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24 June 2017
Morning Sedition

The Red Badge of Bureaucracy

Red Tape

Our English red tape is too magnificently red ever to be employed in the tying up of such trifles...

"Frauds on the Fairies" by Charles Dickens, 1 October 1853

Red Tape. Some say it is the greatest gift of the Constitution's framers since its inefficiency prevents tyranny, or at least slows it down. But what is the origin of "red tape?" The earliest use is in Britain in 1736, referring to the ribbon used to tie official documents into bundles. (The ribbon was not sticky.)

There was something about it that quickened an instinctive curiosity, and made me undo the faded red tape, that tied up the package, with the sense that a treasure would here be brought to light. Unbending the rigid folds of the parchment cover, I found it to be a commission, under the hand and seal of Governor Shirley, in favor of one Jonathan Pue, as Surveyor of his Majesty’s Customs for the port of Salem, in the Province of Massachusetts Bay.

The Scarlet Letter, The Custom-House, Introduction, by Nathaniel Hawthorne, 1850.

Safflower

Safflower (Carthamus tinctorius)

The color of the ribbon was derived from the natural red dye present in the safflower (Carthamus tinctorius):

Non-wood forest products for rural income and sustainable forestry - MAJOR COLOURANTS AND DYESTUFFS 6

"Safflower (Carthamus tinctorius L.) is an annual herb which is well adapted to semi-arid conditions in the tropics and sub-tropics. It is a thistle-like plant with a deep taproot, growing up to 120 cm high, with a branched stem and a flower head at the end of each branch.

The florets contain three major pigments, all of which are present as chalcone glucosides: the water-insoluble scarlet-red carthamin and the water-soluble "safflor yellow" A and B. The latter pigments are deliberately removed by water washing in the traditional primary processing of the florets in order to provide the desired, red raw material for dyeing/colourant usage.

Safflower was formerly employed, as its synonym "dyer's saffron" implies, as an inexpensive substitute for saffron in textile dyeing. The term "red tape" originates from the use of safflower to impart a pink-red colour to the tape employed to bind legal documents. The colour tone can be varied according to the mordant used through pink, red, rose, crimson to scarlet."

"Safflower: Summary of Basic Information," Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations

In any event, doing any sort of official business involving records required much tying and untying to locate desired documents. Hence being tied up in red tape or going through red tape. Charles Dickens is reported to have popularized it as indicative of governmental inefficiency:

I have tamed that savage stenographic mystery. I make a respectable income by it. I am in high repute for my accomplishment in all pertaining to the art, and am joined with eleven others in reporting the debates in Parliament for a Morning Newspaper. Night after night, I record predictions that never come to pass, professions that are never fulfilled, explanations that are only meant to mystify. I wallow in words. Britannia, that unfortunate female, is always before me, like a trussed fowl: skewered through and through with office-pens, and bound hand and foot with red tape. I am sufficiently behind the scenes to know the worth of political life. I am quite an Infidel about it, and shall never be converted.

David Copperfield by Charles Dickens, Chapter 18, 1917

Prior to Dickens, however, was Thomas Carlyle's efforts in popularizing the term as one of opprobrium. (Dickens dedicated Hard Times to Carlyle as a way of recognizing latter's ceaseless waging of war on the cruelty of government bureaucracy.) Carlyle pulled no punches when it came to red tape:

Is it such a blessedness to have clerks forever pestering you with bundles of papers in red tape?

Thomas Caryle, "The Hero As King", On Heroes, Hero-Worship and the Heroic in History, Chapter 18, Section III

From all corners of the wide British Dominion there rises one complaint against the ineffectuality of what are nicknamed our "red-tape" establishments, our Government Offices, Colonial Office, Foreign Office and the others, in Downing Street and the neighborhood. To me individually these branches of human business are little known; but every British citizen and reflective passer-by has occasion to wonder much, and inquire earnestly, concerning them. To all men it is evident that the social interests of one hundred and fifty Millions of us depend on the mysterious industry there carried on; and likewise that the dissatisfaction with it is great, universal, and continually increasing in intensity,--in fact, mounting, we might say, to the pitch of settled despair.

