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Understanding the Delusion of Institutional Competence

March 25, 2013 4 comments

One of the most peculiar beliefs exhibited by human beings, especially when acting in large groups, goes something like this..

“Institutions that appear to be big, powerful or long-lived are especially competent and capable at what they claim to be doing.”

But is that true? Are such ‘successful and persistent’ institutions really competent and capable, or are other factors at work? What makes some institutions bigger, more powerful and long-lived than others? I am trying to compare and contrast what can be observed in the real world to what many people (even the ‘smart’ ones) apparently believe. So let us begin by asking a few simple and related questions- Do institutions, successful or unsuccessful, really give a shit about so-called ‘sacred’ concepts like meritocracy? Do they actually hire and promote the most competent and visionary? How do they become successful, bigger and long-lived?

I have noticed that most human beings desperately want to believe that we live in a ‘just world, because the alternative to that simple-minded belief is pretty depressing. But the universe we live in is not bounded by our models about its functioning. Therefore most people have to regularly perform extensive and often unconscious revisions to the narratives they want to believe. Almost nobody wants to admit that they made incorrect, hasty or bad decisions. Even fewer want to admit that they were short-sighted, greedy, stupid, cowardly, arrogant or driven by the decisions of people around them. It is psychologically much easier to be wrong like almost everybody else that right like the heretic who thinks differently.

Of course, being wrong like everybody else has never been particularly desirable or profitable. The quality of human existence throughout most of history and pre-history was so poor precisely because people preferred to be wrong and stupid like everybody else.However, people tend to have a short and selective memory about that sort of stuff. I would go so far as to say that we celebrate the bad decisions, simple mindedness, deprivations, stupidity and shortsightedness of yesteryears under the guise of tradition.

So what does all of this have to do with belief in institutional competence?

The answer lies in how people explain the surrounding world to themselves. If you believe in a ‘just world’ driven by meritocracy and existing for a higher purpose, you might also believe that apparent success in that world is due to real or intrinsic superiority and competence.

For example- The longevity of the Catholic or Orthodox Churches could then be interpreted as a sign of the intrinsic superiority, competence and timelessness rather than luck, chance and the result of human stupidity and credulousness. Similarly the dominance of Microsoft in certain sectors of the software market could pass as a sign of intrinsic competence and guile rather than a series of lucky breaks and mistakes by potential and often superior competitors.

Another example is the supposed superiority of the american socio-political system and ideologies. It is easier for most people to believe the ideologies and behaviors which supposedly make it so, are superior as long as the system can deliver some token and highly publicized signs of its ability. But as we have seen in the last decade, but especially in the last 5 years, it is increasingly obvious that the whole system and ideologies underlying the facade were rotten, defective and full of lies and fake promises.

Sooner or later, all human institutions run out of the ability to repair cracks in the facade and put on impressive-looking shows to distract the willingly gullible majority. However most people will never lose their belief in institutions till they literally collapse in front of their eyes, and even then a few will never accept that they were willing participants in their own deception. Why wake up from a dream that almost everybody around you also seems to enjoy? But a dream is just that- a dream.

What do you think? Comments?