All Commentary
Monday, February 1, 1971

On Institutional Senescence

This article by Mr. Jacobson, from Fairway, Kansas, first appeared as a Letter in the Wall Street Journal of Septem­ber 30, 1970. It is reprinted here with his permission.

John gardner’s new social initi­ative “Common Cause,” the sub­ject of “Gardner‘s Temperamental Imperative” (Aug. 31), touches on a more fundamental issue than his proposal or your article sug­gest. Both proceed from the as­sumption that most, if not all, of our major problems lend them­selves to solution by new or exist­ing institutions, and from a basic belief that institutions, and insti­tutionalization of our lives, are al­ways the first weapons to reach for in attacking our problems.

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 America has simply failed the requirement of adaptation de­spite massive attempts at subsidi­zation to keep it alive.

Interestingly, the analogy of an­imal evolution seems to follow through in adumbrations of devel­opments in organizational behavior in America today. There appears to be a tendency in these times, concurrent with the decay of our standard institutions, for small, often ad hoc organizations to de­velop to meet specific needs. There is reason to think that this will turn out to be a far more effica­cious organizational response to the increasing complexity and ve­locity of change in our modern so­cial and economic environment than the increased centralization and concentration of power we have come to expect.

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.

Liberty a Better Cause

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.



Imprisoned Ideas

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, September 19, 1947.