Institutional Rust

Picture for a minute, the Eiffel tower. For those who know their history, you’ll recall that the Eiffel tower was built as the centerpiece to the World’s Fair of 1889. While it was originally criticized as an eyesore, and scheduled for deconstruction in 1909, it grew on the city of Paris into the cultural icon we all know. Compare the example I’ve just given, with the most well known and received World’s Fair, the Chicago Columbian Exposition of 1893. The Chicago Fair aimed to eclipse the Paris Fair in every respect, and ultimately succeeded in every respect. Even the fair’s newly invented Ferris Wheel was intended to “out-Eiffel, Eiffel”. And even though the later fair saw the construction of the “White City”, a city of immaculate beauty and design, very little of that endeavor exists today. Yet when referred to, the Chicago World’s Fair is remembered as something perfect, almost like Disneyland for Angels. And I think it is due in small part to the fact that the White City and most everything that was constructed for the Fair, burned down shortly after the festivities concluded. It existed for a brief moment in time, served its noble purpose, and then resigned itself only to history books.

This example is poignant because of the lesson it can teach: serve your purpose as best you can, and then make room for the new. And while most people are grateful that the Eiffel tower was not torn down, how many can imagine that the original planners had intended their attraction to serve as a cultural landmark some 100 years later?

Most problems in current day society have a solution, and while not always easy, a solution exists nevertheless. Do you have too much debt? Get a second job, or stop spending so much. Are you in a bad relationship? Break up and move on. Is gasoline too expensive? Start taking mass transit, or try walking. But there also exist problems that have no clear answer, such as bigotry, environmental pollution, homelessness, and so on. And almost as long as these problems have received major attention, the answer for lack of a better answer has been: form an organization. The reasoning behind these actions is invariably, “this problem is so huge, the only way to solve it is to create a group to combat it” This response is not surprising because oftentimes it is the best solution, and also because people enjoy feeling special in creating something new. What we fail to realize though, is that in creating a solution to a problem, we are very often giving birth to a new problem. The new problem is one of relevance.

To illustrate the point I’m trying to make, let us take two example problems. A large and serious problem faced by this country is the decision to allow drilling for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Rescue. This issue is still current, and on the one hand is the benefit of billions of barrels of oil for the American market, and on the other hand is the possible irrevocable harm to the land and wildlife. Not an easy issue. For a second example let us take neglected and sick Chihuahuas. At least within the state of California there are a large number of sick and abandoned Chihuahua dogs that need help. Not a fun issue, but in some regards possibly easier to handle. The answer to both these quandaries? Form an organization! The good folks at “Save ANWR” and “Chihuahua Rescue” have organized and created institutions to fight against drilling, and for Chihuahua adoption. And while there’s no question that these people mean well, and believe in the causes they’re championing, did they really need to form an organization? Is it not possible that rational thought and discussion, letter writing, and personal philanthropic work would better serve these issues?

This existential dilemma has expressed itself most fully in the case of special interest groups. I believe a special interest group is granted that name as soon as a lobbyist is on the payroll, before that time they’re merely an “organization”. My primary criticism in all these groups is not that they’re foolish or excessive, but that they can become irrelevant. What happens when an issue is resolved, do the groups on either side disperse? If personal and corporate taxes are slashed or reduced to zero, does the Center for Economic Growth dissolve? If abortions are made free in every state, at all stages of pregnancy, does NARAL fold up shop? And if carbon emission becomes a crime on par with manslaughter, does the Sierra Club ride off into the sunset, mission accomplished? The answer in all likelihood, is no.

Now consider that in 1992 there were approximately 200,000 non-profit corporations in America. By the year 2006 that number had ballooned to 1.9 million 501(c) non-profit corporations. It would appear that business is good for non-businesses. And perhaps the reason why special interest groups rarely close down is because they care more about surviving than succeeding. They’re not concerned with how much money they’re making, or results, no their cause is all that matters. And while their courage of conviction is very admirable, can we all stop to ask, “is this helping America?”. The purpose of special interests is to inform the public and politicians of their position, and let democracy work. So what happens when their issue is definitively ruled upon, loses steam, or becomes an anachronism? The logical and evolutionary answer would be to die. Sadly, that is not the case.

It was in 1933 that the Anti-Saloon League shuttered its windows and ceased to exist. That special interest was a powerful lobbying group that worked on behalf of the temperance movement to enact prohibition legislation. Prohibition became law, and was later repealed much to the thanks of drinkers everywhere. You will notice that the Anti-Saloon league does not still exist today. Whether it was logic or frustration, the League at least had the common courtesy to say “when”. I doubt such courtesy or rationality exists in today’s special interest groups.

It all comes down to relevance and decay. When an organization is founded with stated goals, they should work as best they can on behalf of those goals. However, once those goals are met or they become unreachable due to some immutable facts, the organization should resign itself to history. The alternative is to become an institution. And institutions are old, crotchety, inefficient things. They exist primarily to further their own interests of staying relevant and well-funded. What’s worse, a special interest that becomes an institution becomes a ruler of opinion, it denigrates the marketplace of ideas, and is a hindrance to individual thought and expression.

A Democratic Republic such as we Americans enjoy will always foster differing opinions. And thank God for that. If an opinion is worth having, it is worth explaining and promoting. But may we never confuse an institution with the cause it promotes. For if we do, the cause is weakened and we make enemies for the sake of rhetoric. We must recognize that in politics, much like life, there is a cycle of birth and death. New causes and organizations should come and go, in an effort to affect change or die trying. Presently this is not the case, and we are locked in a political landscape that cannot grow, but continues to clutter with immortals. These special interests and institutions keep thundering on, bereft of purpose and growing rust.

So to every organization, special interest group and institution, heed the saying that, “it’s better to burn out than to fade away”. My my, hey hey.