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.

There are few enforceable standards for the media, for example, yet some outlets exist whose audience and family control enable them to take risks that others might not, or to take responsibility for the whole. When the leading papers and networks no longer believe themselves able financially to conduct business the old way, however, there is no one to fire or hector, because no equivalent to judges or baseball commissioners existed in the first place.

A related difficulty is that Heclo does not effectively distinguish between thinking institutionally and devoting oneself to a particular instance of an institution. In some cases, the site for one's attachment is largely an accidental place where one's general institutional connection comes to rest, as this parish or college might be subordinate to the Church or to Learning. In other cases it is not, as love of one's own family differs from commitment to marriage or family generally. Love and spirited protection of particular things explains much of our devotion to what stands beyond our selfishness. Heclo too much absorbs these passions into commitment to institutions, many of which are more abstract than concrete, however appreciative our stance toward them.

One also might well argue that an institution's purpose, which Heclo believes is its heart, is sometimes better served by changing the institution than by preserving it. The practice of medicine does not suit physicians as well as it once did, and some of its elements are also more annoying to patients. But for many, lives are longer and health is better.

Heclo sees much of this, of course, and he is concerned about institutions' penchant for stultification. But he does not make this concern an active part of his analysis. To consider an institution's purpose is already to step outside it and no longer to think within it. It opens possibilities for radical reform, and for newly weighing the rank of ends and their possibilities for being achieved.

Heclo believes that George Washington thinks institutionally when he serves the cause of "republican liberty." Were the Founders primarily institutionalists, however, they would have remained loyal to the Crown. Their stance toward the principles of natural rights is inherently radical and universal. It looks beyond seeing institutionally, even when it is combined with love of a Constitution that conserves these principles.

Connected to this question is Heclo's not following through the implications of the distinction he must make between good and bad institutions. He recognizes that one might say that slavery and the Third Reich look suspiciously like the institutions that he favors, with their long time horizons, apparent self-sacrifice, affective stance, and seeming respect in depth. Of course, they are evil. What makes them so? Institutions ultimately serve what "is good for us as human beings," and "human beings flourish in seeking conditions of justice, freedom, equality and community with each other."

This "wisdom .  .  . is not obscure or inaccessible to the common man," he writes.

We should see, however, that the standpoint of the human good places us outside any authoritative institution, and that the meaning and bearing of the goods Heclo mentions are not as easily grasped or maintained as he suggests. Preserving the possibilities of radical questioning and of equality in individual rights is no easier (perhaps, in the course of time, more difficult) than advancing authoritative institutional perspectives, and is no less (indeed, perhaps, more) important.

By sometimes identifying serving higher purposes with having an institutional point of view, and by absorbing the particular and passionate within the institutional, Heclo risks misjudging (in the conservative direction) the proper combination of radical and authoritative that we must attempt to achieve. We should attend to the dangers to which Enlightenment individualism is prone, but in these days especially we also should defend the Enlightenment and its natural sources.

I wonder if, by looking so much at contemporary individualism's excesses, Heclo has not underestimated our original Enlightenment individualism, and its resources for directing us toward common goods? All our attachments today are voluntary and optional, not simply, but to an unprecedented degree. This fact makes wholesale allegiance to at least the deeper kinds of institutions that Heclo has in mind unlikely.

How, then, can one retain some direction to institutions given this fact, which stems from rights and freedoms one would not want diminished? One answer is to see that individualism based on equal rights is not only a matter of restricted self-interest, but also involves its own strength of character. Many modern institutions are rational economically, but they also become a field in which the character we require to use our rights effectively stretches itself, taking on larger and larger responsibilities.

For some to significant degree, and for almost all to some degree, the "self" and its interests expand. We obey the law and defend the country. We attend churches and synagogues. We devise new media that, as a whole, are as attentive to politics as the old ones. The reason is not only (and in most cases not primarily) the echo of old ways, to which Heclo is impressively attentive; it is also the link between the virtues we require to exercise our rights equally with others, and the self-direction of these virtues to larger institutions.

Indeed, there is an odd absence of discussion of character here. Heclo's frequent invocation of the need for (or presence of) "commitment" to institutions sounds too much like the artistic creation of self that he decries. But we need less irrational commitment, even if we are committed to good things, and more character--good dispositions open to (practical) reason.

Good character goes much of the way toward securing professional reliability and competence, assuming the skill is there. It fits together with much respect for institutions, yet is portable in a way that respect in depth for particular institutions is not. It is not easy to achieve, yet is still the norm in our country, despite our concerns. It allows one to serve others, yet (and this is a source of strength) accords with self-interest, generously understood.

What the useful plumber and plutocrat share is responsibility and industry in pursuing their equal rights. This will lead some--the plumber who becomes George Meany or the privileged son who becomes Franklin Roosevelt--to pay attention to the "institutional" conditions that make possible, or might make possible, their own freedom and success.

Good character and judgment that remain allied with individual interest are not enough to secure attention to common forms, for one also needs regulation, and punishment of rule-breakers. Moreover, they do not obviate the need for reflection on what is genuinely good, or altogether displace the need for reverence, including reverence for some institutions. Yet they go a long way toward alleviating many of our institutional ills without requiring a degree of respect in depth that is at odds with our voluntarism. If most baseball players were decent, it would hardly matter that almost none shared a quasi-mysticism about The Game.

Heclo, of course, may believe some or all of my concerns are misguided or addressed sufficiently in his discussion. But I mean them to encourage argument, and not to discourage potential readers, for this fine and intelligent book surely deserves serious reflection.

Mark Blitz, the Fletcher Jones professor of political philosophy at Claremont McKenna College, is the author, most recently, of Duty Bound: Responsibility and American Public Life.

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