Sunday, December 21, 2014

Institutionalism as a political credo

I have mentioned here and there about my personal philosophical standpoint. It was here that I started putting it into words for the first time, but it's long past time I should have laid it down in this blog so that readers can understand where I'm coming from. I will try to keep this as short and punchy as possible, since philosophy is by nature overly wordy and introspective. I expect this won't be the last post I make on this subject, of course, but as a first attempt it will by necessity be broad-brush.

I am an institutionalist. The little-used word "institutionalism" has most currency in sociology to refer to a conversation about individuals and their interactions with institutions, but in my mind institutionalism can be, and is, a political credo, thus I am using it to describe what I believe. 


To me, institutionalism is a way of thinking about and acting through and for collective interests. To be an institutionalist is to want society to strengthen and improve its institutions, not tear them down. An institutionalist will not defend an institution for the sake of it - some are not worth saving, as they have not changed with the times - but other institutions are timeless, and most are there for a good reason and should be protected from the vicissitudes of short-term political machinations.

Institutions are groups of people who have either been tasked by the state or have taken it upon themselves to act according to a set of principles for the betterment of society. Institutions help society recover from shocks, and work towards the amelioration, minimisation and (if possible) solution of longstanding problems. These are public goods, and should be maximised where prudent.

Institutionalism is a credo whereby the health and wellbeing of a society and its citizens can be defined as only being as good as the institutions which support it, such that rigorous adherence to the principles behind the institutions is paramount to the welfare of society. To the extent that institutions can be criticised or reformed, it should only be critiqued in reference to those basic principles. Where an institution has failed in its duties, it must be brought to account for abrogating its responsibilities to uphold those principles.

Political systems are only one subset of the bodies which can be defined as societal institutions. The current system sees political institutions as having primacy over all others - albeit that courts retain a seldom-used veto power in this respect - which is derived from its ultimate accountability to the people through democratic elections. This has proven to be less than perfect in practice, and institutionalism is a credo which would have this structure modified.

The reason that bodies with democratic accountability have been placed at the apex of the institutional pyramid is that institutions can tend over time to accrete power and influence (and corruption) beyond that intended by the principles of their founding, and every institution should ultimately be accountable to the general populace. Any dilution of accountability will tend to weaken institutions and thus society in the long run.

Unfortunately, due to the stability of many types of institutions and the nature of the Peter Principle of management, some of their inhabitants almost inevitably evolve into "elites". Where the elites are professional and competent this does not matter, and in fact is a good thing. The ideal institution has the most capable people running it according to the principles of its founding, and any deviation from proper operation is deprecated and removed. However, in some institutions the fundamentals of meritocracy are cast aside in favour of nepotism, empire-building and other managerial sins.

However, the current system has failed as well, because it is politics that has succumbed most deeply to elitism. Perhaps due to its inherent nature, politics attracts the kind of elite who acts not on principle or for the benefit of society, but on behalf of the elites themselves. This is anathema to the proper operation of institutions, and thus is the opposite of institutionalism. In fact, the recent rise of elitism as a political credo with an express policy of destroying institutions is the raison d'etre of institutionalism.


In the 1960s, the German intellectual Rudi Dutschke advocated a "long march through the institutions of power" to create a new society which had democracy at its core. (I should stress at this point that when I googled that phrase just before writing this section, that was the first time I had seen or heard his name.) Dutschke's catchphrase is repeated these days most often by the right to describe a supposed process that has happened since the 1960s whereby the left has effectively "captured" institutions to adhere to leftist principles. Of course, by making that assumption they see Dutschke's vision as now being something to roll back, even if very few in the left ever would have heard of Dutschke or knowingly followed his teachings, in the same way that the right talks a lot more about Saul Alinsky nowadays than the left ever did.

I am upfront about my formulation being a reaction to the right's modern agenda to destroy institutions. There is no use denying it; in fact, I embrace it because it illustrates how radical the modern right has become. By now it is cliched to make the point that the traditional role of the left as radicals seeking change and the right as conservatives defending the status quo has been switched about. The so-called "culture wars" were lost a generation ago by the right, as societal values shifted towards liberalism.

