You Say You Want an Institution

Writing last week in The New Republic, Tom Malinowski offered the following description of visiting rebel-controlled Libya: “On my first day . . . in the town of Derna, one meticulously drawn panel caught my eye: “WE WANT A COUNTRY OF INSTITUTIONS,” it read. In how many revolutions have people marched to such a slogan?”

Taking note of Malinowski’s piece, blogger Andrew Sullivan then linked to it under the somewhat derisive headline “Rebels for Bureaucracy.”

[EXPAND More] Institutions and bureaucracies were two things about which Peter Drucker had a great deal to say. Certainly, bureaucracy, however tiresome, has always tended to be a symptom of advanced civilization. But institutions and bureaucracy are, ultimately, different creatures.

What the rebels of Libya desire is governance that’s independent of strongmen, one in which impartial institutions serve and undergird society. They also understand, as Drucker pointed out, that institutions represent more than simple creature comforts.

“Every citizen in the developed, industrialized, urbanized societies depends for survival on the performance of the public-service institutions,” Drucker wrote in his 1973 classic Management: Tasks, Responsibilities, Practices. “These institutions also embody the values of developed societies. Education, healthcare, knowledge and mobility—not just more food, clothing, and shelter—are the fruits of our society’s increased economic capacities and productivity.”

Precisely because these institutions are indispensable, however, they are also prone to absorb money and exercise power without being held sufficiently accountable. “In every country citizens complain loudly of growing bureaucracy in government,” Drucker noted. “What they mean is that the government agency is being run more for the convenience of its employees than for contribution and performance. This is mismanagement.”

To the rebels fighting to create new institutions in Libya, Drucker might therefore have issued the following warning: “People are so convinced that they are doing the right thing, and are so committed to their cause, that they see the institution as an end in itself,” he wrote. “But that’s a bureaucracy.”

What do you think? Is it inevitable that institutions become bureaucracies? Or are there ways to keep them from ossifying? [/EXPAND]