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One for All

The sociopolitical virtue of selfless action.

Dec 29, 2008, Vol. 14, No. 15 • By MARK BLITZ
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On Thinking Institutionally

by Hugh Heclo

Paradigm, 232 pp., $19.95

On Thinking Institutionally is intelligent, deeply felt, and engagingly written.

Were academic social scientists to glance at it, it might open their reptilian squints. Conservatives and community-minded liberals will recognize that Heclo brings to light a phenomenon that causes many of their complaints; namely, the neglect or abuse of our institutions. From this abandonment stems much of the selfishness, immorality, and rootlessness that plagues us.

Heclo's goal is to counteract these ills by defending the possibility of "thinking institutionally." He means by this "living out" the "appreciative stance" that characterizes someone who takes "the internal point of view of institutional values." This "respect-in-depth" involves looking to its long-term health, as a classic steward presides over the property with which he is entrusted.

Although one might imagine that Heclo has in mind only broad and compelling institutions--church, country, family--he begins by contrasting the Barry Bondses of the world who use the game only to advance themselves with the Cal Ripkens and Ryne Sandbergs who play the game the right way and modestly respect baseball's traditions and forebears.

As examples of those who think institutionally, Heclo names, among others, Enron and WorldCom whistleblowers, military officials who complained about Abu Ghraib or fought to have it investigated honestly, George Washington, James Madison (as opposed to Thomas Jefferson), and Colin Powell. Thinking institutionally means living by an institution's rules even if this diminishes one's immediate pleasure and success, or living within the duties that constitute one's office or job.

One might say (although Heclo does not say it precisely this way) that our problem is that too few people attend to the general conditions that make possible their own success in business, politics, and the professions.

Heclo supplements his constructive understanding of institutions with a fine presentation (and criticism) of social science's alternative view of them, and of some academics' current infatuation with "critical thinking." Social scientists discuss institutions more than they did a generation ago. But they do not grasp what it is like to think within an institution, to absorb, see, and react within its point of view. Heclo patiently shows how the rational choice account of the birth and utility of institutions misses this inwardness. As with critical thinking, social science stops short where the important problems of what is worth choosing, and why powerful men sometimes limit the aggrandizement open to them and instead serve common goods, begin.

Heclo further enhances his account by discussing the source of our anti-institutionalism. One reason we abuse and do not care for our institutions is that they have failed us. Heclo presents a disturbingly instructive five-page chart of business and political scandals from 1958-1999, and points to the continuing scandals in the years since, and to failings in churches, the media, law, and sports. The deeper reason we neglect institutions is that our individualism, our wish to stand apart, or to make of our own lives works of art, corrodes them. The same selfish, individualistic, nonevaluative point of view that limits social science's understanding and makes "critical thinking" pointless or harmful opposes our ordinary ability to think institutionally. We forget that freedom must be formed and elevated if it is to be sufficiently worthwhile.

Despite its considerable virtues, Heclo's argument is limited and, in certain ways, misleading. Discussing these limits is the proper way to give his significant discussion the attention it deserves.

One difficulty is that Heclo does not differentiate types and varieties of institutions. His illustrations range from plumbing to philosophy. (Even Socrates, that master of impudence, might be amused to read that irresponsible plumbers "ultimately" are betrayers "of being.") Therefore, some of the powerful things he says that arguably are true of one set of institutions are not true of others. This is important practically, not just theoretically, because it means that how one might shore up institutions differs in different cases. Some institutions have offices well positioned to care about or enforce practices that often are not in participants' immediate interests but are needed by all, as judges differ from attorneys. Others do not.