By Roland Watson

I now intend to review social institutions a bit more, and not only in a negative light. I want to consider why they have evolved the way they have - why their relationship to us has changed so dramatically.

Indeed, institutions - some institutions - are essential in the modern world. They coordinate the application of resources to complex tasks that lie far beyond the capability of any one individual.

One aspect of this is that they are major employers. If only because of this role, we are unlikely to be rid of them anytime soon.

Our goal, then, is to restructure the system, to eliminate those institutions that do not fulfill a positive purpose, and to reduce in size and redirect the others.

Who do institutions serve?

The needs of institutions reflect not only their accepted role in society. They also mirror the needs of their owners and executives. As I discussed in the last article, all institutions have a pyramidal structure. Power is concentrated at the top. This structure is called a hierarchy. Furthermore, most institutions are controlled by men. They are patriarchies.

In many cases institutions are run by this elite solely for the satisfaction of their own purposes, not for the satisfaction of the needs of the "customers" of the institutions, except insofar as these needs must be satisfied - or manipulated - such that overall institutional survival is guaranteed.

The motivations of the elite

As we also have seen, this elite is motivated by power, by the drive to achieve and maintain positions of power, and by the desire to use that power, to use it to dominate and control others.

As an aside, one unfortunate aspect of power, at least of this type of power, is that it is nothing if it is not used, or at least that is what most of the holders of the power believe. If you have it, you have to let everyone else know that you do, and the only way to do this effectively, or so these people believe, is by making demands, and applying force.

This elite is not motivated, although they may profess to be, by the fundamental desire to live. There is a subtle but important confusion here. They did not strive for their positions to fulfill the personal goal of pushing their limits and accomplishing everything of which they were capable.

Instead, inside the institutions, as their careers progressed, their real goal was to defeat, to advance beyond, their rivals. This is the core of the problem. They confuse the two: the desire to live, with the desire to achieve power. What we have today, institutions whose executives care only for themselves, and not for anyone else, is the result.

It is worth recalling that personal development has two components: enlarging and refining yourself, and helping others. The institutional elite have forgotten, or instead they choose to ignore, the second.

Of course, in many cases the elite did not even "achieve" their positions. They were given to them. They came from the right families, went to the right schools, and started out in the right jobs. More than anything, they had the right friends. The cultures within institutions are not meritocracies, either. Every institution has a "fast track," and if you are not on it at the start, you never will be.

The overpowering of merit

Other than in such clearly defined and limited areas as sports, scientific accomplishment, and artistic expression and performance, there arguably is not, has never been, and will never be, a real and sustainable meritocracy in the human race.

Indeed, even these examples are not absolute. Some people may go faster in a race, but only because they use performance enhancing drugs. And some scientists develop new ideas, but over the course of history many of the most original thinkers have been doomed to obscurity, and also ridicule and persecution, because they were too original for their times.

As to artistic expression, this is also subject to the judgment of conventional attitudes. And for artistic performance, nepotism is dominant. The people who get the best opportunities to perform are regularly the children of established performers. The repetition of names in Hollywood, from generation to generation, is therefore no surprise.

Of course, no generalization is completely true. A few people from the lower classes do squeak through, and, some leaders are ethical. But almost all of these people are subsequently co-opted by the system. The strength of its form - the attraction of its power - is irresistible.

The consequences of class structure

The inviolability of nepotism and class structure has many consequences. The lower classes, particularly the more gifted members thereof, reject it out-of-hand. They see their lives as ones of oppression and exploitation; that they are being used, like domesticated animals. They rebel against their lot, the low place in the system to which they have been born; and they also encourage others to rebel as well, to start a revolution.

In most cases, though, this rebellion fails, miserably. It is stamped out. The forces of the system are too strong. In a few cases, however, it succeeds, but then after a decade or so the new order begins to degrade. The leaders of the rebellion age, and as they do they become inflexible and autocratic. Then, they pass on their power to their children.

This intrusion of nepotism, the allocation of power not via merit, in turn accelerates the degradation and, ultimately, the new order fails. The ideals that drove the rebellion are washed away, and the old order reasserts itself again.

