Sunday, June 6, 2010

Carroll Quigley and Institutions

I recently read The Evolution of Civilizations by Carroll Quigley (1910-1977). Quigley was a brilliant Georgetown University history professor with the contrary outlook of a feisty Irish Catholic in an academic setting dominated by Protestant Anglophiles. His gift was the ability to analyze how civilizations work in very practical terms. I enjoyed his concise comments about how human social instruments harden into self-serving institutions.

I have wandered through academia, the energy industry, and the military-industrial complex and have observed many instances of "empire building" where an institution diverts most of its resources to self perpetuation at the expense of carrying out its original mission.

(with minor editing)
[The gamut of human needs may be] divided into six levels, in a rough and approximate fashion. These divisions are arbitrary and imaginary, and even the order in which we list the levels is partly a matter of taste. These levels are, from the more abstract to the more concrete: (plus the needs that these levels address)
(1) intellectual - the need for understanding
(2) religious - the need for psychological certainty
(3) social - the need for companionship
(4) economic - the need for material wealth
(5) political - the need to organize interpersonal power relationships
(6) military - the need for group security

To satisfy these needs, there come into existence on each level social organizations seeking to achieve these. These organizations, consisting largely of personal relationships, we shall call "instruments" as long as they achieve the purpose of the level with relative effectiveness. But every such social instrument tends to become an "institution." This means that it takes on a life and purposes of its own distinct from the purpose of the level; in consequence, the purpose of that level is achieved with decreasing effectiveness. In fact, it can be stated as a rule of history that "all social instruments tend to become institutions." The meaning of this rule will appear as we discuss its causes.

An instrument is a social organization that is fulfilling effectively the purpose for which it arose. An institution is an instrument that has taken on activities and purposes of its own, separate from and different from the purposes for which it was intended. As a consequence, an institution achieves its original purposes with decreasing effectiveness. Every instrument consists of people organized in relationships to one another. As the instrument becomes an institution, these relationships become ends in themselves to the detriment of the ends of the whole organization. When people want their society to be defended, they create an organization called an army. This army consists of many persons with different duties. Each person takes as his purpose the fulfilling of his duties, but this soon leaves no one in the organization with the purpose of the organization as his primary purpose. The purpose of the organization — in this case, to defend the society — becomes no more than a secondary aim for everyone in the organization. Defense becomes secondary to discipline, keeping authority in channels, feeding and paying the troops, providing supplies or intelligence, and keeping visiting congressmen, or the people as a whole, happy about the army, the personal comforts of the soldiers, and so on.

Moreover, as a second reason why every instrument becomes an institution, everyone in such an organization is only human and has human weakness and ambitions, or at least has the human proclivity to see things from an egocentric point of view. Thus, in every organization, persons begin to seek their own advancements or to act for their own advantages: seeking promotions, decorations, increases in pay, better or easier assignments; these begin to absorb more and more of the time and energies of the members of an organization. All of this reduces the time and energy devoted to the real goal of the organization and injures the general effectiveness with which an organization achieves its purposes.

Finally, as a third reason why every instrument becomes an institution, the social conditions surrounding any such organization change in the course of time. When this happens the organization must be changed to adapt itself to the changed conditions or it will function with decreased effectiveness. But the members of any organization generally resist such change; they have become "vested interests."


This situation appears in every social organization. Workers join together to get better pay and working conditions. The organizations they form, labor unions, soon take on a life of their own, and the workers begin to wonder if they are not now as much the slaves of the union as formerly they were slaves of the management. The kings of England, long ago, created a representative assembly to consent to taxation. Soon that assembly (Parliament) took on life of its own and ended by decapitating, removing, and ruling kings. A political party was organized in 1854 to protect freedom in the United States and to prevent the extension of slavery. By 1868 it was an organized machine of vested interests, a functioning spoils system, whose chief aim was to perpetuate itself in office and whose chief method for achieving that aim was to end the freedom of the whites in the South. A church is organized to bring men psychological security by linking them with the Deity. A century later it has become a vested institution with wealth and power, and its chief aim is to preserve and expand these valuable prerogatives. A college is organized to train youth in practical and humane achievements; later it has become a whole tissue of vested interests in which standards are lowered and admission qualifications relaxed in order to secure a flow of tuitions that go to meet the institution's expenses. Within its hallowed walls, professors intrigue for promotions and appointments for themselves and their disciples, while a condition of undeclared war goes on between departments and schools to get larger student enrollments in their courses and thus justify bigger slices from the annual university budget.


When instruments become institutions, as they all do, the organization achieves its function or purpose in society with decreasing effectiveness, and discontent with its performance begins to rise, especially among outsiders. These discontented suggest changes, which they call reforms, just as we see happening in American elementary and secondary education today. When these suggestions are not accepted or are rejected by the established groups who control the criticized organization, conflicts and controversies begin, the discontented seeking to change the organization, while the vested interests seek to maintain their accustomed methods of operation.


The strain between the two groups engaged in a struggle such as this will be called, in this book, "the tension of development." From this tension and its ensuing controversy, there may emerge any one (or combination) among three possible outcomes: reform, circumvention, or reaction. In the first case, reform, the institution is reorganized and its methods of action changed so that it becomes, relatively speaking, more of an instrument and achieves its purpose with sufficient facility to reduce tension to a socially acceptable level. In the second case, circumvention, the institution is left with most of its privileges and vested interests intact, but its duties are taken away and assigned to a new instrument within the same society. This second method is much used by the English. The king was left covered with honors, but the task of governing England was taken over by Parliament and ultimately by a committee of Parliament.

When an institution has been reformed or circumvented, there is once again an instrument on the level in question, and the purpose of that level is achieved with relative effectiveness. But, once again, as always happens, the new instrument becomes an institution, effectiveness decreases, tension of development rises, and conflict appears. If the outcome of this conflict is either reform or circumvention, effectiveness increases and tension decreases. If the outcome is reaction, ineffectiveness becomes chronic and tension remains high.

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