A little book has been engaging my thoughts this past week – On Thinking Institutionally – published a decade ago by Hugh Heclo, now a retired American political scientist with form for an interest both in political institutions and in European aspects of political culture. I remember his name vividly from the 1970s from the book he wrote jointly with that great doyen of political analysis (and of the budgetary process) Aaron Wildavsky – The Private Government of Public Money
Heclo’s book looks at our loss of respect for institutions. Way back in the 60s, Penguin books had published a series of popular paperbacks with the series title “What’s Wrong with…….?” – in which virtually all British institutions were subjected to a ruthless critique. When I was in Germany for a couple of months in 2013, I noticed a similar rash of titles. And France has been flooded in recent years by the literature on its doom…..
I like a good critique like anyone else – but there comes a point when critical analysis of an institution become so overwhelming as to threaten the possibility of ever trusting that entity ever again. A few years ago, we seemed to reach that point in Britain when the “expenses scandal” hit the political class – was it a coincidence that this happened just when the global economic crisis required some determined political action?
For whatever reason, trust in our institutions – public and private – has sunk to an all-time low. This is the issue with which Heclo’s book starts – indeed he gives us a 5 page spread which itemises the scandals affecting the public, private and even NGO sectors in the last 40-50 years – arguing that mass communications and our interconnectedness exacerbate the public impact of such events.
The past half-century has been most unkind to those discrete cohering entities, both formal and informal, that "represent inheritances of valued purpose with attendant rules and moral obligations." Today, people almost universally denigrate institutions, including those of which they are members.
Attacks on institutions come from our hyper-democratic politics but stem from the Enlightenment with its unshakeable confidence in human reason; its subsequent obsessive focus on the self; and, latterly, its belief that an institution has no value beyond that which an individual can squeeze from it for personal gain.
In the last 60 years our education system has designated institutions as, at best, annoying encumbrances and, at worst, oppressive tools of the past. Students are taught to believe what they like and express themselves as they see fit. Even people understood to be conservatives—at least in the way we conceptualize political ideology today—assail institutions. Free market economics places a premium on self-interest and assumes institutions stifle innovation and entrepreneurship.
But institutions provide reference points in an uncertain world. They tie us to the past and present; furnish personal assistance; and institutionalize trust. They give our lives purpose and, therefore, the kind of self-satisfaction that only the wholesale rejection of them is supposed to provide.
How, then, do we protect and promote them? Heclo says that first and foremost we must learn to think institutionally. This is very different from thinking about institutions as scholars do. It is not an objective and intellectual exercise. It is a more participatory and intuitive one. To think institutionally you need a "particular sensitivity "to or an "appreciative viewpoint" of institutions.
To be more specific, the exercise moves our focus away from the self and towards a recognition of our debts and obligations to others. To think institutionally is to do something much more than provide individuals with incentives to be part of and promote institutions. It calls on them to modify their behavior. In this way, Heclo challenges rational choice's assumptions about institutional maintenance vigorously.
Heclo argues that acting institutionally has three components. The first, "profession," involves learning and respecting a body of knowledge and aspiring to a particular level of conduct.
The second, "office," is a sense of duty that compels an individual to accomplish considerably more for the institution than a minimal check-list of tasks enumerated within a kind of job description.
Finally, there is "stewardship." Here Heclo is getting at the notion of fiduciary responsibility. The individual essentially takes the decisions of past members on trust, acts in the interests of present and future members, and stands accountable for his actions.
I have a lot of sympathy for this line of argument – against “the quick buck”…. instant gratification….. tomorrow’s headlines…..we need cultures which respect partnership, timescales for investment and the idea of “stewardship” which Robert Greenleaf tried, unsuccessfully, to cultivate…..The quotation, indeed, which graces the first page of my Dispatches to the post-capitalist generationDwight Eisenhower’s last address in 1960
We . . . must avoid the impulse to live only for today, plundering for our own ease and convenience the precious resources of tomorrow. We cannot mortgage the material assets of our grandchildren without risking the loss also of their political and spiritual heritage. We want democracy to survive for all generations to come, not to become the insolvent phantom of tomorrow.
Heclo’s book, I concede, is in the tradition of Edmund Burke and Michael Oakeshott and tended to attract the attention of clerics and university administrators – some of whom produced this interesting symposium
Thinking institutionally is a lonely pursuit. Its practitioners are unappreciated and considered naive. They expect to be taken advantage of by those who care nothing for institutions, only for themselves. But that does not mean we should not do it.
Readers wanting a sense of Heclo’s writing style are directed to page 750 of The Oxford Handbook of Political Institutions (the link gives the entire “Hand”book!) where Heclo has a short essay on the topic.