Institutionalism can be thought of as a conservative philosophy, therefore, if what passes for "conservative" thought these days is instead seen as radical. The things conserved in institutionalism if it is implemented today may be different to those that would have been a generation or three ago, but that is because institutionalism should be responsive to shifts in public values.


Despite above allusions, institutionalism does not equate to collectivism, as it can be used to further what would traditionally be called anti-collectivist interests. Some institutions are built to oppose collectivism - albeit they are a collective of people sworn to do so - and there is nothing wrong with that.

Institutionalism is also not populism. Populism describes any number of wildly differing policies which share the common element of support from 50%+1 of the voting public. Just because something is popular does not mean it is good for society. Institutionalism as properly implemented should fit within the Venn diagram circle of populism, but it is not equivalent.

Any credo devised since at least 1980 has to deal with the dominant -ism of the age, which is liberalism. Institutionalism is not post-liberalism, about which I have written recently. Similarly, though, institutionalism seeks to fix the problems wrought by liberalism, and hope not to introduce new problems of its own. One of the main tenets of liberalism, particularly in economics, is to treat a large swathe of institutions as obstacles to maximum freedom so as to provide a pretext for dismantling them. Of course, institutionalism stands in direct opposition to this - provided that the principles behind those institutions are worth defending on behalf of the people.

Apart from the ongoing battle between liberalism and everything else, which liberalism has been winning since at least the Reagan era, the other war of -isms which is most cogent in 2014 is elitism versus populism. Indeed, most if not all -isms can be boiled down to defining one group of people as an elite who are supposed to be benevolent protectors of the people, in the vain hope that they will never abandon accountability. In this sense, institutionalism is a more "meta" credo than others, since it describes the same sort of effect as most other creeds. Hopefully it can become more than just a collection of motherhood statements, nevertheless, and in future posts I will make recommendations for change rather than mere affirmations.


This will no doubt be fodder for many more blog posts, but the signature example I can think of is the high professionalism of the Australian Electoral Commission (its executive management team from 2012 is pictured at the top of this post) in comparison with the American system of "democracy" which had its nadir in 2000. The AEC is an exemplar of best practice in institutions. First, it is supported by a legal framework which enables them to remain perfectly non-partisan, as it does not rely on political parties to provide its staff. Second, its charter is to remain responsive to the needs of the people by setting electoral boundaries according to strict population quotas and adhering to an open process. In contrast, there is no federal body in the US with power over the setting of electoral boundaries or the operation of elections, which has resulted in state-based elected officials implementing massive gerrymanders for the benefit of lazy local politicians.

Those familiar with the AEC's recent stuff up which claimed the heads of several of the pictured public servants might already be chortling about me holding up the Commission as a paragon of anything, but I would argue that the commission's reaction to this scandal is perfectly instructive, and compares infinitely more favourably to the 2000 US federal election result leading to the national disgrace of Bush v Gore. The AEC's processes were exemplary; management resigned, the organisation was humbled, and those remaining will work harder next time to make sure everything goes perfectly. Since Bush v Gore, meanwhile, the US Supreme Court has become monstrously partisan and has slashed voter rights in a string of decisions, weakening American democracy for party political motives. The AEC and the superstructure supporting it are institutionally sound, while the American system is a farce. I could (and will) go into far more detail on this and other examples.


The picture at the top of this post represents all that is good about institutionalism. It is a group of people chosen by merit to apply themselves to the production of a public good - in this case, democracy - and for the most part they carry out their solemn duties without fuss or incident. This group happen to be public servants, but this work happens a lot in the bureaucracy of business too, with all the fine people employed in corporate governance who ensure that the private sector adheres to best practice as well. When they get things wrong, though, they take their responsibilities seriously enough that they will resign to uphold the principles that they failed. They recognise the importance of the role they play, and they retain enough shame to acknowledge when they fail and to wear the consequences. If only all institutions could work so well and with so much humility.


  1. Hi, I am from Melbourne.
    Please find a set of references which confirm your thesis that the neo-cons have systematically demolished all of the institutional structures which hold civilization (such as it was/is) together - while all the time talking about "freedom" and back-to-the-past "traditional" religiosity.

    Re the second references, most/all of the usual neo-con suspects loudly champion all of the pathologies described on that site.