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August 2001
Volume 19, Number 8

Zero Tolerance for Bureaucracy
Timothy D. Terrell

On May 29, the commencement exercises at Estero High School in Fort Myers, Florida, took place without eighteen-year-old honor student Lindsay Brown. The reason? A school official saw a kitchen knife with a five-inch blade on the floor of her car in the school parking lot and reported it to the local sheriff. Lindsay was suspended for five days, arrested on a felony charge, and spent part of May 21 in jail. Miss Brown, who accidentally left the knife in the car while moving some belongings over the previous weekend, is one of the more recent victims of the "zero-tolerance" policies most public schools have adopted toward prohibited items.

This past March, in New Mexico, a ninth grader was "automatically" suspended for having a penknife on a key ring in her backpack. She had misplaced her keys the morning before, and her stepfather had tossed her his set on her way out the door. In a meeting with the child's parents, school officials repeated that they had a zero-tolerance policy, and that they had no discretion in the matter.

Until the media brought public pressure to bear on the school, the student was to be cited for "possession of a firearm or weapon" and suspended for the remainder of the school year. The school board made it a point to stand by its zero-tolerance policy in spite of the trifling nature of the offense. In its final decision, it declared that the penknife (which had a one-inch blade) "could cause great bodily harm and even death," had intent to do so been present.

Similar cases of the ridiculous application of antiweapon or anti-drug policies are piling up at a disturbing rate. In Ohio, a fourteen-year-old boy who had left a pocketknife in his backpack after a Boy Scout camping trip was expelled under the school's zero-tolerance policy, which required expulsion for the possession of knives. In South Carolina, an eleven-year-old who brought a knife to school in her lunch box to cut her chicken was arrested and carried off in a police car. In Mississippi, a fifth grader took two razor blades from a classmate who told him she planned to hurt two other girls with them. He hid them, was reported by another student, and was suspended from school for a year.

These are not isolated cases. The vast majority of public school districts have zero-tolerance policies toward firearms, other weapons, drugs, alcohol, tobacco, and violent behavior. Students have been suspended for sharing their cough drops, carrying breath fresheners to school, possessing plastic squirt guns, and taking a butter knife to school for cutting a pan of brownies.

Punishment for the possession of banned items is only the beginning. Words or actions that are regarded as precursors to violence can result in unreasonable, even cruel, penalties. In Florida, an eleven-year-old was led out of school in handcuffs for drawing pictures of weapons. In New Jersey, four kindergartners were suspended for "shooting" one another with their fingers in a game of cops and robbers. Many cases result in the potentially disastrous shunting of well-behaved students into the criminal justice system.

The problem is not going to be solved by replacing public school principals with smarter or more reasonable individuals. Expecting government school officials to display "common sense" is to forget everything we know about bureaucracy.

Ludwig von Mises observed in Human Action that government officials must give their subordinates detailed instructions, lest these agents neglect what is supposedly in the public interest and simply do what pleases them. It becomes the duty of these bureaucrats, then, "to handle all affairs in strict compliance with these rules and regulations. Their freedom to adjust their acts to what seems to them the most appropriate solution of a concrete problem is limited by these norms."

Zero-tolerance policies simplify the instructions, with the result that school bureaucrats and law enforcement bureaucrats impose harsh penalties on students who obviously pose little or no threat to anyone's safety. Possessing a knife is a punishable violation of school regulations, even if the knife has a one-inch blade and is in the book bag of a student who has neither motive nor intent to cause harm.

Such bureaucracy can only be contained by turning to market forces. The basic rule given to subordinates in the market economy is simple: Seek profit. It is easily understood, and violations of the rule are easily detected. Furthermore, it works to nearly everyone's advantage (direct competitors are an exception), as increasing profit is equivalent to creating additional wealth in society.

One of the qualities of a good bureaucrat is unquestioning obedience. Follow the set of rules. Don't violate them, even if your discretion tells you the rule is senseless in this situation. You weren't hired to think. Private firms may appreciate unquestioning obedience to some extent, but any violation of secondary rules will likely be forgiven if the employee can show that the higher rule was followed: "Yes, sir, I know we have a no-refund policy, but this man is our largest customer, and we want to keep him happy."


In the case of government bureaucracy, there is no higher rule to which the agent can appeal. There is only the mass of often unintelligible regulations. The surest way for a government agent to remain in favor with his superior is to follow the rules to the letter. In Lindsay Brown's case, a sheriff's deputy expressed sympathy for the hapless senior but said that the law gave the officer no discretion in the matter-she had to be arrested. Under a bureaucratic regime, precise obedience to the rules frequently results in personal harm and wealth destruction.

For a public school, in particular, the market test is absent. There is no simple criterion to measure the value produced (or destroyed) by a school board or an administration. If value is measured by the number of students, officials can turn the school into a diploma mill. If value is measured by test scores, then administrators have the incentive to "teach the test," fake results, or kick poor performers out of school on trumped-up charges.

Because there is no way to approximate the quality assessments that students and their parents make, there is no way to link rewards to school officials to the appropriateness of their decisions. Overreacting to "weapons" or "violent" behavior does not usually result in pay cuts or dismissal.

As it is, many school officials seem to want to keep it this way. Merit pay is anathema-they would rather secure automatic raises and promotions for rule-followers. Individuals who are able and willing to use discretion migrate out of the public education system and into the private sector, where such talent is rewarded. The federal government's intervention in education further entrenches zero-tolerance policies through legislation such as the 1994 Gun-Free Schools Act, which requires any school receiving certain federal funds to expel for one year any student carrying a firearm onto school property.

The bureaucratic public education system is not likely to disappear overnight. Until it is finally replaced by market-based education, idiocies such as zero-tolerance policies can be reduced by applying public pressure (as is already being done). School officials and law enforcement officers might also be asked to recognize that they are not really acting under compulsion. We should question the moral caliber of people who remain in a line of work in which they continually enforce rules that are senseless and tyrannical. However, this addresses only the symptoms of bureaucracy. In the long run, only if education in America is directed by market forces will we see less ridiculous rules and rule enforcement.


Timothy D. Terrell is assistant professor of economics at Wofford College and an adjunct scholar of the Mises Institute ( Readings: Ludwig von Mises, Human Action, Scholar's Edition (Auburn, Ala.:Mises Institute, 1998), pp. 310-11, and Bureaucracy (New Rochelle, N.Y.:Arlington Press, 1969).


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