Last August, the FBI raided San Francisco’s Department of Building Inspection and arrested an official for allegedly taking bribes from a contractor. It was yet another embarrassment for an organization that, rightly or wrongly, has long suffered from a reputation for favoritism and improprieties. At the time of the arrest, the department had been under FBI investigation for five years.

This event got me to thinking about the nature of corruption in building and planning departments, regardless of where it occurs. It would be easy to blame a few bad apples for this not-uncommon problem, but in fact, the process may deserve as much blame as the personnel.

Bribery is, of course, one way of circumventing normal channels that don’t function adequately. In the days of the old U.S.S.R., for example, staple foods like chicken, beef and pork were often very scarce. Not surprisingly, corruption flourished under these conditions. While ordinary Russians routinely stood in line for hours for the chance to buy a few scraps of meat, people with money and influence could easily obtain fine wine, caviar, chocolate, or anything else they fancied.

Thankfully, in the United States, we don’t have to bribe the butcher to score a few pork chops–we can just pick up a package, pay for it, and leave. If only getting a building permit were so simple. Instead, it’s become one of the most exasperating processes in all of government. Despite the best efforts of officials in many cities, obtaining a permit often still takes more time than constructing the actual project.

Now, generally, we Americans are a very patient people. We don’t mind jumping through our fair share of hoops to get what we’re after. Yet there’s a point at which a process become so onerous and complex that even reasonable people try to circumvent it–not because they have criminal minds, but because each and every one of us has a limit of tolerance for unreasonable red tape. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, either. After all, the American Revolution grew out of what normally law-abiding people saw as unfair taxation by the Crown. This kind of rebellion against unfairness is, if anything, a classic American trait.

The unfairness inherent in many big-city building permit processes is this: Thanks to a labyrinthine bureaucracy, homeowners with ordinary resources must struggle for permission to build simple and innocuous home additions, while big-league applicants who are savvy, well-connected, and able to afford elaborate lobbying measures (whether legal or otherwise) can typically prevail with projects of far greater impact on the public.

It’s evident that if the approval process weren’t so convoluted, fewer ordinary citizens would be tempted onto the dangerous path of foregoing permits altogether. Neither would well-connected applicants look for special treatment, nor would building officials be tempted to grant such favors in return for compensation.

If we’re still shocked–shocked!–to find bribery in some of our building departments, we shouldn’t be. When a process becomes as Byzantine as this one has, attempts to circumvent it are inevitable. And as we already know, people with means can always get their caviar, while the rest of us wait in line for scraps.

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