No high civilization can avoid getting top-heavy and collapsing either along the edges or at the center, and the primary task of government, we would all agree, is managing collapse in such a way that Dark Ages are prevented.

The local bus system is an example of a system that fails, not through evil and natural imcompetence (the usual reproaches to Metro) but from the utter lack of resources to accomplish it.

Theoretically, a bus system enables people to leave cars at home -- or not to buy cars, not to need them -- so that society at large can benefit from the greater efficiency of mass transport.

It fails in this way: Too many people have a few resources of their own. They have cars. About the fifth time a bus simply does not sow up, they stop relying on Metro to get them to and from work, to and from other business.

They will ride the bus sometimes, maybe, but the great point of the intended system is lost. People do not, in fact, rely heavily on the bus system, or at least not enough people rely on it for it to accomplish its main aim.

Two classes of people ride the buses. First, the helpless who have not been able to devise any alternate to standing around waiting for buses that should run but do not. Second, those to whom an hour one way or another makes no particular difference, and who do not mind standing on street corners. Thus the system is well used by ancient windows who are making a day's project out of going to the Zub-Zub Inn for a cup of tea and to Great Drygoodery, Inc. to return a pair of stockings.

Theoretically, and perhaps on paper somewhere, the system has safeguards to prevent buses not shoing up at all, but in reality it must be the case that there is not enough manpower to check these things. There is not even enough manpower to answer phone calls complaining of buses that do not show up.

With limited money, limited persons of brains and experience and skill, a bus system finds its hands full just seeing to it that most of the buses run, that they do not run out of fuel, that drivers are hired, strikes settled and so forth.

Too much is attempted for it to be done perfectly. The man waiting for the bus (one survey rose no eyebrows, apparently, when it disclosed that one bus in four did not run within reasonable latitude of its schedule) may or may not comprehend the trails of bus management, adn if he is wise he comprehends that he himself has other tasks, other pleasures, even, and does not propose to investigate and complain and follow up every time his bus fails to show up.He figures that this is something he cannot really control and no point driving himself into an early grave trying to settle such-continuing crises.

He discovers cars, how to park iullegally, and any other technique necessary to free him form an unreliable bus system.

If you ask him, what about those others who do not know how to acquire reserved parking places or corporate subsidies for garages or who have not the cash for special arrangements with taxis, or cars with drivers -- he will say that, too, is something he can hardly solve by himself, but one thing he can solve for himself is how to avoid being at the mercy of buses that do not show up. His good solution for himself, however, is part of the collapse, part of the faliure.

So he works out his problem and since he doesn't use the bus, you never hear him complain of it.

Similar complexity is to be found in the school system. Many people who might complain of it do not complain at all, since they do not use it, but find it feasible to avoid the public system altogether.

If people are driven away, the volume of complaints will certainly decrease.

People with resources gradually (and sometimes with astonishing speed) find ways around systems they regard as introlerable.

A word of confession here might be only fair. In my own labors, such as they are, a good bit more is expected of me than I know how to deliver. Letters, in particular, are a nightmare to me. It does little good to announce you cannot answer them all and that you are not a consulting service but a mere writer.

Theoretically -- like the buses that don't show up -- there is no excuse for a letter to go unanswered. Theoretically, also, there is no reason a writer should not be fully versed in every event, every topic, he is brazen enough to write about. There is no reason his ears should not be perfect, his education superb, his temperament equable, his insights informed and civilized. He should be a blue-eyed wonder.

But many things fall through the cracks. Many things should be done that are not done.

Again and again in our societ the question is not whether we do things brilliantly or even as well as we can:

The question very quickly becomes, "What can be shunted aside without the world blowing up?"

Now that, I submit, is the stance of civilization, and it is very different from the posture of innocent barbarism, which is this:

"Wow. Look, the sun's coming up in the east. Let me think abou that a few days."

Barbarians cannot help making progress. Their most rudimentary thoughts, their most pleasurable play, their clumsiest efforts at architecture or music or anything else is bound to be exciting: bound to lead them to new heights.

It is far otherwise with an old civilization. Language is judged by Shakespear, not by the first cries of an ape descending into a savannah. Music is judged by Mozart or by Bach, not by the first Charm of banging a kitchen pot against the stove and screaming at one pitch.

Maintenance is everything. And yet (praise be to Christb the lust for maintenance is not as common as some other drives among humans.

There are always going to be people who want to fly, when mule carts are the more sensible way -- less subject to disruption and international crisis.

There are not enough people in all the world to take care of everyting that has been instituted and found good in civilization.

That is how it happens empires fall.

The most hideous thought I can think of, offhand, is that civilization collapses because there are not enough (God save us all) accountants and bus supervisors. Teh superstructure -- the towers and domes -- is so vast that they will fall, because not enough men find rewards or find release in pointing bricks every five years.

The Emperor Hadrain in his garden had a lake with marble arches and marble statues around it -- a most beautiful thing.

But there came a time in Rome when not enough people found it beautiful. Or not beautiful enough to maintain with the labor and judgement and dollars necessary.

The weight of civilization was too much. It could not be kept up at a Roman rate. Gardens vanished, and all the daughters of music were brought low. Men could not bear the weight any more. The empire relaxed into mud huts. People nowadays pretend, sometimes that the Dark Ages were not dark. What's wrong with a mud hut, after all? Who needs marble arches, anyway, except a soft emperor?

Civilization is a tiger by the tail, as an empire is, and it can be fatal to let go.

Government is the business of fending off suddenly lossened tigers: Without falling into idiocy itself.

There is no point, really, trying to persuade people that what they really want to hold by the tai is a rabbit.

The trouble (and the glory, of course) is that civilization is indeed a tiger and a fierce one. To let go is the continual temptation as the struggling weight oppresses mere mortal backs.

But just try letting go.