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Thinking Seriously about Institutions On Thinking Institutionally by Hugh Heclo

Spring 2010 - Vol. 52, No. 2

On Thinking Institutionally by Hugh Heclo
(Boulder, CO: Paradigm Publishers, 2008)

ANDREW TAYLOR is Professor of Political Science at North Carolina State University. He teachers courses in American politics and is currently finishing a book about the floor in Congress.

Hugh Heclo's superbly crafted newbook promotes what he admits to bean unfashionable idea: the institution. Thepast half-century has been most unkind tothose discrete cohering entities, both formaland informal, that "represent inheritances ofvalued purpose with attendant rules andmoral obligations." Today, Americans almostuniversally denigrate institutions, includingthose of which they are members. Whetherit is marriage, Congress, Rotary clubs, lawyering,or chivalry, the institution is undersiege.

The reasons are numerous. Heclo providesa litany of malfeasance within presidentialadministrations and Congress sincethe late 1950s. Although the rest of Americanhistory is hardly devoid of similar episodes,he argues that mass communicationsand our interconnectedness exacerbate thepublic impact of such events and, havingbeen spun by corporations and politiciansfor the last seventy-five years, we are innatelyskeptical of the mea culpas and attempts toaccount for failure that inevitably follow.Cumulatively, these kinds of things helpexplain the "performance-based" source ofour pervasive distrust of institutions.

Attacks on institutions are "culturebased"too. They come from our hyperdemocraticpolitics that do not respect anykind of differentiated social role. They stemfrom the Enlightenment with its obsessivefocus on the self, its unshakeable confidencein human reason, and its belief that an institutionhas no value beyond that which anindividual can squeeze from it for personalgain. They have roots in our educationsystem that has designated institutionsas, at best, annoying encumbrances and,at worst, oppressive tools of the past. Studentsare taught to believe what they likeand express themselves as they see fit. Evenpeople understood to be conservatives—atleast in the way we conceptualize politicalideology today—assail institutions. Freemarketeconomics places a premium onself-interest and assumes institutions stifleinnovation and entrepreneurship. Indeed,one of the most interesting implications ofHeclo's book is a somewhat novel understandingof the principal cleavage in today'sconservative movement. It is the esteem inwhich its adherents hold institutions thatcan be used to distinguish them from oneanother.

Despite today's inhospitable environment,institutions are indubitably worthsupporting. They provide reference pointsin an uncertain world. They tie us to thepast and present and oblige us to thinkabout others. They furnish personal assistanceand institutionalize trust. They giveour lives purpose and, therefore, the kindof self-satisfaction that only the wholesalerejection of them is supposed to provide.

How do we protect and promote them?Heclo says that first and foremost we mustlearn to think institutionally. This is verydifferent from thinking about institutionsas scholars do. It is not an objective andintellectual exercise. It is a more participatoryand intuitive one. What is more, it isnot quixotic. To think institutionally youdo not have to live slavishly by an institution'srules, become an institution's chiefsupporter, or heroically buffer an institutionfrom the vicissitudes of the outsideworld. Instead, thinking this way meanssomething less, perhaps something easier.You should "distrust but value." To thinkinstitutionally you need a "particular sensitivity"to or an "appreciative viewpoint"of institutions. To be more specific, theexercise moves our focus away from theself and towards a recognition of our debtsand obligations to others.

Heclo writes with particular reverenceabout many of the Founders of this countrywhen fleshing out the idea of thinkinginstitutionally. He provides an interestinganalysis of Thomas Jefferson's and JamesMadison's thoughts on usufruct, for example.Whereas Jefferson believed stronglythat neither those who lived in the past northose who will live in the future can bindthe decisions of a community's currentinhabitants, Madison addressed the issueof generational independence using institutionalthinking. To him, past, present,and future are woven into the same fabric.

