22 January 2007

The institutional goal par excellence: self-perpetuation

I'm not going to comment directly on the latest British Airways strike, or on the way it's being (mis)reported; (though this is colourful: "British Airways workers are to strike for the right to take time off for a cold or ingrown toenail, without it counting as sick leave."). I'll just use it as an excuse to point out that all big institutions have one thing in common: their objectives are different from those of the people they are supposed to represent. Sometimes the two sets of goals are in conflict with each other. In this respect trade unions are no worse, or better, than religious bodies, government agencies, schools, universities or large corporations.

How can this be, and what are the consequences? With large institutions of any kind there is a disconnect between the attention that those lower down (ordinary people) can give to those higher up the hierarchy. Trust is not always misplaced, but in practice it works best within families, extended families, small communities and small organisations. Large organisations, including big government, tend to be remote organisations. And the consequences can be disastrous.

Large organisations have as their over-arching goal that of self-perpetuation. This can not only conflict with the goals of individual trade union members, churchgoers or taxpayers – those who fund the institution – but also with the individual goals of the people working in the organisation. Most senior politicians the world over, I am sure, would do anything to avoid a nuclear exchange or global environmental catastrophe – in their capacity as individuals. But how seriously are they confronting these challenges as politicians?

They may think they don’t have the answers, but that should not stop them issuing Social Policy Bonds targeting peace, or environmental stability. Under a bond regime, politicians would contract out the achievement of social and environmental goals to the private sector.

If politicians targeted the outcomes that mean most to their citizens; well, that would be a change from their usual business of trying to maintain power, but it would have its own rewards and, - who knows? – might actually result in their staying in power anyway.

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