The three stages of Institutions

    In the course of their decline, institutions go through three stages.  In the first stage, institutions are a crystallization of a purpose or goal of a group.  The institution is not separated from the underlying purpose and the understanding of that purpose.  

    In the second stage, the institution becomes dominated by rules.  The formal rules which previously had taken second place to the underlying purpose now take precedence.  This stage is the stage of legalism.  If the original institution was good, those who made the rules were well motivated and further, if the rules themselves are good, clearly stated, and respected, then this stage may not be that bad.  In fact, it may actually have much good.  But the weakness is that when the rules have taken primacy, the institution can be manipulated by changing rules and procedures.  

    If this goes far enough, then we get to the third stage, when the institution is co-opted either to do something different from or even opposed to its original purpose.  In this stage, the rules that previously were interpreted legalistically, but fairly, are now selectively (and dishonestly) interpreted to serve whatever the new agenda.  

    All institutions will not progress through these stages.  Some may be simply be outright destroyed in the first two stages.  Or an institution may be taken immediately over by force rather than gradually.  Or an institution may be revitalized by recovering the original impulse or another purpose before reaching the third stage.   

    However, these three stages are useful because this is the path that the institutions in the West have followed over the past century (with roots going back before this).  

    An example of this in a concrete sense is education.  For most of human history, education was in the first stage.  People learned directly from family or community members or through apprenticeship or through schools that were directly connected to the purpose of passing down knowledge and values.  For instance, schools in which teachers were directly paid by parents to teach children or schools connected to churches such as the Cathedral schools during the Middle Ages.  

    Then in the second stage, education was viewed as a "functional system", eventually becoming a free-floating system such that whatever happens in a building called a school is deemed education.  And finally, we have the current stage where education is increasingly being used for cultural subversion, in direct opposition to its original purpose to pass on culture.      

    In a recent post, Bruce Charlton discusses alternative insitutions and the difficulty of building them under the current circumstances.  If institutions are primarily institutions, then they will only succeed by luck.  In other words, if people believe that rules, procedures, and techniques alone will prevent institutions from being co-opted, then this is a mistake.  Rules, procedures, and techniques can be helpful so long as they are at the service of the original purpose and the people in the institution stay true to that purpose.     


  1. This seems valid. Nowadays, many institutions (such as new and publicised NGOs/ charities/ pressure groups) are founded at the third stage - dishonest and cynical from the very beginning, with all functionality a calculated lie from those at the top.

    In terms of history, the second stage of functional institutions was a brief blip - although we tend to regard it as natural, It is possible that it is intrinsically unstable and cannot last. The third stage is parasitic - so that can't last either So (assuming we survive the mass parasitism being practiced on functionality, which I rather doubt) either we revert to the first stage - or maybe there is something new and other - a 'fourth stage'?

    1. I agree that the third stage is unstable.

      I believe the second stage is unstable as well, though in some types of societies it might last for hundreds of years and the changes it does undergo would be slow. And some of those would be changes in practice with claims that things are the same, like how the Shogun was the de facto ruler of Japan but claimed to be ruling on behalf of the Emperor.

      A fourth stage is an interesting idea. Perhaps that would be similar to Final Participation - similar in some ways to the first stage but consciously chosen. A revival of the original purpose of the institution but because consciously chosen, different in some ways.


The real AI agenda

    On a post  by Wm Briggs, about artificial intelligence, a commenter with the monniker "ItsAllBullshit" writes:           "...