Parkinson's: the Law, Not the Disease

No doubt it is the dream of scientists to discover one "law," or one logical explanation, verified by experimentation, and not, as yet, disproved, to explain everything observed in the physical universe. Einstein’s theory of relativity may have been a giant step in that direction; I am not enough of a scientist to know, or, truth be told, to care.

But in 1958, Professor Cyril N. Parkinson explained most of the phenomena we observe in society with his law: work expands to fill the time available. What a simple, yet profound, insight!

The verification of Parkinson’s Law is most easily found in government. The professor pointed out that bureaucrats, usually complaining of overwork, want assistants, but not competitors. Thus a "busy" bureaucrat will not hire someone to share the work, but rather, a couple of assistants to help him, and compete with each other, not him. Parkinson also observed that bureaucrats make work for one another. Thus, assistant A will ask assistant B to check his research on a given subject. B will comply, asking A for a list of sources which he could use in his verification. A might reply with a list, asking B if he had any further suggestions, etc. A and B would, in short order, become so busy that each of them hired a couple of assistants, thus bringing to seven the number of people doing the work formerly done by one. And they would all be busy!

A few years earlier, in 1953, newly-elected President Dwight Eisenhower established the cabinet position of Health, Education and Welfare. He named Oveta Culp Hobby the first Secretary of HEW. What in the world did she do? I used to wonder about it. She couldn’t, after all, just continue the work of her predecessor, because there was no predecessor. She couldn’t just continue with the work already being done, because there was no work already being done. The agency was brand new, and so was she. Professor Parkinson helped me understand. My hunch is that the first thing she did was organize a staff of underlings. Then she scheduled meetings, lots of them. She analyzed the results of these meetings, and had more meetings to discuss the analyses. She assigned her assistants the job of developing a list of priorities of possible tasks to be undertaken by HEW. Why, in no time, she was as busy as could be! In fact, her agency eventually split in two: Health and Human Services, and Education. And they’re all working like beavers! No doubt, if they stop to think about it, they marvel that the nation, at one time, made do without them.

The good professor directed us to something very basic about human nature: we all attach great significance to our work, and tend to expand it as far as possible; and, as a sort of corollary, we make use of what opportunities arise. Recall the move made around the motto: "if you build it they will come?" It’s the same idea.

Years ago, our church lacked toilet facilities. There was a rather grubby bathroom in an annex to the building, used by the janitor, but most people were unaware of its existence; in any event, it was not an inviting place. Then the building was remodeled (work expanding to fill the time available!!) and lovely new Men’s and Ladies’ rooms appeared. Now it is amusing to see the frequency with which they are used — especially by children. What did they do before? I don’t know, but if you removed the toilet facilities now, there would be an uproar!

There was an election recently. The candidates assured us that it was important that they be elected. And it was important: to them. In truth, the job of president is not a big deal, at least according to the Constitution to which he swears allegiance. A long time ago presidents decided that it was unseemly, somehow, for them to simply sit around. They had to DO something. Ditto for Congressmen. Well, look around you and see what they’ve been doing. By expanding their "work" to fill the time available, and grabbing at every opportunity for advantage and self-aggrandizement, they’ve made their world a better place. But is it their world, or ours? Has the expansion of their work been a benefit to you? Next election, I’ll vote for the candidate who supports himself with a job in the free market, and promises to do as little as possible in his official capacity. Who might that be? I’ll write myself in!

Dr. Hein [send him mail] is a retired ophthalmologist in St. Louis, and the author of All Work & No Pay.