking Dilbert and his colleagues with the cost of all supplies.

Marketing is staffed by lazy drunks who have no idea how anything works, demand impossible products, and whose idea of research is to ask the cat. Human Resources exists to toy with people. Senior VPs make lesser mortals wait while they take banjo lessons.

Dilbert occasionally takes on politically correct targets. A female robot tells a male robot: "Males have been discriminating against females for a million years. Therefore, you must compensate me for past injustices." The male answers: "You know, for a ridiculous argument, it's none-the-less quite effective."

Adams is a bit more serious in The Dilbert Principle about explaining what he considers the basic problem: modern industrial society is fundamentally the work of a handful of geniuses, which the rest of us lesser intellects have somehow got to run. "All the technology that surrounds us," Adams writes, "it's all created by a tiny percentage of deviant smart people. The rest of us are treading water as fast as we can"--a picture not unlike Ayn Rand's in Atlas Shrugged.

Adams is partly right about this, as he is partly right about a lot of things.

But Adams also underestimates the resilience and rationality of markets. Adams's semi-serious guess as to why the market system works--if you sum up all the absurd activities of management, the idiocies somehow cancel out, thus producing cool things you want to buy--certainly won't do. After all, if it were really run by nothing but goof-offs and morons, Dilbert's firm would long since have gone under. Has it no competitors? Do its vendors extend it unlimited credit? How is Dilbert's never-failing salary paid out of a non-existent cash flow?

Take the worry that most users of a high-tech device do not understand the science on which it rests. They do not have to, because the market has an inbuilt tendency to simplify its products. User-friendliness sells. Only mechanics could operate the first cars, because they were hard to handle and frequently broke down. These inconveniences called forth the self-starter, power steering, power brakes, automatic transmission, and modular parts, all of which make it possible for a mechanical illiterate like myself to drive with confidence from coast to coast. The first computer operating systems required dozens of baffling typed commands; now we have the point-and-click system pioneered by Apple. (Apple may perish, but its innovations are here to stay.)

The weakness of Adams's critique stands out when, as he must, he offers his own recommendations to management. Many are as empty as the "mission statements" he deplores: share knowledge, support experimentation "if the cost is low," and ask "What did you learn?" instead of "What the hell were you thinking about?"--more or less the adage "Don't work harder, work smarter" that he puts in the mouth of Dilbert's boneheaded boss. It is hard to offer more than facile generalizations to cover the myriad tasks performed in a large market economy.

Adams's concrete advice is to minimize unproductive activity by limiting bureaucracy and staff meetings, and then shooing everyone out of the office by 5 o'clock. Fair enough--although the 5 o'clock rule is unworkable for, e.g., law firms and research labs, but surely the market itself imposes such discipline. Firms with too many managers and time-wasting side activities incur higher labor costs than competitors, must charge higher prices to stay afloat, and eventually fail.

Adams, for all his barbs about Human Resources, Diversity Management and onerous accounting procedures seems not to appreciate that these excrescences exist because of government mandates and are in no way endemic to large private organizations. His real beef should be with the Eeoc and the SEC. They, and not the large private firm, are the causal sources of lasting inefficiencies. The more government regulates business, the less business can focus on serving consumers.

Moreover, Adams's indictment of business rests largely on a form of biased sampling called the Survivor's Fallacy (war seems more heroic than it is because only the survivors get to tell war stories; Elvis fans seem more grotesque than they are because newspapers interview only the freakish ones).

Adams gets many of his ideas from real life, via e-mail. The Dilbert Principle contains dozens of letters from disgruntled workers describing various insane measures to which they have been subject. These eye-catching cases distract attention from the millions of workers who do not e-mail Dilbert's creator because they are perfectly content with their jobs.

One would also like to learn more about the ultimate fate of his correspondents' firms, the ones that may well be led by numskulls. One boss reportedly wanted a button put on a battery-powered appliance that would go on when the batteries were dead. Is he still in business? One suspects that a longitudinal study would show that typical companies outperform the agglomeration of losers in Dilbert's topsy-turvy world.

It is easy to take potshots at particular blunders in a free market precisely because the market as a whole works so efficiently. The glory and efficiency of the market consists in its tendency to weed out conspicuous wastefulness and reward companies that serve the buying public above all else. Even the dumbest moves Dilbert chronicles would have seemed like strokes of genius to all those Comrade Dilbertskis forced, until recently, to survive under socialism.

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Michael Levin teaches philosophy at the City University of New York.

FURTHER READING: For a defense of the capitalist manager, see Human Action by Ludwig von Mises (Chicago: Regnery, 1963), pp. 303-30

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