On Institutional Senescence
FEBRUARY 01, 1971 by PAUL H. JACOBSON
This article by Mr. Jacobson, from Fairway,
John gardner’s new social initiative "Common Cause," the subject of "
All this is very much consistent with today’s generally accepted American social theory. This body of social wisdom states further that only institutions with broad, preferably national, influence and a cloak of intellectual grandeur de‑ serve much attention or following. In the atmosphere of social self-consciousness prevalent in recent years, we have seen a proliferation of institutions, followed inevitably by their attendant bureaucracies bearing elaborate, theory-laden, empirically untested programs in social experimentation.
Another view, however, holds that we are excessively preoccupied with our institutions; that we have transferred ever increasing responsibility for the outcome of our personal existences from individuals and small groups to our institutions, and in the process have burdened our institutions with exorbitant expectations; this has led inevitably to disappointment and apathy or, worse, rebellion. Further, this view holds, our preoccupation leads us to cling with a death grip to useless or outworn institutions, following the lead of groups with residual special interests in them, rather than permitting them a quiet death and a decent burial.
Emphasis on Collective Action
The decade of the 1960′s was characterized by an unprecedented effort to use the power of institutions, mostly Federal agencies, to bring about the most far-reaching and fundamental control ever attempted over our social and economic environment. Not since the New Deal have we indulged in a comparable binge of institution creating, focusing above all on national institutions and national uniformity and standardization in goals and objectives. All this was propelled by a contagious feeling of intellectual confidence in our ability to apply self-conscious, collective effort to the solution of virtually any major social problem. It was simply a matter of identifying the correct levers and pressure points and applying the weight of our newly created (or resuscitated) institution, whereupon society would respond as predicted.
If any fact is apparent in 1970, it is that society did not respond as predicted and that the bold social and economic experiments of the sixties fell far short of their goals. Most of the experiments had little effect in the end on the problem attacked (despite some legal progress, basic racial antagonism is more truculent than ever), and some were downright counterproductive (vigorous economic growth, stimulated by deliberate government action, burned itself out to become rampant inflation). Only the most insensitive politician nowadays fails to recognize that a substantial part of his constituency has lost confidence, not perhaps so much in him as in the institutions he represents. We are no longer surprised at school bond issues rejected, at light voter turnout at the primary polls, at discontent and high turnover in the newer, socially involved Federal bureaucracies. Indeed, the ironic footnote to a decade of unprecedented institutional activism seems to be the fact that large numbers of Americans have not only lost confidence in our institutions, they appear to have lost interest in institutions in general.
Mr. Gardner is correct in assessing the present state of our society as a case of "institutional decay." However, it would be more correct to say that we are living in an age of advanced institutional gigantism of a kind that ordinarily signals the senescence of a species. The implied analogy to animal extinction is more apt. The dinosaurs, impressive beasts that they must have been, no doubt lived, toward the end, in a very delicate ecological balance with the world around them. They were most likely victims of rather subtle environmental transformations to which they were unable to adapt. The most successful and durable of the species to follow them were typically small, mobile, adaptable, and unspectacular.
Giants in Trouble
Examples of the institutional gigantism-senescence syndrome abound in our government and society. Prominent bureaucracies, notably the Pentagon and the various regulatory agencies, demonstrate well-known leviathan characteristics. One need only live in or near a major city like New York for a period of time to realize that the institution (taking the word in its wider meaning) of the sprawling metropolis is quite literally beyond human control, unable to provide a safe, let alone pleasant, environment for its hapless inhabitants.
