The destructive nostalgia for a world without red tape

(written by lawrence krubner, however indented passages are often quotes). You can contact lawrence at:, or follow me on Twitter.

It’s wonderful to have efficient systems that keep process to the minimum necessary to ensure one’s goals. But much of modern talk about “red tape” is simply nostalgia for a time with less process, even when lack of process lead to outcomes that were unfair:

But red tape is also used to mean the regulation of companies, which may lead to unhelpful confusion. “Red tape is indeed used as a catch-all phrase in a sometimes unthinking manner,” agrees Gillian Tett, the financial anthropologist and author of The Silo Effect. To parse the differences accurately, she suggests, you would need to come up with new language, or maybe contrast “red tape” with “white tape” . But perhaps simply the more neutral “regulation” would do for now. Red tape, by contrast, is tying our hands, or is sometimes visualised as literally strangling us: so, the language activates a frame of personal restriction versus liberty, and then illegitimately projects it on to a far more complex subject. (The Telegraph, for example, recently got rather feverishly S&M: “Cut the EU red tape choking Britain after Brexit to set the country free from the shackles of Brussels”.)

The phrase’s conflation of very different things begins to look like a deliberate rhetorical subterfuge. Bureaucratic pedantry and the form-filling hoops that citizens have to jump through to do simple things are an age-old source of justified complaint. But red tape also means regulations that protect citizens, at a certain cost to companies that otherwise have little incentive to sacrifice some profit to mitigate risk. It is because of red tape that you cannot buy a flammable sofa, and that you are very unlikely to die in an air crash.

Much red tape, indeed, is the frozen memory of past disaster. Modern regulatory regimes as a whole came into being in the late 19th and early 20th centuries because of public outrage at the dangerous practices of unrestrained industry. In February 1906, Upton Sinclair published his novelistic exposé of the American meat business, The Jungle. In June of the same year, Roosevelt signed into law the Pure Food and Drug Act, which created the US Food and Drug Administration.

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