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When institutions fail

By Michael Harris

All societies rest upon institutional pillars. When those pillars (the institutions) are strong and resilient, the society which they support is vibrant, productive and relatively free of stress. When the institutional pillars are weak, crumbling and collapsing, the society tends to be dysfunctional, disorderly and corrupt.
The reason this is so is not difficult to find. A society might be described as the outcome of myriad interactions among people living in a particular area. Those interactions are shaped and rendered orderly by the rules and regulations imposed by institutions. It is these rules and regulations that tell us, in any particular interaction we may have with others, how to conduct ourselves and behave.
In the absence of such guidelines social interactions become anarchical and are reduced to the proverbial “dawg eat dawg and the survival of the fittest” and life in society becomes the Hobbesian nightmare: “nasty, brutish and short”.
Social institutions are of two types—state and non-state institutions. State institutions are like parliament, the police and military, the public service and the judiciary. These tend to be exceedingly powerful since they possess two very important attributes. First, the State has the power to legislate into existence structures which shape and re-shape the society and, through the legitimate monopoly of violence, the means to enforce such legislation.
It is this overwhelming power of state institutions which makes them prey to two kinds of risk. The first risk is that the state, in the absence of non-state institutions of comparable power, can dominate society to the point where society—understood as the voluntary interaction (or non-interaction) of persons—ceases to exist and what takes its place is the totalitarian regimentation of individuals living without choice.
The second risk also arises from the enormous power of state institutions. This risk is that some persons, understanding their enormous power, get caught up in an obsessive contest to influence, possess and ultimately to control such institutions for the purpose of bending them to serve their particular interest.
The only real defence of a society against either of these risks is the presence of non-state institutions powerful enough in terms of numbers, strength and resilience, to act as countervailing forces in opposition to the overreach of the state.
Such non-state institutions can be many but the most powerful tend to be the business institutions, the churches, the universities and the media. The key aspect of such institutions which gives them the power and strength to oppose state institutions when necessary is their independence from the state itself.
But the critical ingredient which makes all institutions powerful and resilient to the point that people are prepared to abide by their rules and regulations is that of trust. People abide by rules and regulations as long as they trust that such rules and regulations are fair, objective and serve their own interest equally with that of anybody else’s.
Institutions grow weak and eventually collapse when enough people no longer trust in their bona fides. This may happen either because people no longer believe the original purpose of the institution is valid or because they believe that the institution no longer serves its original purpose or, in the particular case of non-state institutions, they no longer see them as being independent.
Institutions grow weak and eventually collapse when the individuals who operate them lose sight of their mission and allow them to drift off into unproductive directions or when those individuals grow corrupt and seek to use the institutions for their own private purposes.
When institutions collapse societies become unstable and crime, corruption, discrimination and injustice rule the day. Such a state of anarchy may continue for a long time but it never lasts forever. Eventually one of two things will happen. Either the society (the country) will fracture and disintegrate into two or more mutually antagonistic fiefdoms or order will be restored by force.
It is precisely in such a state of anarchy that we find ourselves today. Our Parliament has long been a joke. Our public service is a scandal. Our police service is riddled through and through with “rogue” elements. Our judiciary is bending under the weight of trying to carry the state. Our university has drifted off into unproductive directions and trivial pursuits. Our media sells itself to the highest bidder. Our churches can no longer cope. And our Government is a cabal of miscreants supported by ranks of quislings.
Meanwhile the drumbeats of the warlords are getting louder and louder…
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