UnivAcc - Philosophic > Institutional Decline

The Mechanisms of Institutional Decline

In What's Really Wrong With America's Best And Brightest, June Carbone attempts to address the problem of institutional decline under the guidance of meritocratic elites and their heirs in the United States socioeconomic system.

To start, she addresses the somewhat antithetical theories of Chris Hayes and David Brooks. Carbone characterizes Hayes' argument as identifying the natural mechanisms of meritocracy leading to increased socioeconomic disparity between elites and the rest of us. She characterizes Brooks as identifying the loss of a hereditary exclusivity that supported a system of noblesse oblige.

Carbone then offers her own theory, blaming the problem on the loss of the primacy of the institution over the individual. People accordingly lose their ties to the institution as the source of status, seeking only personal aggrandizement as a measure of success. She concludes the analysis with reference to the obscuring of individual accountability and personal ties to the institutions that are the vehicles for the individuals' successes, asserts this problem is an effect of a lost sense of self-identification as a mere cog in the machine, and uses Mitt Romney's career at Bain Capital as her exemplifying case.

Contrary to these theories, it is not loss of a sense of stewardship indoctrination beginning at birth that constitutes the original failure of the institution's beneficial character, nor is it establishment of the insiders as a protected class holding primacy over the outsiders, and it is certainly not the introduction of individual concerns into the socioeconomic machinery of our society, either. While a central factor in the institutional decline of the industrialized West is the position elites hold, allowing them to twist the system to their own ends, it is not the root cause; rather, it is the intermediate consequence of the root case.

The real problem is simply that individualism is devalued and demoted within our institutions. Reputation is no hindrance to the otherwise sociopathic aims of capable people, or to the rise of capable sociopaths over capable people of integrity, when reputation adheres only to institutions rather than to individuals.

This state of affairs has corrupting effects on institutional integrity even where the institutions in question are not as directly subject to this anthropomorphizing of organizations and depersonalization of individual decision makers. While the Presidency and other high public offices directly accountable to voters depend on individual reputations, for instance, the people who rise to sufficient prominence and gain enough support from those with the power to aid their ascension to office are already chosen by socioeconomic factors of success largely unrelated to the reputation needed to achieve those offices before they begin their candidacy. The reputations of candidates are thus largely falsified after the fact, constructed from lies that can be funded and disseminated by their superior resources, rather than arising naturally from truths that emerge from superior ideals. Most of the rest of society seems tailor-made to obscure the individual behind the institution, so that individuals who rise to prominence as individuals first rise to power in an amoral, largely anonymous state within collectivized institutions.

The Presidential example brings to mind examples such as Mitt Romney. Before he pursued increasingly important governmental offices, culminating in his campaigns for the Presidency in the 2008 and 2012 election seasons, he was not a recognized decision-maker in the minds of people who despised the institutions of which he was a member (particularly Bain Capital). His accumulation of significant power as a generally unknown guiding hand for a corporation further divorced from its subsidiaries, which in turn preyed upon their respective markets and in some cases immolated themselves to direct more financial success toward Bain Capital and its shareholders, served as the power base from which he sought public offices. In the 2012 election season, his political maneuvering can be seen by those paying attention to substantially rewrite his own history to manufacture the reputation needed to win the Presidency, making liberal use of resources available because of his previously disreputable behavior -- a task that would not be possible without the obscuring effect of institutional collectivization that kept his personal behavior in those years hidden behind several layers of depersonalizing veils.

Our corporatist system essentially mandates this pattern of rise to power. It imposes rules on the economy that favor corporations over individualist business endeavors, to the point where the greatest successes are propped up, well beyond the natural scope of a business concern, by artificial economies of scale built into corporate law and "public" infrastructure. Achieving the greatest financial success as an individual in this system requires great merit in the ability to achieve the greatest financial success for the organization, but it does not require anyone other than the other primary decision makers in that organization knowing much about you or your execution of your leadership role. This encourages unscrupulous behavior acceptable to the minority group aware of your behavior, in pursuit of goals personally advantageous to them, but at the expense of goals personally advantageous to the majority. That majority has been conditioned to see only the institution and not the person leading it.

It is the outward collectivization of the institution, particularly in the now-laughably labeled "private" sector, that ultimately destroys accountability, integrity, and honor in our institutional leaders. It gives them the mask of the institution behind which to hide their own behavior, even as they turn their considerable skills toward their own individual ends. By removing any sense of individual recognition, we remove any sense of individual accountability, and we even enshrine this lack of accountability in law with regulations that apply arbitrary standards of "ethical" focus on the success of the institution.

This does not turn good people into bad, of course, but it does grant great advantages to those unconstrained by integrity and ethical principle so that they, rather than ethically motivated individuals, rise to positions of power. The strongest incentive toward ethical behavior would simply be to tear away the curtain that obfuscates the identities of those pulling the strings, allowing us to see past the illusion of the institution as an individual in its own right. In the words of US Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis, "Sunlight is the best disinfectant."

Just as individual reputations in our corporatist system are not necessarily tied to individual actions, they are not necessarily tied to long-term improvements, either. When your ostensible loyalty to an institution is based on a collectivist organizational ethos that minimizes the visibility of the individual, your incentives are geared toward short-term gains that grant you advantages now that can be parlayed into greater advantages later. The long-term thinking, then, is all focused on what will help you later, and not necessarily what will help the institution, which means that sacrificing institutional goals for the appearance of quick success becomes a highly effective strategy for personal success.

First, you milk the current situation for tremendous financial gain or reputation improvement amongst institutional elites; then, you move on to new opportunities in other institutions where you can carry your short-term reputation with you as part of a longer-term reputation. Given these conditions, it will not matter so much that the institution you left is on the brink of failure. That is a problem for your replacement within that institution.

By contrast, if your position is one where you as an individual are regarded clearly as an individual rather than being obscured behind the machinery and public, collective face of the institution, short-term gains that lead to long-term failure directly harm you because in this case you are the institution. This means that the failures that follow very short-term thinking are your failures, and there is no replacement on whose shoulders you can drop the burdens of these failures. This prompts longer-term thinking in general, rather than short-term thinking on behalf of the institution that serves long-term thinking on behalf of the individual. The legacy of the individual suddenly becomes a primary concern for many people, which can result in the individual's long-term thinking being stretched into the future well beyond the span of his or her own life.

If we truly desire the ethical rehabilitation of the meritocratic system that was to some degree the hallmark of the US socioeconomic system, we must stop supporting the collectivist cover for the actions of individuals who make up institutional leadership. Eliminate the regulatory measures that create artificial economies of scale. These measures introduce bureaucratic tangles of rules that large corporations are best equipped to navigate with the consequences of "mistakes" being shrugged off due to a lack of individual accountability.

By clearing away these obstacles to individual accountability for individual actions, we can expose the nature of the individual to the light of day. Doing this will help to encourage true progress, true advancement. It will discourage sociopathic ploys leaving a trail of broken promises in their wake, because those schemes will not be so easily cloaked in the shadows of collective institutional entities.

updated: 2012-12-15

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