Do we need leaders?

I want to close this article by considering the question, do we even need leaders? One of the things that I am trying to demonstrate is that life demands personal responsibility. We are responsible for ourselves, for our own lives. While we can delegate this away, it is a mistake if we do.

Realization of this is in fact what led us to democracy, or government by the people. Of course, as it stands now we do not have real democracy. We do not make the decisions of government ourselves. Instead, we elect representatives - leaders - to make the decisions for us.

Personal responsibility implies that we should not be dependent on leaders. We should be able to lead ourselves, starting with to devise a system of government where all voices are equally weighted, and where there is no concentration of power and hence no possibility of abuse.

The practical reality of human society, though, is that for historical and other reasons we do have a leadership-based structure. As I have described, this structure dates to our earliest forms of social organization, and it inevitably leads to a wide variety of abuse.

The reason for this is that leadership is inherently corrupting. For example, for political leadership, and in a dictatorship, the leaders obviously govern only for themselves and their cronies.

However, this happens in democracies as well. In a democracy, the leaders are supposed to serve the public, not their personal interests and agendas. Many leaders, though, find the temptation irresistible to use their power for personal gain, including to help their children.

Society also has a tendency to rely on leaders because of its structural foundation in competition. Leaders are responsible for social decision-making, and individuals who exhibit great skill at this can help one group prevail over another.

The pitfalls of relying on leaders

What all of this illustrates is that a dependence on leaders has many pitfalls, the first of which is simply poor leadership. For instance, many countries regularly repeat the same types of mistakes - just think of the U.S. The reason this happens is that while the countries may be the same, the officials are different. New officials fall into the same types of traps as their predecessors. This in turn reflects the fact that we only learn from the mistakes that we personally make.

Leaders also commonly suffer from egotism. They do tend to be our "best and brightest," but this is no guarantee that they will do a great job. What happens when you have a high level of intelligence is that you realize you can understand things better than other people. Because of this, you tend to want to dominate, to see that things are done the right way – your way. But in this process, it is easy to forget your own fallibility: that you can, and do, make mistakes. Eight or nine times out of ten you might be right, but not the others. But you tend to push things through as if you were right, all the time. Also, you forget that other people are not so dumb and uneducated after all, and that they can solve problems, too. And, if it is a situation in which they are personally involved, they have a right to be included in the decision-making process.

Through such arrogance, it is easy for leaders to forget that they are public servants, and also to author horrific social blunders.

A related flaw with leadership occurs when individuals surround themselves with unquestioning and sycophantic staffs. This isolates them from alternative viewpoints and conflicting evidence. But, good decision-making requires consideration of all the information that is available.

Leadership is not an academic exercise. Because of its consequences, it inevitably involves great pressure. Leaders have to be able to handle this pressure well. If they don't, they tend to abuse their subordinates. Ironically, though, society accepts abusive leaders, if they are able to get the job done.

The greatest temptation with political leadership is financial corruption. Individuals take advantage of their authority to enrich their families, and this wealth in turn is used by their descendants to perpetuate the family's political power. Indeed, nepotism and corruption have combined to create a privileged, leadership class. This is a common failing in democracies around the world. Only individuals with great wealth, and in many cases whose parents have also been politicians, have a chance to win office.

These cases also illustrate a deeper issue with leaders. Only individuals who aspire to absolute power tend to be selected. Some people are born leaders, in the sense that they are the most able. But others strive for the top, and will do anything to get there. Leadership in modern society is subject to natural law, and traits such as ruthlessness are at least as important as capability.

Perhaps the deepest problem of all is that we fail to distinguish between leaders and teachers. The best leaders, in many institutions, don't in fact tell their subordinates what to do. Instead, they educate them, to make better decisions on their own. And, through doing this, they organize consensus, on what is best for everyone.

This is the only type of leadership that enables the participative decision-making of real democracy, and through which it may finally be possible to escape from a society that is grounded in, and dedicated to, competition.

In the next series, I will examine institutional behavior more closely.

© Roland Watson 2014