A river flows following the path of least resistance. Until a dam gets built. The water gets redirected toward desirable places and in the process some areas submerge while others surface. Heraclitus referred to the incessant change inherent in matter when he made his declaration that one cannot step into the same river twice. The vital impulse (or life) is like his river with organizational institutions the dam.
Organizational institutions privilege the deliberative part of an individual’s emotional disposition in their interactions, which disposition as a psycho-social consequence gets stifled. To prevent this process institutions should have expiration dates.
Rationality and Emotions
Primates use tools to attain desired ends just like humans do. The chimpanzee pokes an ant hill with a stick. They catch the ants unfortunate enough to crawl on it with their tongue after they pull it out. For a brief moment in time the ant hill crawling with tiny organisms continuously reshaping the construct, the stick rotting on the ground and the chimpanzee themselves an amalgamation of competing affects like hunger or impatience froze. Their vitality ceased when they became parts of a problem to be solved.
In order to survive the primate used a tool to work on matter, an act of instrumental reason or practicality. Within behavioral economic theory such planning gets opposed to the use of heuristics and biases to form two different internal systems of decision making: the deliberative and the affective. The former gets seen as the benchmark of rationality of which the latter are deviations. For instance, in prospect theory various heuristics and biases form the basis of a tweak to rational choice theory. However, these theories confound the notion of rationality with the specific emotional disposition a decision maker may have at a certain point in time.
Comparable to behavioral conceptions of the psyche philosopher Henri Bergson distinguishes between intellect and instinct within consciousness. He argues how these two forms evolved over time from a common vital impulse. Whereas the instinct entails a knowledge of matter acted upon unconsciously, the intellect encompasses a conscious knowledge of relations proceeding mechanically. Survival necessitates practicality and thus deliberation emerged from an “Ur-consciousness”. However, in this conception nothing prevents instinct from standing at the basis of rational behavior. For instance, the economist Herbert Simon showed mathematically how an organism can survive choosing whatever is ‘good enough’ instead of proceeding deliberately by optimizing under constraints.
For Bergson the comic ensues as mental rigidity out of the mechanical whereas social life requires a certain suppleness in the interaction between individuals. Life itself requires suppleness. Taking time as existing absolutely, Bergson argues that the type of knowledge gained from the intellect paints an incomplete picture of the world by definition. Intellect emerged out of practical necessity but by itself provides an inaccurate glimpse of the totality that is flowing time and therefore needs to be complemented with instinct. Although Bergson talks about knowledge, the two notions do form a general categorization of specific states of mind within the individual. To grant primacy to the intellect or as in rational choice theories to deliberation therefore engenders a curbed emotional disposition.
From Deliberation to the Institution
In order to make relations between things the intellect needs to take snapshots that are inert while time continues incessantly. Deliberation can only take place when the parts under consideration are fixed instead of subject to change. As such a practical experience of matter takes on a mechanical form.
A tool is created in order to fulfill a specific preordained task. Deliberation in the form of practicality went into its making. The specific state of mind of the builder at a certain point in time gets crystallized into inert matter through this process. As an extension of its builder, who has molded their experience of practicality within the tools’ materials, the user reconnects with this state of mind upon using it. When a person swings a hammer, they become one with its strokes and direct their attention to the task at hand which is driving nails through pieces of wood. Although this person may act instinctively during usage, this instinct nonetheless needs to adapt to the practicality of the mechanical task.
Where tools solve particular problems on an individual scale, institutions strive to solve these on a wider scale either through customs or organizations. As a social phenomenon it emerges over time from the interactions between individuals. In the case of an organizational structure, the institution starts to lead a life of its own where its external operation gets separated from its internal working. This is due to scaling factors where the individual now is a separate entity although constituting or interacting with the organizational institution (from here referred to as institution).
The institution as social tool is shaped through practicality just like an individual tool. In the form of an organization it strives to attain a desired goal in an optimal manner while scrutinizing its methods. And just like the hammer is the deliberation on the problem of driving nails through wood crystallized in inert matter, the institution is the crystallization of a deliberation aimed at reaching a specific end.
Perhaps the most crucial institution developed in the past 5,000 years is the state. Myopically defined as a political unit with the monopoly on the use of force, political scientist James C. Scott expands upon this definition with the notion of ‘stateness’ in his book Against the Grain. The more a political unit has the characteristics of territoriality and a state apparatus (for the earliest states this entails walls, taxation and bureaucracy), the more it can be said to be a state. These separate characteristics evolved out of specific circumstances primarily in ancient Mesopotamia. The cultivation of grains enabling effective taxation and a sedentary lifestyle are some of the conditions that according to Scott eventually gave birth to stateness.
Not only is stateness as a set of characteristics an emergent phenomenon in the political sphere, but in the psycho-social sphere as well. The activities of taxation, walling off and bureaucracy necessitates the state of mind of practicality formed out of deliberation. One can dub the specific disposition emerging out of increased stateness as one of governance. To put it more abstractly: taxation refers to a required input of energy and walls and bureaucracy to delineating and compartmentalizing in order to optimize a decision making structure for reaching an external goal. As such, the notion of governance generalizes to all organizational institutions.
