The Twilight of Institutionalism

I recently finished reading volume one of The Origins of Political Order by Francis Fukuyama. The author takes you through the early history of many civilizations, pinpointing the critical characteristics of institutions that may have affected the success or failure of a society even today. The common motif is that a written rule of law and checks and balances to an authority’s power often allow for a corruption-free society to flourish. Also, Fukuyama agrees with Nicholas Wade, author of A Troublesome Inheritance: Genes Race and Human History that a population’s behavior in society may reflect the institution-type in which their ancestors lived.

After finishing the first volume, I adopted a new view on history: civilization is the story of the development of human institutions. The Wikipedia definition of an institution is “any structure or mechanism of social order governing the behavior of a set of individuals within a given community,” such as constitutions, religions, and organizations. Fukuyama states that by definition, an institution creates rules that reduce human freedoms, but in doing so permit the institution to have more efficient collective action. Human history therefore contains within it a survival-of-the-fittest style contest between institutions and their version of what Thomas Hobbes called the social contract.

The next logical question is, where is the evolution of institutions going? The world around the year 200 BC might have suggested that centralized governments are the strongest institutions, and they will naturally grow until the world is comprised of only a few or even one incredibly powerful institution. At the time, Rome dominated Europe and the Qin dynasty dominated Asia. However, history has now given us repeated examples of mega-institutions fracturing: Europe after Rome, the Soviet Union in the late 20th century, Christianity today, Islam today, Gran Colombia, just to name a handful from this long list.

The United States is very institutionalized. It’s made up of a federal government, state governments, counties, districts, cities, businesses, agencies, educational systems, membership organizations, and more, each with their own laws. Its “I’ll sue you” culture has saturated government and businesses alike in rules and procedures, something I discussed in this post. In many cases, our institutions violate the very purpose of an institution as stated above: to permit efficient collective action.

So can it swing back the other way? Can the United States become less like a precarious pile of wrought-iron institutions and more like the strong web Spider-Man would have to make to prevent the falling institutions from crushing innocent people? In another post, I explored the institutional detachment of millennials. Though the data can’t predict a trend such as “the US is becoming less institutionalized,” I have hope that this survey at least has some prophetic power.

The reason why is central to proprietism: technology. The more perfect our information systems become, and they appear to still be conforming to Moore’s law, the less we will have to subject others to procedures, and the more we will be able to make flexible, real-time decisions (I touched upon this topic here). Humans have an innate predisposition to make and follow rules, and rules exist to counteract that urge we sometimes get when nobody is looking to gain at the expense of somebody else. Cyberspace calls for a different level of accountability. Someone may not always be looking, but your actions may be forever captured in zeros and ones, waiting to be recalled if necessary. Sound scary? It shouldn’t. Big brother’s not going to be watching your every move, and some even argue that transparency can be leveraged. Human society will always function with a small degree of rule breakage; what matters is the rationale behind the it.