Illusions of permanence

While social and political institutions appear permanent, they are subject to the same weaknesses and vulnerabilities as the human beings that staff their bureaucracies.


US Capitol

Large institutions such as governments, churches and corporations can wield vast power over our lives. Corporations in particular have enormous influence in our society. They control how we spend our working day and how we spend our leisure time. Through the media they control what we consume, how we are entertained, and how we think.

Institutions may seem permanent, monolithic, omnipotent and hyper-rational. They may appear to be invulnerable to any attempts to overthrow them, change them, or mitigate their influence.

But institutions are not machines made of steel.

Even the most powerful organization is nothing more than a community of workers—ordinary flesh and blood people. And ordinary people are stupid, incompetent, and irrational.

Most hate their jobs and many hate the institutions they work for. Ordinary people are jealous of their superiors in the institutional hierarchy and contemptuous of their inferiors. Ordinary people can also be heroic, stubborn, non-conformist and moral. They are often willing to speak out and stand up for what they believe is right.

The leaders of large corporations are always rich. They often surround themselves with sycophants and attempt to portray themselves as god-like—omniscient and infallible—like the institutions they run. But managers too are just ordinary people, with all the usual human flaws and inconsistencies. Overwhelmed by data, they make irrational decisions based on gut feelings. They spend money on inefficient technology just because it is flashy or new. They take advice from experts who know nothing. They hire incompetent people because they themselves are too incompetent to know better. Just like ordinary people they are vengeful and money grubbing. They can also be ethical and caring.

Far from being rational, smooth-running machines, large institutions bumble and stumble along, wallowing in inefficiency, waste and disastrous miscalculations. They are riddled with cracks, weaknesses, vulnerabilities and contradictions. In fact, the only thing that sustains them is their illusion of permanence. Their lifeblood is the tacit support we give them.

All institutions exist only because we believe in them and live our lives in compliance with their demands. Share on X

May 2001

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Text on this page by James L. VanHise licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License. Attribution: James L. VanHise –

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