The demise of the Penn Central is an interesting case where a last ditch attempt at adaptation was made; although it is now clear that at least some of the fate of this giant organization was attributable to mismanagement, the Penn Central was doing one thing that may in other times and other hands have saved it—taking steps to get out of the railroad business. Of course, not all cases of institutional or species senescence are accompanied by enlargement of individual constituents. The family farm in
Interestingly, the analogy of animal evolution seems to follow through in adumbrations of developments in organizational behavior in
Business began some years ago testing the concept of decentralization in an attempt to come to grips with gargantuan organizations that were showing signs of hardening of the arteries, and the success of this concept is no longer disputed. For all the sound and fury introducing the various new Federal programs and bureaucracies designed to aid the disadvantaged during the sixties, black people, the primary target of this plethora of altruistic fervor, today have little but scorn for any involvement whatever on the part of whites in their affairs. Their primary confidence and loyalty seem now to lie with local, black-managed organizations that have developed rather spontaneously to meet specific, empirical needs of local communities. Organizations of this kind are not characterized by a great deal of formality or intellectual edifice and need little help from self-appointed reformers or organizational theorists. They simply work, they fulfill their intended function, and they are—once again—typically small, mobile, adaptable, and unspectacular.
Decadent Institutions Should Wither Away
Institutions for which there is a clearly identifiable, pressing need will have no struggle for survival. On the other hand, the only rational thing to do with those institutions that have outlived their usefulness, or proven their uselessness, is simply to let them fade away, perhaps with a little help. This may mean resisting the demands of many of our activist politicians to tie our gasping cities into financial heart-lung machines, throwing much good money after bad. It may mean relegating rail passenger service, or other forms of rail service for that matter, to the history books if commercial demand is insufficient to support them without subsidy crutches. It may mean repealing laws and dismantling bureaucracies that serve no useful purpose beyond self-perpetuation or supporting special interests.
American society is cluttered today with institutional deadwood, and we shovel much sand against the tide, so to speak, in our attempts to protect those among our institutions that deserve to wither away. In our passion for imposing uniformity and standardized conditions everywhere, we have vastly overestimated the number and magnitude of problems which really demand national attention and impressive institutions to tackle them; we have allowed ourselves to be smothered in a stifling excess of institutional mother love. We have forgotten that laws enacted, institutions created or expanded, so often call for new restrictions of individual liberty, new reasons for expropriating more personal property (taxation), not just the unmitigated, manna-from-heaven benefits proclaimed by our politicians. So we continue to rush forth to embrace every opportunity to barter away a portion of our liberty for a vague promise or a fear assuaged.
Mr. Gardner’s Common Cause would bring us a continued preoccupation with our institutions and their resurrection. I suggest that a more appropriate, and far more pressing, "common cause" today is the task of rebuilding personal liberty before it too becomes extinct. Champions of this cause are not now to be found in prominent places or great numbers. Those who call themselves "liberals" (an ironic degradation of a namesake from an earlier age) continue to clamor for greater collectivization of our lives by trying to convince us that somehow life, if left to their management, will provide something for nothing. The so-called "conservatives" seem to become more enamored of repressive use of police power every day; some of the more extreme among them, if pressed, will allow as how perhaps we should be preparing some sort of "work" camps (substitute "concentration") for shiftless hippies and students, black rabble-rousers and other malcontents.
The "common cause" of a re-emphasis and rebirth of individual freedom probably shares with Mr. Gardner’s Common Cause the kind of largely cerebral appeal that makes it difficult for its proponents to generate the irrational fervor that usually provides the motive force for popular social missions. Perhaps we can only hope that there are enough troubled people left who realize that any government, democracy included, that does not dedicate itself first and foremost to the protection and advancement of individual liberty will end in tyranny.
WE MUST be Servants of the Spirit, not Prisoners of the Organization. We must keep in touch with the sources of life, not lose ourselves in its temporary vehicles. And whenever the demand of the spirit, the categorical imperatives of the soul, conflict with the demands of the organization, it is the first to which we must listen. But all this was said long ago. It is all contained in one of the legendary sayings of Jesus, and bears all the marks of authenticity:
"This world is a bridge. Ye shall pass over it. But ye shall build no houses upon it."
W. J. BROWN, from The Spectator,