The Psycho-Social Influence of Institutions
Since intellect and instinct co-evolved out of organisms interacting with their environment, newly created matter influences the further development of those main emotional dispositions. Yet the tool as appendage of a human being will be unable to effect sweeping changes due to its individual scale. On the other hand, an institution crystallized out of the social interactions of human beings redefines the environment those interactions take place in.
To hark back to Scotts notion of stateness, he shows how agriculture, the domestication of animals and sedentism created a novel ecological niche dubbed the ‘domus’ which influenced the further evolution of plant and animal species. Besides morphological and physiological changes behavioral changes ensued such as ‘tameness’, a reduction in affective reactivity. The domus influenced human beings as well. Scott contrasts in passing hunter-gatherer life dictated by diverse natural rhythms to that of the farmer dictated by a particular routine.
Acting within an environment consisting of institutions requires a modification of ones emotional disposition in order to interact adequately with those institutions. The institution is deliberation in the form of practicality or governance crystallized, meaning that the instinctual parts of consciousness get inhibited in interactions with it. In a roundabout way psycho-analyst Sigmund Freud recognized this when he argued how the community keeps individuals in check by limiting their libidinal aggression.
Through deliberation an institution strives for the optimal use of its tools to pursue its own goals. The chimpanzee poked into the anthill with a stick – now the institution pokes into the anthill of humankind with people running on the stick only to be swallowed whole. Crystallized as a tendency toward governance – that part in consciousness deliberating and dividing the environment up in parts appropriate to the task at hand – it reproduces that state of mind in its interactions.
Optimizing instrumentally requires a predictability of different parts. Hence an institution seeks to reduce variety in its interactions in order to more efficiently control its environment. As a corollary, through its bureaucratic tendencies the deliberation on acting gets separated from the action itself, meaning that intellect and instinct are artificially spit. Individuals with more desirable traits for the purpose of adequate interaction with institutions, hence predictability, will have more favorable chances for survival. Ultimately humans being one of the tools at an institutions disposal leads humanity down a path away from a rounded emotional disposition towards one privileging the intellect.
An institution has an undefined lifespan. Whereas a tool gets into disrepair or can easily be cast aside, an institution once formed possesses the potential to exist across multiple lifespans of a human being. Over time the more successfully reproducing types of institutions persist within the environment, for instance schools or central banks. They will interact indefinitely with the environment and thus indefinitely impose their own form of practicality on it. This way its inherent emotional disposition of governance and practicality entrenches its environment.
Institutions can only serve a human being like an axe does felling a tree if they are as perishable as people. In 1960s Dutch counterculture the Provo movement took a prominent place, most (in)famously pursuing their goal of upsetting authorities when they threw smoke grenades during the royal marriage in 1966. They wisely dissolved themselves in May 1967 because not only did they feel their goal was reached, but to prevent the formation of an actual institution (the first development in that respect came with a member being elected to the Amsterdam municipality).
Yet to rely on the diligence of an institutions members to counteract the tendency of crystallization like the Provo movement did will only lead to an occasional exception. Deliberation in the form of governance and practicality is firmly rooted within the psyche of the human being and tends to easily dominate one’s emotional disposition. Currently the world is populated by countless institutions thoroughly entrenched within their environments that emerged out of this state of mind.
To counteract the tendency toward the crystallization of an institution, the material circumstances should be reshaped such that formation is automatically thwarted. Therefore an expiration date must be set for each institution. This entails a designated time for termination, preferably an explicit date or if uncontroversially enforceable an explicit goal that can be rigidly defined in a binary manner. For instance, an environmental group could either decide to embark on a campaign for a year against the building of a new road or dissolve itself when the road is built or the plans are shelved.
An expiration date forms a first legal barrier against institutions spending part of their energy available on their own survival. Setting an expiration date doesn’t contain the tendency toward crystallization by itself, but will divert the incentives of an institution away from survival and reproduction. It should constitute the set-up of barriers in the economic, social and psychological spheres. For instance, if currency is perishable too the chances of an institution perpetually reforming itself dwindles. Social norms and traditions could develop around the inevitable disappearances of institutions. Examining the accompanying mechanisms that would make the perishability of all institutions entrenched within the environment would lead beyond the scope of this essay to elaborate upon.
In order to give institutions the required property of perishability the proceedings are tough. First of all the legal system needs to be changed so as to require these expiration dates from institutions – while at the same time that same legal system needs to have its own expiration date set. In the meantime, the disappearance of institutions for varying reasons (e.g. bankruptcy) needs to be seen sooner as a cause for celebration than a call for a new copy. If the collapse of an institution would lead to an immediate emergency, then an alternative needs to be founded with an expiration date set.
The chimpanzee tosses the stick away after satisfying their hunger. Yet the planner within the human being sticks around in the form of institutions. Plan for obsolescence instead.
Bergson, H. (1900). Laughter, an essay on the meaning of the comic. Presses Universitaires de France.
Bergson, H. (1907). Creative Evolution. Félix Alcan.
Freud, S. (1930). Civilization and Its Discontents. Internationaler Psychoanalytischer Verlag Wien.
Kahneman, D. & Tversky, A. (1979). Prospect theory: An analysis of decision under risk. Econometrica, 47.
Scott, J. C. (2017). Against the grain: A deep history of the earliest states. Yale University Press.
Simon, H. (1955). A behavioral model of rational choice. Quarterly Journal of Economics, 69.