LXXXIII – Institutional Dangers

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We
have all seen stuffed animals in museums. They look real; their
outer forms remain intact; they may even have scared us when we
were small children. But something is missing. These creatures have
no vitality; they do not move; they neither create nor reproduce;
they are not responsive to their environments; their lives have
gone out of them.

In
varying degrees, institutionalized societies resemble these defunct
forms. Institutions are systems that began as organizational tools
through which men and women cooperated to achieve some common purpose.
We are, after all, social beings whose lives are rendered both more
productive and socially beneficial through associating with others.
I would go even further and suggest that we can only discover a
sense of who we are through our relationships with others; and that
a socially isolated life can drive us into madness.

But
the dangers of social isolation are more than equaled by the threats
posed by an over-commitment to organizational systems. When we identify
ourselves by our attachments to political, religious, economic,
or ideological groupings, we may become participants in the kinds
of collective madness whose malignancy continues to metastasize
our world. The wars, genocides, and economic and social disruptions
that are destroying tens of thousands of lives each week are the
products of an "us" versus "them," "if
you're not with us, you're against us" zeal on behalf of institutions.
Such a collective mindset can be as fatal to human society as the
socially isolated disposition can be destructive of the life of
the individual.

How
are we to reap the benefits of social organizations without, in
the process, entangling our lives in those well-orchestrated insanities
we have labeled "modern civilization"? Can we enjoy the
economic advantages of divisions of labor, and social connectedness
derived from cooperating with others through organizational systems
that do not, at the same time, threaten our destruction? Stated
another way, what are the forces that convert life-serving organizations
into wasteful and ruinous institutions?

For
the most sensible of reasons, we are pragmatic beings who judge
the propriety of our actions by the practical consequences they
generate. Even those who espouse abstract philosophic principles
in their decision-making do so out of a consideration of more far-reaching
or longer-term beneficial implications of their behavior. Any successful
strategy — however we define the desired end — depends upon our
being able to identify the factors influencing the events before
us. If we wish to accomplish "x," and we correctly figure
out that doing "a," "b," and "c" produce
"x," we will regard this as a practical course of action.

Having
discovered methods or systems that produce desired results, we wish
to repeat them; to make them permanent ways of dealing
with an uncertain world. But as events continue to remind us — and
as the study of chaos confirms — our world is highly uncertain,
and subject to unpredictable processes. Life, itself, is inconstant,
as we find ourselves having to be responsive to continuing changes
in our environment. Resiliency and spontaneity are essential to
the health of any system.

But
a state of permanent flexibility is uncomfortable for most of us.
Constant awareness and eternal vigilance take great commitments
of energy, and so most of us content ourselves with relying upon
the repetition of past successes. We tell ourselves that what served
us well yesterday will continue to promote our interests today.
At the same time, those who operate the organizations we have created
acquire a vested interest in the perpetuation of their systems.
They discover, in our preferences for lethargy, our willingness
to preserve and protect their structured forms and practices.

It
is through such thinking that organizations that began as cooperative
mechanisms, as means for the accomplishment of shared individual
ends, become ends in themselves, or institutions.
An institution is an organization that has become its own reason
for being, transcending the interests of those who comprise the
organization. Instead of fostering cooperation, it resorts to coercion;
instead of being responsive to changes within its environment, it
forces changes upon that environment; instead of being controlled
by its members, it insists on controlling its constituency. It ceases
to be an agency, in other words, and becomes the principal.

It
is only through our adopting institutionally-defined identities
and mindsets that more informal organizations are transformed into
self-serving systems. When we begin to believe that our well-being
is tied to the fostering of institutional interests, our lives become
subservient to so-called "greater purposes." Just how
demeaning such patterns of thinking are to individuals was recently
demonstrated in a news story of a man I know who has long been involved
in state and national Republican party politics. In discussing his
retirement from a major position in the GOP, he declared: "I've
agreed with the party 90-plus percent of the time, but I'll have
the freedom to have my own opinions now."

There
is a correlation between organizational size and the processes of
institutionalization. Because they have developed a "bigger
is better" definition of success and efficacy, individuals
invest more of their energies and resources in such collective purposes.
But as a system increases its size, there is a tendency for it to
lose its capacities to adapt to the inconstancies of life. The history
of business consolidations and mergers is replete with examples
of firms losing market shares and earnings following their increase
in size. There are studies that have shown firms with smaller investments
enjoying a higher rate of return than the more heavily-invested
ones. Contrary to many presumed advantages arising from "economies
of scale," larger firms are subject to such inner pressures
as inertia, ossification, communications failures, conflicts, and
other conservative influences that render them less capable of making
adequate marketplace responses.

