The Battle of Terheide (1657), commemorating the Battle of Scheveningen on 10 August 1653 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Ok, yesterday we talked about the abysmal mismanagement and non-leadership Obama has provided, and how our system got the way it is. I’m not going to review it again today, it’s too depressing, especially since we extended his contract in 2012.
Then we featured an Article from Ace of Spades that told you a lot about bureaucracy and what their goals are. Hint: It ain’t customer service. Ace says these are their goals:
- Protect our phony-baloney jobs.
- Protect the Phony-Baloney Jobs of Our Fellow Government Workers.
- Do as little work as possible.
- Expand turf, power, and responsibilities.
I see nothing to argue with there, and I note that in all cases the priorities are directly in line with human nature
I also note that the Civil Service Act, as amended (or not) does absolutely nothing to counteract these tendencies, in fact, I think it reinforces them. But then it was passed in the beginning of that time when we thought human nature was an uplifting moral force who would work its fingers to the bone for others advantage. We should have looked back to an earlier age, like the enlightenment and especially the writers of the Constitution, who knew perfectly well than men would be avaricious, lazy and seek power, and sought to write a document to keep that from happening. It worked too, as long as we ran the country according to it.
But there was an organization, 200 hundred years ago it was the largest in the world, that took the attributes of mankind, and designed a system that made men work for the organizations goals, even to the detriment of theirs. What was that organization? The Royal Navy in the age of sail.
Think about this, if you were the captain of one His Majesty’s ships in 1814, once you got out of sight of land, you became essentially God. You could fight your ship, or not, if you did, you could pick your targets, you could just about do anything you wanted, and still get paid. So how did the First Sea Lord maintain discipline, when his ships were out of reach.
Naval officers were paid a salary, in fact a fairly good one, when they were at sea. They served for the duration of the mission and then the ship was paid off. And here is one of the clues.
There were always more Captains and Admirals in the RN than there were berths at sea. If you weren’t attached to a ship, you got half-pay, which is exactly what it sounds like. Kind of like unemployment compensation. But here’s a kicker, in 1812 there were 1017 ships and vessels in the Royal Navy but there were 1531 commanders, captains, and admirals. The surplus were on half-pay. And the RN could use any captain it chose, although seniority had some weight, but in truth, if the admiralty distrusted you, likely you would be on half-pay for life.
And that further meant you would never figure in on the wealth making part of the service: prizes.
And that was what motivated everybody from the powder monkey to the admiral commanding. Why? Because you could get rich. A merchantman might be worth £300,000, of which the Admiral would get ¼, the Captain would get ¼, the officers would get ¼, and the crew the rest. (These numbers weren’t cast in stone, sometimes the admiral commanding, or the captain would alter them, but this is close usually. And remember this is the old uninflated, worth its weight in silver, pound sterling. A prize could set you up for life.
But that’s not the answer either, the privateers, that were common in all wars in the age of sail could do commerce raiding as well, maybe better, than the RN could, and they did without expense to the crown. Pure private enterprise. The navy needed to blockade ports, fight warships and all the other things that navies did, and still do. The British did. Why?
First the Fighting Instructions. In 1652 Blake was defeated by the Dutch under Tromp, although Blake was outnumbered he blamed his captains for not engaging. This led to several things bearing on our inquiry. First because it was very easy in a meleé atmosphere, which was the common naval tactics at the time, for a captain to hang back and not closely engage, and thus reduce his personal danger, which was considerable. the solution was the line-of-battle, and that solution persisted as long as there were battleships. The other thing was the Admiral commanding was stationed in the middle of the line, and often there were subordinate admirals stationed in the van and rear. Obviously if a ship gets out of line it is fairly easy to notice by the admiral, and will not redound to the captains credit, to be court martialed for cowardice. And it happened too, about twice as many captains and above were court-martialed as killed in battle.
The other part of that was that the Fighting Instructions required the British to seek the weather gage, that is to start the battle upwind of the enemy, this made it very difficult for the captain to non obviously avoid combat, and so the problem was more or less solved. Parenthetically, only the British and Americans sought the weather gage, not incidentally, both were and are offensive minded. Although it was solved in a manner that made the fleet fight in a suboptimal formation much of the time .