Heclo also rejects arguments made byscholars like Charles Beard who believedthe Framers of the Constitution wrote thedocument to advance their own economicinterests. Instead, he asserts, they wereacutely aware of the assistance they hadbeen provided by those who had pushedfor liberty before them—especially thoseGreeks, Frenchmen, and Englishmen whoforged the canonical thought about freedom.They knew that what they weredoing would influence tremendously thelives of millions of people who would beborn well after their deaths. They understoodtheir actions would influence millionsof their contemporaries across theWestern world. In other words, there wasa vibrant sense among the Framers thattheir actions had significant implicationsbeyond the time and space they occupied.

Heclo is highly critical of rational-choicetheory's understanding of institutional foundationand development. This school ofthought—believed by many to be regnantin the social sciences—views institutions asthe product of the interests of a few of thepowerful or a majority of the weak. Institutionsare adapted because they no longermaximize these interests in the current stateof the world. Rational choice, therefore,clearly undercuts institutional thinking andthe normative ramifications that come withit. But it is more problematic than that. As amatter of theory, Heclo sees it as too reductionist.As an empirical matter he views it asfrequently just plain wrong.

Moreover, rational-choice theory hasalways been presented with the conundrumof institutional service. Why do institutionssurvive when all of their members are selfinterested?Why would someone join aninstitution when its interests will oftenbe at odds with his own? Why would anindividual powerful enough to establish aninstitution permit it to serve the interestsof others? The stock answers have beenthat institutional membership and particularlyleadership are incentivized. Seniorsjoin AARP not for the purposes of fellowshipand participating in public debatesabout Social Security and Medicare policybut for the insurance, pharmacy, and othersubsidies and benefits members enjoy. Professors'academic careers must essentially besuspended when they assume the administrativetasks that a department needs to haveperformed if it is to survive. In return, theyare paid more than their colleagues of similarrank and ability. The Speaker of theHouse of Representatives and the chairsof the body's committees are better positionedto raise campaign money, run forhigher office, and get their bills throughthe legislative process. This is payoff forserving the institution and protecting itspowers and prerogatives from competitors.To think institutionally, then, is to dosomething much more than provide individualswith incentives to be part of andpromote institutions. It calls on them tomodify their behavior. In this way, Heclochallenges rational choice's assumptionsabout institutional maintenance vigorously.

The second way institutions are supportedis by acting institutionally. One canonly act institutionally if one first thinksinstitutionally. Heclo argues that actinginstitutionally has three components.The first, "profession," involves learningand respecting a body of knowledge andaspiring to a particular level of conduct.The second, "office," is a sense of dutythat compels an individual to accomplishconsiderably more for the institution thana minimal check-list of tasks enumeratedwithin a kind of job description. Finally,there is "stewardship." Here Heclo is gettingat the notion of fiduciary responsibility.The individual essentially takes thedecisions of past members on trust, acts inthe interests of present and future members,and stands accountable for his actions.

Heclo is not particularly optimistic thatwe will change and begin thinking institutionallyin a systematic way. Thinkinginstitutionally is a lonely pursuit. Its practitionersare unappreciated and considerednaive. They expect to be taken advantageof by those who care nothing for institutions,only for themselves. But that doesnot mean we should not do it. Heclomakes it very clear. A world where morepeople think and act institutionally wouldbe a much better place.

On the day I finished reading thisbook, the New York Times published anarticle about Wootton Bassett in southernEngland. The village is on the roadfrom the Royal Air Force base in Lynehamto a morgue in Oxford. Every nowand then, hearses drive down its HighStreet carrying the bodies of British soldierskilled in action in Iraq and Afghanistan.In a spontaneous but conscientiousmanner, villagers and the local chapterof the Royal British Legion have takento informing the community about thedate and time of these repatriations—theofficial term for the return of these servicemento the United Kingdom. Hundredsof people then drop what they aredoing and stand along the road, in completestillness and silence, as the coffinsgo by. Participants say they are there toexpress their gratitude to their fellow citizensand reflect upon the sacrifice madeby members of the armed services. Theydo not want any attention. According tothe Times reporter, they believe they arebehaving as any decent person would. InHugh Heclo's words, they are thinking,and acting, institutionally.