Organizational
size, in other words, may be detrimental to the flexibility one
must have in a spontaneous and inconstant free market system. Large,
institutionally structured firms are often unable to adapt to competitive
challenges posed by more aggressive competitors and, for this reason,
call upon the state to regulate trade practices. I explored this
subject in my book, In
Restraint of Trade: The Business Campaign Against Competition, 1918–1938
.

In
his book, The
Breakdown of Nations
, Leopold Kohr has provided further
insight into the dysfunctional role played by organizational size.
Observing that "[w]henever something is wrong, something is
too big," Kohr develops what he calls "the size theory
of social misery," noting that "[t]he instability
of the too large . . . is a destructive" influence.
There is an allometric principle, governing biological systems,
that informs us of the optimal size members of various species can
achieve and still remain functional. I have long believed that the
marketplace, unrestrained by political forces, would keep the size
of business organizations within limits posed by the inner capacities
of such firms to remain resilient to competitive challenges.

Having
become their own reasons for being, institutions — whose size gives
them a concentrated economic advantage — call upon the state for
legislation to help promote and preserve their special interests.
Such political intervention — which becomes identified with the
maintenance of the status quo — is incompatible with the creative
and productive demands of a vibrant society. Such efforts inject
rigidity into the social system, a consequence of which is to weaken
the instrumentalities and processes that produce the values upon
which a society depends. In such ways, as some historians have observed,
institutions threaten the health — even the survival – of the
civilizations from which they emerged.

To
those who are prepared to see events free of the red, white, and
blue lenses with which their eyes have been fitted, the stifling
and debilitating nature of our institutionally-directed society
should be evident. If we are to live free, rational, and responsible
lives, we need to become aware of the interests being advanced by
any form of collective behavior. The Roman politician, Cicero, popularized
the question "cui bono?" (i.e., "who benefited?")
in confronting the origins of political assassinations or other
political undertakings. It is now "politically incorrect"
to ask such questions, and those who so inquire are often labeled
"paranoid" or advocates of "conspiracy theories."

But
as a friend of mine commented, "I am not interested in conspiracy
theories; I am interested in the facts of conspiracies!"
From such a perspective, one begins to unravel legislative programs
that have, as their underlying purposes, the transfer of property
from some to others (e.g., subsidies, government loan guarantees,
eminent domain, government contracts) or the restraint of human
action that might be disadvantageous to established interests (e.g.,
legally mandated trade and product standards, licensing, tariffs).
Those who seek to insulate themselves from the vicissitudes of a
creative and energized society will preach the virtues of uniformity
and standardization. As we have learned from the institutional enforcement
of "political correctness," even the content of thought
and speech must be regularized, with deviants hunted down as "hate
criminals." Wars and other expressions of "foreign policy"
can also be seen as the exercise of state violence to promote institutional
purposes at the expense of those with nonconforming interests.

If
these institutional rackets are to continue, however, it is essential
that their individual and social destructiveness not become known
to the rest of society. To this end, the state will insist upon
maintaining its secrets — in the name of "national security"
or "executive privilege" — all the while insisting upon
a greater intrusion into the details of your life. The distortion
of language will also occur, as the state — with the help of its
media scribblers and babblers — will try to convince us that dropping
bombs on people is an act of "liberation," that expanding
a police-state fosters "freedom," and that those who fight
back when their neighbors are tortured and killed are "terrorists."

But
the Internet, and other alternative sources of information, make
it increasingly difficult for the state to maintain its desired
monopoly over the contents of the minds of its citizenry. Whether
the state will be able to continue playing out its charade of "what's
good for General Motors is good for America," may prove to
be a moot point. If the historians are correct in their assessments
of the collapse of previous civilizations, the continued structuring
and ossification of life for the purpose of preserving institutional
interests may likewise seal the fate of the American civilization.

Perhaps
before our civilization completes its entropic fall, the information
revolution may awaken our neighbors to the destructive consequences
of allowing their lives to be structured for the benefit of institutions
that have shown, by their lack of resiliency, to be no longer capable
of producing the values upon which society depends. Even the most
credulous among us may discover how they have allowed their lives
— and the lives of their children — to be exploited and consumed
on behalf of purposes that nowise comport with their own.

At
the ending of Orwell's Animal
Farm
, the barnyard bourgeoisie look through the windows
of the main house to witness their swinish rulers living it up at
their expense.

One
can hope that even the most fervent flag-waving zealot may be as
capable of such an epiphany as their ovine counterparts.

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