Every colony, every agent for a matter colonial, has his tragic tale to tell you of his sad experiences in the Colonial Office; what blind obstructions, fatal indolences, pedantries, stupidities, on the right and on the left, he had to do battle with; what a world-wide jungle of red-tape, inhabited by doleful creatures, deaf or nearly so to human reason or entreaty, he had entered on; and how he paused in amazement, almost in despair; passionately appealed now to this doleful creature, now to that, and to the dead red-tape jungle, and to the living Universe itself, and to the Voices and to the Silences;--and, on the whole, found that it was an adventure, in sorrowful fact, equal to the fabulous ones by old knights-errant against dragons and wizards in enchanted wildernesses and waste howling solitudes; not achievable except by nearly superhuman exercise of all the four cardinal virtues, and unexpected favor of the special blessing of Heaven. His adventure achieved or found unachievable, he has returned with experiences new to him in the affairs of men. What this Colonial Office, inhabiting the head of Downing Street, really was, and had to do, or try doing, in God's practical Earth, he could not by any means precisely get to know; believes that it does not itself in the least precisely know. Believes that nobody knows;--that it is a mystery, a kind of Heathen myth; and stranger than any piece of the old mythological Pantheon; for it practically presides over the destinies of many millions of living men.

Thomas Caryle, "Latter Day Pamphlets - No. 3 Downing Street", 1 April 1850

And now we the poor grandchildren find that it will not stick together on these terms any longer; that our sad, dangerous and sore task is to discover some government for this big world which has been conquered to us; that the red-tape Offices in Downing Street are near the end of their rope; that if we can get nothing better, in the way of government, it is all over with our world and us. How the Downing-Street Offices originated, and what the meaning of them was or is, let Dryasdust, when in some lucid moment the whim takes him, instruct us. Enough for us to know and see clearly, with urgent practical inference derived from such insight, That they were not made for us or for our objects at all; that the devouring Irish Giant is here, and that he cannot be fed with red-tape, and will eat us if we cannot feed him.

Thomas Caryle, "Latter Day Pamphlets - No. 3 Downing Street", 1 April 1850

Decades before Carlyle used it in a derogatory fashion, it was used descriptively by Sir Walter Scott:

The Bailie, whom this reference regarded, and who had all this while shifted from one foot to another with great impatience, ‘like a hen,’ as he afterwards said, ‘upon a het girdle’; and chuckling, he might have added, like the said hen in all the glory of laying an egg, now pushed forward. ‘That I can, that I can, your honour,’ drawing from his pocket a budget of papers, and untying the red tape with a hand trembling with eagerness. ‘Here is the disposition and assignation by Malcolm Bradwardine of Inch-Grabbit, regularly signed and tested in terms of the statute, whereby, for a certain sum of sterling money presently contented and paid to him, he has disponed, alienated, and conveyed the whole estate and barony of Bradwardine, Tully–Veolan, and others, with the fortalice and manor-place — ’

Waverley by Sir Walter Scott, Chapter 17, (1814)
Red tape isn't a uniquely British or American problem, however. Other countries, like Singapore and Canada have undertaken efforts to make government more accessible to citizens:

The Ontario government consulted with hundreds of businesses, institutions and individuals to identify ways to improve the business environment. It found that people wanted government to be more responsive to consumers and businesses and to provide more effective and efficient customer service.

The government created the Red Tape Secretariat to help eliminate existing red tape and prevent unnecessary rules and regulations from being created in the future.

The Secretariat reviews proposed Cabinet policies and regulatory measures that affect business and institutions, and intervenes on behalf of business, institutions and members of the public seeking assistance with provincial red tape problems.

The Whitney Block The Secretariat reviews and reports on ministries’ annual red tape reduction plans. It also coordinates legislation that reduces barriers to business, investment and job creation."

Red Tape Commission, Ontario Government, Canada

While Singapore may not cane bureaucrats who impede the public's access, this would certainly be a good first step.

Sources and Further Reading

  1. Red Tape Commission, Ontario Government, Canada
  2. Waverley by Sir Walter Scott, Chapter 17, (1814)
  3. Thomas Caryle, "Latter Day Pamphlets - No. 3 Downing Street", 1 April 1850
  4. Thomas Caryle, "The Hero As King", On Heroes, Hero-Worship and the Heroic in History, Chapter 18, Section III
  5. David Copperfield by Charles Dickens, Chapter 18, 1917
  6. "Safflower: Summary of Basic Information," Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations
  7. The Scarlet Letter, The Custom-House, Introduction, by Nathaniel Hawthorne, 1850.

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