Toronto city officials recently threatened a man with fines for building an unlicensed staircase in a local park. Then they tore down his staircase, which had cost him $550 to build, and replaced it with one that cost $15,000.

Now, there’s a lot going on in the world. So you’ll be forgiven if you missed these events in Canada. But there’s a lesson to be gained here about why government workers do the seemingly strange things they do.

The brief version of the story goes like this. A lovely section of wooded Tom Riley Park, right along Mimico Creek in Toronto, had a steep, rocky, muddy slope. But it was the shortest path from the parking lot down to the community garden lot and soccer fields, saving at least 100 yards of walking. For more than a few elderly guests, or women wearing fashionable shoes, this path was treacherous, and folks fell or slid down the slope. One garden club member recently broke her wrist.

Apparently Toronto had studied the slope as a candidate for a staircase, but determined that it would cost $65,000 (CAN) to build. That’s a lot for a staircase, so the plan was shelved.

Don’t you dare do it yourself.

But the residents of Toronto are civilized. It’s not some redneck hangout like Mississauga, where sliding around in mud is date night. An elderly gentleman, Adi Astl, a retired mechanic, decided to take matters into his own hands. Enlisting the aid of a local homeless man, Mr. Astl built a stairway, with sturdy 4×4 timbers and a handrail. It wasn’t a perfect stairway, but it worked and it was much safer than the muddy slope it replaced. The whole thing appears to have been less than six vertical feet, just eight stairs.

And then all heck — it’s Canada — broke loose. The city blocked the stairs, and hung yellow CAUTION tape, because “the railing is unsafe, the incline is uneven and there is no foundation.”  They also threatened Mr. Astl with thousands of dollars in fines for “building without a permit.” All this even though the stairs seem to have made the spot less dangerous than before.

Some days later, the city tore up Astl’s wooden stairs, and put in some poured, reinforced concrete stairs with metal railings.  And they did it for $15,000. You can see it here.

Now, you may think that the city’s inspectors or bylaw officers or the parks department in general behaved badly here, because (1) they didn’t act until they were embarrassed, (2) they threatened Mr. Astl and destroyed the useful stairs he built, and (3) their replacement stairs cost 27 times more than his did. Why couldn’t the city officials just use some common sense, leave Mr. Astl alone, and let park users enjoy his donated staircase?

Public officials are no worse, but also no better, than the rest of us.

Well, here’s the problem. Officers of the government don’t have discretion in these matters, and in fact they shouldn’t. Some folks probably just think, “That’s petty. They should have left the stairs up.” But that’s wrong: if we give discretion to bureaucrats and the police, they will impose their own biases and sympathies. They’re just human, after all. And that is one of the key insights of public choice: the recognition that public officials are no worse, but also no better, than the rest of us because they are us, just human.

The rule of law requires that the law applies to everyone, equally. Discretion allows the representatives of the government to indulge their racism, their sexism, or to give privilege to those they favor.  So, we’re stuck. We’re stuck with rules that seem blunt and clumsy and we have to enforce those rules without discretion or exception. That is the very nature of the state, to restrict the discretion of bureaucrats and law enforcement. They have to enforce the law. And the law is cumbersome and inefficient.

Here’s the bad news.

The people who work in Toronto’s parks department may actually do a pretty spectacular job, given the restrictions on the ways bids can be taken, plans drawn up, and work executed. But if they don’t follow the rules about railings and foundations and the intricacies of the bid-procurement process, they get fired.

The problem, in short, is not that those funny bureaucrats are lazy, or dumb. In fact, pretty much the opposite is true. Many of them are well-educated and actually dedicated to public service. But don’t you see? That’s the bad news, right there: even good people can’t fix a bad system. And centralized state provision of goods like parks and staircases is often a bad system. There are too many rules, and control is too far removed from the citizens who, like Mr. Astl, have exactly the right local knowledge to do what needs to be done.

Edmund Burke had it right, then, when he said, “In vain you tell me that Artificial Government is good, but that I fall out only with the Abuse. The Thing! the Thing itself is the Abuse!”

Blaming people is a mistake. The system is the problem. If you want things provided by the state, you can’t complain when that provision is slow, expensive, and hard to manage.