Institutions never worked



We have a saying in Romania: "man blesses the place". Seems ovbious in retrospect, doesn't it. You probably know more than one business, community or simply household that's a great place to be, and it's all thanks to the efforts of one person. Once they're gone, for whatever reason, things are simply never the same anymore, no matter how much everyone else tries to keep going like they used to.

Of course, it can also go in the other direction. We have a saying for that, too: "fish rots from the head". Which only serves to reinforce how, one way or another, individuals matter.

Except... things weren't supposed to be this way. Almost as soon as we invented writing, we also came up with institutions: a system for cushioning the impact of good people leaving, or bad people coming. Or both. The idea is to establish norms and best practices, and ensure everyone at least tries to follow them. That way the institution keeps fulfilling its purpose, for better or worse, no matter who's doing the work.

And it doesn't help. Can't say it ever has. Time and again, institutions at best muddle through, if they don't act like a dead weight outright, until some exceptional person comes along to shake things up, whether they bring a renaissance or a downfall. You'll say the person at the top, whether they're Steve Jobs or King Charles I of Romania, isn't performing the actual labor; it's a collective effort.

Then why do we always, always need that person at the top to spur us on?

Maybe naked apes are wired to need a strong leader. Likely, it's more complicated than that. Either way, someone makes the difference. Not norms. Not rules. Not laws. It's all too easy to ignore those once nobody's watching anymore.

A piece of paper can't look at us and say, "I know what you're doing".

We're used to talking about social structures in the abstract, as if they exist by themselves somewhere above us. But a family, a tribe, a village, a country... they're all made of people. Just people working together to make things good for each and every one of them.

Well, so is an institution. Make it about people, not minutiae, and it might just survive its founder for a change.


Tags: society, philosophy, critique