Institutional self-satisfaction and overreach

Coming to libertarianism through the civil-libertarian side of the left (by way of Sartre’s writings on existentialism), I have a strong mistrust of large and powerful institutions.  To the extent that I’m pro-corporate (it falls out of supporting property rights), I can overcome my mistrust of large and powerful corporations by, y’know, not dealing with them.  If I’m anti-Wal*Mart, I can not patronize Wal*Mart.  If I’m anti-Microsoft (and I was), I can (and did) run FreeBSD and write my papers in LaTeX rather than Word.  But if I’m anti-government, I can’t opt out of being governed.  If I refuse to pay sales tax, for example, shopkeepers will refuse to sell to me.  Hence, large corporations are a lesser evil than large governments.

Somewhere in between — or on either side — lies the Roman Catholic Church.  If you’re persuaded, as I am, that questions like “what happens to our souls when we die?” are unanswerable by construction and that moral and humane behaviour stems from the Principle of Nonaggression, churches are interesting social clubs that often do beautiful works of charity and sometimes start wars that kill millions.  If, however, you’re persuaded of divine judgement after death and that the Pope is the representative of God on Earth, you’re unlikely to consider leaving the church as an option when it does something that dismays you.  (I am of course simplifying outrageously.)  Either way, any international church hierarchy is one of those “large and powerful institutions” that I strongly mistrust.

Peggy Noonan has a relevant article:

In particular:

There is an interesting and very modern thing that often happens when individuals join and rise within mighty and venerable institutions. They come to think of the institution as invulnerable—to think that there is nothing they can do to really damage it, that the big, strong, proud establishment they’re part of can take any amount of abuse, that it doesn’t require from its members an attitude of protectiveness because it’s so strong, and has lasted so long.

And so people become blithely damaging. It happened the past decade on Wall Street, where those who said they loved what the street stood for, what it symbolized in American life, took actions that in the end tore it down, tore it to pieces. They loved Wall Street and killed it. It happens with legislators in Washington who’ve grown to old and middle age in the most powerful country in the world, and who can’t get it through their heads that the actions they’ve taken, most obviously in the area of spending, not only might deeply damage America but actually do it in.

And it happened in the Catholic Church, where hundreds of priests and bishops thought they could do anything, any amount of damage to the church, and it would be fine. “Thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” That is Mathew 16:18, of course, Christ’s great promise to his church. Catholics in the pews have been repeating it a lot lately as they—we—absorb the latest round of scandal stories. “The old church will survive.” But we see more clearly than church leaders the damage the scandals have done.

(I rather doubt that this is a “very modern thing”.  The Tokugawa Shogunate comes to mind as a deliberately-anachronistic example; I’d cite Roman history but I don’t know enough about it to tell “common-knowledge” mythology from historical fact.  But let’s not quibble.)

There are two sides to this coin.  On the one hand, there’s the notion that we can do whatever we want, and this great institution will survive.  This emphasis on institutional integrity — which Ms. Noonan cites above — is unimaginative inertia.  It’s not limited to great institutions, but it’s commonly associated with vast, powerful, and seemingly unchangeable things.  “We can dump all the methylmercury we want into Minamata Bay; it’s huge, what’s the worst that can happen?

But by mentally linking one’s actions to the state of a great and seemingly-invulnerable institution, one comes across the other side of the coin: we can do whatever we want, and this great institution will survive. This is where overreach happens: where Catholic priests* assume they can fuck kids (or cover up for those who did); where Chisso Corporation factory managers assumed they could dump wastewater into the bay rather than cleaning it; where NSA operators assume they can eavesdrop on servicemembers having phone sex with their State-side partners; where SWAT cops assume they can shoot that obnoxious barking dog for “operational security”.

Both, in combination, begin to explain why California’s pols assume they can siphon off tax revenue for naturopathy programmes and buy designer clothes for state avocado lobbyists despite the state’s acute budget crisis.  “We’ll get by somehow,” think the politicians, “so we may as well keep putting money where we please.”  They begin to explain how Lower Merion School District bureaucrats figured they could install spyware on students’ laptops and exploit children as their own private soap opera.

For that matter, they begin to explain why the Library of Congress — whose primary duty is researching inquiries made by the United States House of Representatives, hence the name — has decided to archive all public messages from Twitter.  Unlike my previous examples, this one’s neither extortionate nor particularly ominous — and that’s my point. The folks at Twitter apparently approached the LC, essentially with hard drives in hand.  The question of the day wasn’t “Why should we archive zillions of short txtspk msgs about… well, probably damn near everything?” — it was “Why not?

The problem isn’t the institutions themselves — at least, not entirely.  It’s the people, the individuals within those institutions, who figure that developing a pilot programme to monitor students’ personal computing habits would generate delicious gossip, or who decide that dumping unfiltered industrial waste into the bay would lower overhead and make them look good, or who look up their exes in Homeland Security databases.  Big institutional conspiracies are wonderful theatrical threats, and make great fiction, but it’s individual abuse of power behind the ægis of The Group — be that a church, a company, a superpower, a school district, a badge, or anything else — that more seriously (and more credibly) threaten our liberty.


* By no means am I trying to suggest that only Catholic priests are kidfuckers.  Roman Polanski makes another compelling example.


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