The discussion began with a Committee post titled “Institution vs. Instrument”. The post highlighted historian Carroll Quigley‘s theory of institutional decay, termed in this discussion as the “institutional imperative.” According to this imperative, organizations are formed as a means to accomplishing a stated goal. These organizations are thus instruments whose role is limited to the function they were designed to perform. Over time these instruments tend to denigrate into institutions – organizations who exist for their own sake, devoting resources to protecting their position instead of directing resources towards the fulfillment of their designed role.
Quigley’s institutional imperative can apply to any organization composed of human beings. Government bureaucracies are the first that spring to mind, but the rule is not limited to them. Neither corporations, religious hierarchies and congregations, NGOs, scientific bodies, international organizations, or sovereign states are exempt from this creeping institutionalization.
Along the lines of that last category, I left this comment on the Committee’s post:
I was looking over my notes of Ralph Sawyer’s translation of The Seven Military Classics when I came across this passage from the Wei Liaozi:
“The state of a [true] king enriches the people; the state of a hegemon enriches the officers. A state that merely survives enriches the high officials and a state that is about to perish enriches only its own granaries and storehouses.(Trans. Ralph D. Sawyer, The Seven Military Classics of Ancient China, p. 249.)Does not the Wei Liaozi seem eerily similar to Quigley’s words? It certainly made me think about this rather differently — the Wei Liaozi applies the institutional imperative to the state itself. If we are to then move forward in history and apply the equation to our own state, what do we find? Does it serve the interests of the people, or does it simply stock its storehouses? Is the United States of America an instrument, or an institution?
It is an unsettling question.
“Jospeh Fouche”. The Comittee of Public Safety. 28 January 2009.
It is an unsettling question. History suggests that unsettling questions raise even more unsettling answers. An instrument that has decayed into an institution is, by its very nature, blind. The truth is not in them and, whether they like it or not, the truth will set them free. The outside world sends rain on instrument and institution alike. Instruments in robust youth or institutions in decrepit old age must bend or they will break. Smart money says that institutions will break, their tragedy only compounded by their surprise at their end.
A state at its most instrumental has the vigor to adapt to internal and external pressures. While an institution retains considerable vigor to guard against internal threats to its share of what’s in the “granaries and storehouses”, it retains less vigor to maintain itself against external threats. Even if it suppresses internal threats, those threats will fester, becoming liable to explode.
The United States was conceived as an instrument but is rapidly decaying into institutionalism. It’s political system is ineffective and gummed up. Factionalism has paralyzed the functions of the state. This faction or that faction actively seeks alliances with foreign interests. The foreigner is considered less threatening than a fellow countryman. The only thing the state does well is distribute resources to those who have won their place at the feeding trough. American elites cannot see the looming reality of the world. The only choice they offer a gelded and thoroughly domesticated populace is a choice between equally dangerous delusions.
A state is an instrument but it is only an instrument. It can be discarded if it ceases to be useful and becomes an end only for itself. Poland the state died but Poland the nation lived on. In the course of events, Poland was able to reacquire a state of its own. A nation acquired a state as its instrument. Similar to Poland, while the United States as a state apparatus may disappear, America the nation will endure. Constitutions are parchment. Laws are words on a page. Speeches are wind. Politicians are dust. Bureaucracies are passing. The empires of the past built merely on state power passed away eventually. Political communities built on surer foundations endured. Language endures. Land endures. Religion endures. History endures. Peoples endure. The American nation is a rock and upon this rock the true instrument of state will be built. If it isn’t the United States, it will be something else better adapted to our situation. Is the United States an instrument or an institution? The times we are in will tell.
This inclusiveness is not without dangers. Not built upon the rocks of blood or belief, the American nation has as its foundation the most ephemeral of things – an ideal. What else binds us together? Ours is a nation composed of ideas. Our ties are only those found in a shared heritage, history, and devotion to the great experiment that is America.
It is thus a daunting task to maintain America’s nationhood. Each generation must be taught anew what “America” means. The perpetuation of the American nation is dependent upon this process. Despite the overwhelming importance of this endeavor, I see little indication that America’s elder ranks have given the matter much serious thought or effort.
This neglect has not been without its consequences.
In the summer of 2008, the Bradley Project released a report on America’s national identity titled “E Pluribus Unum”. The report opened with an alarming statement:
To inform its work, the Bradley Project asked HarrisInteractive to conduct a study on Americans’ views on national identity. While 84 percent of the respondents still believe in a unique American identity, 63 percent believe this identity is weakening. Almost a quarter—24 percent—believe we are already so divided that a common national identity is impossible. In their minds, it is already too late. And young people—on whom our continued national identity depends— are less likely than older Americans to be proud of their country or to believe that it has a unique national identity.
That America’s ruling class has not moved to protect the American nation is unsurprising. The upper classes’ isolation from their fellow citizens and identification with other members of the transnational elite play a part in this, I am sure. Yet there is a more fundamental reason for the upper classes’ disengagement: perpetuating the American nation is simply not in the elite’s best interest.
As discussed in this space before, those who hold the reigns of the Republic are, for the most part, members of an unaccountable rentier class whose illusions of their own beneficence and ability cause them to believe that they are entitled to an elect position in American society. Naturally, these men and women do not shy from squashing movements, attitudes, or organizations that might threaten this position. Such men and women have little use for the nation. As Tocqueville states in Democracy in America:
“Despotism, suspicious by its very nature, views the separation of men as the best guarantee of its own permanence and usually does all it can to keep them in isolation. No defect of the human heart suits it better than egoism; a tyrant is relaxed enough to forgive his subjects for failing to love him, provided that they do not love one another. He does not ask them help him to govern the state; it is enough that they have no intention of managing it themselves. He calls those who claim to unite their efforts to create general prosperity “turbulent and restless spirits” and, twisting the normally accepted meaning of words, he gives the name of “good citizens” to those who retreat into themselves.
(Alexis de Tocqueville, trans. Gerald Bevan, Democracy in America and Two Essays on America. p. 590)
This is perhaps the dismal irony of the institutional imperative. As an organization corrupts, losing both its instrumental utility and its ability to respond to outside challenges, an organization’s ability to guard against internal threats only gains in strength. The result is a hollowing out where the beneficiaries of an institution become utterly dependent upon it. For a nation that is as much an instrument as the state that governs it, this process has been a catastrophe. In enriching its granaries the Republic has riddled holes in its own foundation.
An important report on America’s national identity. It surveys both the American people’s identity and others suggestions as how to best reinvigorate the national spirit.
Steyn chronicles the decline of American civic engagement and the concurrent rise of our despotic system of governance.
Jonathan Rauch. National Journal. 5 September 1992.
Rauch provides a lucid description of the institutional imperative as seen in modern democracies. He labels this affliction Democlerosis.