British Captains were also required to attack any enemy ship that they crossed paths with. They were not too likely to be censured for not attacking a ship of the line with a 30 gun frigate, but they routinely attacked anything up to twice their own size, if fact,
The fateful meeting between the British Guerriére and the USS Constitution on August 19, 1812, demonstrates this reputation. Though the Guerriére was smaller (38 18-pound guns to 44 24-pounders, 1092 tons to 1533, 244 men to 460), in need of reﬁtting, leaking, and recently hit by lightning, its Captain Dacres engaged rather than ﬂee, with the inevitable result of defeat. In England the loss, the ﬁrst of ﬁve ship-to-ship defeats against the Americans and the ﬁrst loss in 9 years, caused massive media attention and the calling for heads.
The British public was as shocked at the news of the loss of the Guerriére as the American public was delighted. . . . The Press displayed uncalculating annoyance and dismay. There was even a hint of condemnation for Dacres because he had surrendered and had not gone down ﬁghting. . . . Even the more sober press was startled and disappointed. The measure of the public interest is displayed in the amount of editorial comment devoted to this one frigate action at a moment when events of immense importance were happening elsewhere.
(Forester, 1960, pp. 56–57)¹
Which is all well and good, but how was the admiralty going to find out? A couple of ways, if you remember reading Hornblower when you were young, you know something about how the promotion system worked. When a boy was 12-15 years old he would sign on with a captain, who was usually a family friend, patronage is important all through this story, by the way. After five or six years, if all went well, the captain would let him sit for the Lieutenants exam, if he passed he would become (I think the term was) a passed midshipmen, and when his number came up, or he distinguished himself he would become a lieutenant. Then in something like 3-6 years he would be qualified to promotion to Post Captain. But there are two things about being a lieutenant, first the captain could not, unlike the other lower officers remove him from the ship, and second, he could spend the rest of his career as a lieutenant, further promotion was not automatic. In addition there had to be an opening, so one of the methods was “fleeting up” where your superior officers were killed or removed from command in one way or another. Once one was promoted Post Captain, if you lived long enough you would “rule the Queen’s Navee” promotion above captain was automatic.
And that’s important to the story as well. because in the age of sail almost anything at sea could be blamed on the wind, and nobody who wasn’t there could really disprove what you said.
But the lieutenants were charged by the Admiralty with maintaining a signed log of their own and turning it in at the end of the cruise. They were required to report all the details of the cruise for themselves and especially the first lieutenant who the captain was charged with taking completely into his confidence. Obviously, it would be difficult to maintain a conspiracy to defame the captain and so gain promotion, particularly since the master, who was usually close to the end of his career, had little to gain from it, and one can imagine how hard it would be to be promoted if you were caught trying to unfairly remove the captain, because he had a lot of influence on one’s promotion at all times.
And so the Admiralty designed a system that forced officers to work against their normal best interests, in the King’s best interest, while leaving them more than enough chance for improving their fortune to make sure that they worked diligently.
I probably should add that the penalty for almost any violation of regulations in this period was “death”, often without any choice.
He asked who the stout man was who had just been so ceremoniously disposed of. “He was an admiral,” they told him. “But why execute this admiral?” he enquired. “Because he had not enough dead men to his credit,” was the reply; “he joined battle with a French admiral, and it has been established that their ships were not close enough to engage.” “But surely,” exclaimed Candide, “the French admiral must have been just as far from the English as the English admiral was from the French!” “True enough,” was the answer; “but in this country we ﬁnd it pays to shoot an admiral from time to time to encourage the others.”
Admiral Byng understood
And so now the question becomes how do we devise a system that just as efficiently forces an unaccountable bureaucracy such as the Veteran’s Administration to do our will, instead of following Aces’s ‘rules of bureaucracies’; because truly that is the trouble, and just firing political appointees is shuffling the deck chairs on the Titanic. We need a systemic solution, or we need to put these functions back in the private sector, where they truly belong, even if we merely have an open bid for coverage with private insurers’ every few years. That would, I think, be the ideal solution.
¹ And most of the information as well, in this article derived from “The British Navy Rules: Monitoring and Incompatible Incentives in the Age of Fighting Sail” (PDF) by Douglas W. Allen.