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Saturday, August 19, 2023

Office Politics: What a Popular Sitcom Can Teach Us about Raw Democracy

When we cede the power over our own lives to others—whether to kings or popularly elected “caretakers”—we give them the opportunity to destroy.

Image: The Office (screen shot)

For those who aren’t familiar, The Office (US version) is a mockumentary-style series situated in the Scranton, Pennsylvania branch of a fictional paper company called Dunder Mifflin. Apart from being one of the most beloved comedies of the last twenty years, one of its episodes also tells an incisive parable about democracy that’s fit for a political treatise by a radical libertarian.

In the season 8 episode “Get the Girl,” branch manager Andy Bernard abandons his post to chase after the office receptionist and his love interest, Erin Hannon. This decision couldn’t have come at a worse time because Nellie Bertram, an under-qualified and recently fired employee at corporate, has made her way to Scranton looking to weasel her way into a new job. Seeing Andy’s office unoccupied, she reasons, “if the seat is open, the job is open.”

At first, none of Dunder Mifflin Scranton’s employees are willing to recognize Nellie as a legitimate authority. After all, Andy is the rightfully instituted manager at Dunder Mifflin Scranton.

@freeform Happy Women’s History Month to Nellie specifically. #TheOffice ♬ original sound – Freeform

How then could Nellie possibly get away with taking what she has no historical claim to? Her plan is a shrewd one: she invites each employee to participate in a performance review. This is her first day, mind you, so she knows nothing about any of the employees to review them; but that isn’t the point of this exercise. Hidden in these performance reviews is a social contract: any employee willing to be evaluated by her, thus agreeing to her authority, will get a raise for giving their consent.

This is political demagoguery at its finest, and it works.

Though not discussed in this episode, a running thread in the show is the need to cut corners and maximize profits to keep the company from going under. But Nellie, like all good politicians, isn’t concerned about balancing the budget. All she needs to do is give the people what they want in exchange for power. Let the next guy worry about balancing the budget. Nellie’s own self-assessment at the end of this episode is one that many libertarians could imagine an honest politician making of him or herself: “I don’t work especially hard and most of my ideas are either unoriginal or total crap. And yet, I walked right into a job for which I was ill-prepared, ill-suited, and somebody else already had, and I got it.”

The analogy of Nellie to a politician isn’t a flippant comparison. The controversial libertarian economist and political theorist Hans-Hermann Hoppe has argued in his book Democracy: The God That Failed that this is precisely how a democracy operates.

Though our contemporary political story would have it that our representative democracy was a genuine improvement on the rule of kings that came before, Hoppe disagrees:

“Monarchical government is … privately-owned government, which [promotes] future-orientedness and a concern for capital values and economic calculation by the government ruler… Democratic government is … publicly owned government, which [leads] to present-orientedness and a disregard or neglect of capital values in government rulers… The transition from monarchy to democracy is… civilizational decline.”

In other words, liberal democracy is not only worse than the libertarian, rights-based society that Hoppe advocates, it’s worse even than monarchy. It’s a system where politicians promise to wastefully redistribute resources that don’t belong to them in exchange for votes.

Unlike a king who owns all of the resources of his domain, a politician is a mere “caretaker” who is “always under the pressure of political competition from others seeking to replace him.” As a result, “the counterproductive effects of income and wealth redistribution are of little or no concern” to him. A politician is incentivized to trade precious resources for votes. This not only leads to bad economic outcomes, but according to Hoppe it also tends to have a decadent effect on the culture, so that it begins to be marked by “present-orientedness, opportunism, and hedonism.”

Looking at The Office through the lens of Hoppe, we might conclude that even Michael Scott—Scranton’s incompetent manager-monarch from previous seasons who wasted company resources on things like blowout birthday parties for himself—couldn’t do as much damage as the more democratic Nellie who gained authority by offering gratuitous amounts of precious company resources to supporters in order to consolidate power. The danger of such waste is that when the resources run out, as they do much faster when distributed to so many, everyone suffers for it.

Whether democracy or monarchy is ultimately a more decadent system in the long run can of course be debated. Even a cursory look at the history of kings and other autocrats makes it obvious that few were known for their frugality. Hoppe’s primary contribution in this area is not that he made monarchy look better, but that he shed light on a fatal flaw of democracy—its strong tendency to create warped incentives which lead to destructive outcomes. He writes, somewhat curmudgeonly but nonetheless accurately, “if the right to vote were expanded to seven year olds … its policies would most definitely reflect the ‘legitimate concerns’ of children to have ‘adequate’ and ‘equal’ access to ‘free’ french fries, lemonade and videos.”

Nellie’s scheme highlights something else that we know but don’t often want to admit about authority: it’s completely made up. Nellie admits that her position as manager is only real so long as everyone is willing to say that it is. If even one person says that they don’t believe, she fears that like Tinkerbell, the idea of Nellie the manager will die.

Power is a myth that requires the belief of the masses to sustain itself. When we cede the power over our own lives to others—whether to kings or popularly elected “caretakers”—we give them the opportunity to destroy. Thus, the issue of which form government should take essentially comes down to one question: how would you rather be screwed?

  • Cody Cook is a theology graduate student living near Cincinnati, Ohio.