Do institutions have a will that transcends, and can run contrary to, those who create and staff them?
In the early seventies my high school participated in a program that allowed students to access the Illinois Institute of Technology computers for instructional purposes. In a room off of the school library sat two Teletype 33 terminals, one of them equipped with foam telephone ear cups and a modem. We would code our programs onto paper tape and then, during our school’s allocated time, feed them into the IIT mainframe for compiling and executing. The second thing I learned after how to get the mainframe to understand that I was sending it a program, was that computer programs have a will of their own that is totally apart from my will. My will is to get the answers to the formulas I am trying to solve. The program’s will is to follow the next instruction. Occasionally, to the programmer’s embarrassment and the rest of the computer club’s amusement, an errant program would set off in a Quixotic attempt to consume all of our allocation of CPU clock time, empty the box of paper and wear out the printer ribbon, in an infinite pursuit of pointless activity. An example of this might be if I told the program to stop when a particular value reached “25”, but then inadvertently instructed it to count up in units of two. Since the counter stepped from “24” straight to “26”, it never did reach “25” and the program tripped merrily along, consuming all of the resources it could acquire. Later I was employed working on a Burroughs computer. It had a lovely missile-launch style red button labeled “CLEAR MEMORY” shielded underneath a spring-loaded, hinged, clear plastic cover. When programs ran amok, we could lift the cover and administer an instant memory wipe to the CPU, returning control to the system operator.
How does computer programming pertain to Institutional Will? Institutions, whether they are small temporary government programs, or über institutions like a constitution, are nothing but computer programs executing procedural instructions on a societal mainframe. Just like electronic programs, institutions can evade their constraints and wildly consume resources, until a counter-procedural force stops them.
Years ago I promised to Veryretired, a long time denizen of the Samizdata commentariat, an essay on why civil disobedience is wrong. He has yet to receive that essay from me – and he never will, because I encountered the problem of Institutional Will. When institutions, like errant electronic programs, slip their intended constraints, it is only through disobedience to procedural instructions on the part of human individuals that they can be stopped.
I am not saying that institutions have any moral presence: as an individualist I believe moral presence and agency must be assigned exclusively to individuals. Institutions do, however, have a will that transcends the wills of the individuals acting within them. How can this happen?
Legislation is horrifically complicated in these later times of our republic. But even worse, much of it is “enabling legislation” that puts in place institutions that set their own parameters in pursuit of an ambiguously defined goal. Whether through complexity or non-specification, there exists the possibility that institutional “programmers” will create a runaway institution, freed from all constraints.
Usually institutional errantry is the result of a complex interplay of processes, where no single individual understands them all, but it is possible to demonstrate it with a simple hypothetical case. Imagine that an institution’s governance puts in place a policy called “Policy F”. “Policy F” specifies that anybody who challenges “Sub-chapter XII(b)” is to be terminated from any further participation in that institution. Perhaps because a different sub-committee moved “Policy F” to page 220.127.116.11(A(c)) of “Sub-chapter XII(b)”, the rule has been put firmly in place without open and thoughtful review. Eventually somebody reads down to page 18.104.22.168(A(c)) and says “Hey! Wait a minute! This is a really bad idea!” At this point, in order to comply with the rules, he is immediately expelled from the institution. After all, “rules are rules”, “of laws and not of men”, etc. This happens a few more times, and that institution is soon disproportionately staffed with people who by nature are disinclined to challenge the system. An institutional mindset is forming that diverges from that of the institution’s creators.
In any living organism, some mutations are beneficial and some are not. In an institution, procedural mutations that serve to perpetuate the institution’s existence will be selected for, whereas the absence of self-perpetuating mutations will allow an institution to eventually fade, as the underlying need it serves fades. As time passes, institutions form and dissolve, but some of them will mutate to serve their own continuance. After enough time passes, we will be (in fact, are) overwhelmed by the accretion of institutions whose sole remaining function is to perpetuate their own existence. It is not that procedural mutations will lean in that direction, only that the long-term institutional survivors are the ones whose mutations prioritized institutional perpetuance over the original purpose their creators assigned to them.
To be clear, my point is that Institutional Will is, and can be, neither benign nor malevolent, merely that it exists. Institutional Will is to amorally follow the decision tree; to apply at every decision point the specified action and to proceed onward to the next decision point. Whether in a computer program or in a major governmental institution, this process will continue until it either terminates itself or is terminated in defiance of its internal processes. When an institution is no longer beneficial and yet refuses to be terminated, that defiance must sometimes take the form of civil disobedience. Civil disobedience is the opposite of unquestioningly following orders. Civil disobedience is a sometimes necessary application of one’s moral agency, required of anyone capable of knowing right from wrong.
So in case you were wondering, Veryretired, I have reversed myself on civil disobedience. Sometimes it is not merely acceptable, it is imperative to defy errant institutions that have rejected their Constitutional bindings and are trampling original intent. It is about the survival of individuals qua individuals in the face of an institutional leviathan.