Aged Institutions

Posted: July 2, 2007 in Culture, Idealism

There ought to be an expiration date on some institutions. The life cycles of many of our current institutions have been extended well beyond their effectiveness date and they frankly need to be scrapped and created anew. Examples include public education, corporations, the electoral process, perhaps even capitalism.

Calls to scrap public education began back in the 1960s, not really very long after its establishment. It had become clear even then, at least to a few, that education was quickly devolving into a barely functioning bureaucracy. It’s been nothing but a long, sustained slide since then, and repeated initiatives and attempts to cure the patient have done little but to put it on chronic life support. The growing home school movement is a good indication that many folks have no faith in the classroom anymore and can frankly educate their children better and cheaper on their own.

Corporations fare not so much better. Many of the great 20th-century corporations no longer exist, having long since been bought, merged, liquidated, and/or bankrupted out of existence. The airlines make a good case in point. Even those that survived into the 21st century typically creak under their own weight and history. For instance, IBM, Xerox, GM, and Kodak all putter along benignly, restructuring themselves periodically but not really innovating or leading their markets. Younger upstarts have usurped the oldsters.

Perhaps the most egregious case is the electoral process. No one paying attention really believes anymore that the choices offered by the time all the fundraising, primaries, and politicking come to a close amount to anything other than a choice between the lesser of (merely) two evils. Little wonder there is such voter apathy. Breakout candidates in recent presidential elections (Ross Perot, Jesse Jackson, Steve Forbes, Ralph Nader) suggested for a while some possibility of change, or at least a viable alternative, but they were all dead upon arrival. A vote for change was tactically a throwaway vote.

Even capitalism shows considerable signs of wear and tear. As an economic system, the promise has always been that, for all its faults, capitalism is better than any of the alternatives. In its current mature state, however, capitalism fails to provide its benefits broadly enough, is vulnerable to venal manipulation by the power elite, and is similarly threatened by the great headless beast of globalism soon to consume us all in a stateless, leaderless scramble for whatever is left after capitalist excesses chew up and spit out the ecosystem.

In each case (further examples could go on and on), there existed a sweet spot toward late middle age and moderate size when each institution was at its height of power and prestige. Once beyond that crest, however, inertia begins to set in, size bogs things down, and operating parameters end up distilled into a few rhetorical flourishes unable to adapt or change. Even the replacement of a leader (president, principal, CEO, whatever) typically does little but churn already stale water.

What would it be like if all institutions planned for their own obsolescence? The trick would be to time the transition to the next thing or indeed to leave the stage and wait for the next player to appear, not knowing who or what. But alas, while institutions may still adapt and change in small measure, we should recognize by now that many have outlived their usefulness yet refuse to cede their existence to younger rivals. Their final, aging desire is inevitably to persist, failing to serve their original missions well if at all.

  1. greywhitie says:

    Homeschooling is not necessarily superior to public education. I’ve hired kids to help out around the house, some who attended public schools, and some homeschooled. The homeschooled ones were more naive than those who attended public schools. You learn to socialize with other kids in school. Education is not just about academics. You should know that, Brutus. I am sending my kid to public schools. We’re not rich enough to send her to private schools, and even if we were filthy rich, I would still send her to public schools. I don’t believe in elitist institutions below the college level. Also, parents should not leave it up to the schools to educate their kids. But gosh, I would never want to home school. I want to have a life, too!

    As for economics, if capitalism does not work, can you suggest a better alternative?

  2. I’m with you. All my adult life, I’ve said, “Open your eyes, everyone. Time to start over.”

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