Why do bureaucrats enforce rules in cases where their application is universally regarded as stupid?

From Marginal Revolution:

A zoning board in Fairfax County, Va., is standing firm in its decision to order a war veteran to destroy a tree house he built for his two young sons.

Apparently it needs some kind of variance for purely technical reasons.

Here’s a question for the economists out there.

Why do zoning board personnel do their jobs here? Let’s assume that they don’t personally have a preference for chopping down treehouses. (Seems straightforward.) A zoning board employee has the choice to work or shirk on any given case — shouldn’t s/he work only on those cases where s/he’s likely to get punished for shirking, i.e., where anyone else in the would would give a damn?

Possibilities:
- they actually do have a preference for chopping down harmless treehouses
- they have preferences for enforcement of the rules in general (hmm… rule of law rears its head again?)
- they’re uncertain about others’ preferences, and are enforcing it due to risk-aversion?

My guess is the third, but, more?

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4 Responses to “Why do bureaucrats enforce rules in cases where their application is universally regarded as stupid?”

  1. eric Says:

    I’d go with possibility number 4:
    - they don’t care one way or the other about the merits or the rule of law; but they really, really like telling other people what they can’t do.

  2. Tomer Says:

    I think they are usually risk-aversion but how do you reconcile your concern with the rule of law, wanting law-enforcers to be subjected to law, and your raging hatred of rule-following as such?

  3. Paul Gowder Says:

    I actually think rule-following ought to be asymmetric: state coercion ought to be strictly regulated by rules, but those whom the state coerces ought to be given the benefit of the doubt when the rules are to be applied to them. (A difficult idea to apply, natch.)

  4. Dan Carroll Says:

    Without more context, the possibilities are endless:

    4. Bureaucrats are sometimes in fact stupid
    5. Officials often respond to the loudest complainers, failing to recognize that they represent a minority of one or two, thus taking sides in a neighbor dispute
    6. The homeowner is guilty of other violations that are harder to enforce
    7. The treehouse is really ugly …

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