Can we build institutions? a response to Rosemary Bechler

The search for purposes in institutions is meaningless. A body only becomes an institution when people start acting in ways other than those set down in their rule book or mission statement. We must be wary of the impulse to build institutions, and be prepared to recognise the importance of habits, feelings, and traditions.
Peter Johnson
26 January 2011

Earlier this month, Rosemary Bechler published a beautifully written article that picked up some thoughts I had expressed in a post prompted by the higher education debate in the UK. I can agree with much of what Rosemary says, especially about the problem of justifying institutions. I think, though, that she gives a wrong impression of the conservative position and ducks the issue of how a way forward might emerge.

The main, Oakeshottian, point I was trying to make was not, as Rosemary seems to suggest, the self-interested one that we shouldn’t ask what institutions are for lest we disturb comfortable lives. It was more that the search for purposes in institutions is really meaningless. Whilst all institutions have impacts in the world, whose merits we can and should discuss, this is not the same as understanding the institution and can’t replace that understanding, since an institution is not a machine of cause and effect. When we demand a justification of an institution, what kind of question are we really asking? 

It is easy to set up bodies to do things. All you need is a purpose, some rules, and some administrators. But a body is not an institution, and we know how fragile and ineffective all manner of bodies based only on rules are. Just look at endlessly reorganised and unlamented quangos. In fact, one might say that a body only becomes an institution as people start acting in ways other than those set down in the rule book. An organisation’s culture is not contained in a mission statement, however often the employees have to recite it, but in their demeanour, actions, speech, and emotions towards each other and the outside world.

And often there is no rule book. Many ad hoc groups – sports fans, commuters stranded on a railway platform, strangers thrown together by some disaster, gangs – behave in more or less predictable ways without a pre-determined purpose or structure. More formal institutional codes (doctrine, constitutions, taboos, all kinds of secular and religious orthodoxies) evolve from established habits. Rules generally don’t create habits.

It’s easy to assume that self-contained institutions are ipso facto unchanging or not self-critical. Rosemary links universities back to their monastic roots. But monastic scholarship – questioning, debating, reforming – itself a rediscovery of the classical philosophical tradition, is the root of enquiring modern secular scholarship. This is not a tradition of stasis.

A church community, sports team, or dinner club are all more or less functionless. Rosemary is wrong to poo-poo the criticism of function-searching as self-serving nostalgia. Understanding something is not equivalent to accepting it without question: the issue really is who is best placed to do this understanding, accepting, questioning, and changing? Is it the insider who knows – and has emotions – about the institution and its members, or the outsider who can only see inputs and outputs? In truth, it’s not strictly either-or, but the balance has shifted too far in favour of the utilitarian outsider, who cares about value but not values, who writes instructions but doesn’t live them. This is where run into questions of trust and of politics: we don’t believe the insiders any more, yet we don’t quite know what public account people should give of themselves.

(As an aside, the problem of trust was exposed just the other week by the Cabinet Secretary’s puzzling refusal to publish notes of meetings between Tony Blair and George Bush – puzzling because it’s justified on the conventional grounds that the public can’t know everything and governments need secrets in order to operate effectively. But what is absent here is any consideration of who, if not the public, can legitimately decide on this balance of rights and efficiency. And until that question is answered, the argument is worthless and patently self-serving.)

I think that as long as we remain human there will remain healthy and organic institutions: it’s how we live. Maybe the student movement is one – we’ll see if it really is a movement or just a motion. And this in spite of an intellectual and political climate dismissive of institutions and obsessed with utility.

So I agree with Rosemary that there is not and probably never will be any way back to quietly self-governing institutions that don’t have to face the sunlight very often. In response, she calls for “ways and means of deliberation that release energy, permit and encourage invention and exploration, and return to assess consensus and assent.” But aren’t we going straight back to what communities of clerics did in mediaeval monasteries, what ancient philosophers did in the Stoa? In other words, it looks as though what Rosemary wants, and what I want, is a pretty traditional institution of civilised discourse leading to well informed consensus. But I’m none the wiser about how that might come to be. I don’t see the bridge between habits and instructions.

In her last paragraph Rosemary summarises her idea as a “democracy of deliberation.” This sounds good, but I’m still concerned it doesn’t move us any further forward. If this democracy is an institution, we need to understand what kind of institution it is, who is part of it, its origins and history, how it is internalised and governed, and by whom. And if it is a mechanism, something made, then beyond the question of who does the making, we need some reason to hope that we can connect rules and habits, to give it life. If I read Rosemary correctly, she is really arguing for the former – an un-imposed, gradually spreading practice of civilised deliberation. Maybe after all we share a conservative position on this. But whatever the answer to that, I think we should start by being very clear what we are talking about.

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