We could all do with learning how to improvise a little better

Stephen T. Asma in Aeon:

Idea_sized-dizzy_gillespie01The Chinese philosopher Han Fei Zi (c280-233 BCE) had a deep influence on the development of Chinese bureaucracy, because he proposed that decision-making be taken out of the hands of individuals (with their unreliable intuitions and methods) and placed within a set of rules (simple, impartial and inflexible). This is the principle of xingming: a ruler can best rely on officials who follow his rules, not their own impulses.

Han Fei Zi tells a revealing story of Lord Zhao, who had a cadre of personal and professional servants, including a cap valet and a separate cloak valet. One day, while the lord was out on an expedition, he became drunk and fell asleep. The Valet of Caps, seeing that the lord was cold, placed the cloak over him to keep him warm. When the lord awoke, he was pleased to find the cloak on him and asked who put it on. The Valet of Caps proudly stepped forward to take credit, but when the lord heard this, he punished both the Valet of Caps and the Valet of Cloaks. The lesson: never do another person’s job. Rather than use your own judgment to solve a problem, just conform to the system’s division of labour.

Moving decision-making away from people and putting it in stable institutions is a successful strategy for large, complex and expansionary societies, which are increasingly made up of strangers. On the other hand, bureaucracy is soul-crushing and alienating in its inflexibility and inhumanity. What is more, it exacts a psychological price.

More here.