The early 20th century brought with it monumental shifts in culture. Those living in this period of time experienced the emergence of F. Scott Fitzgerald, Hermann Hesse, Hemingway, Tolstoy, Winnie-the-Pooh, Aldous Huxley, T.S. Eliot, Robert Frost, Margaret Mead, Franz Kafka, Kahlil Gibran, and the whole surrealist movement, to name a few. It was indeed an explosion of immensely influential art. But equally important at that time was the emergence of a distinct kind of institutionalism.
Max Weber, Frederick Taylor, Frank Goodnow, and Woodrow Wilson are four people I wouldn’t be surprised if you didn’t know a whole lot about. You should though. Here’s why: these gentlemen were massive forces when it comes to defining 21st century Western institutionalism. By institutionalism, I mean the rules and policies that define how we run organizations as a society.
Weber and Taylor helped define modern conceptions of bureaucracy. Weber was focused on how specialization leads to efficiency and Taylor was about managing scientifically through measurements and tracking workforce processes. Goodnow and Wilson, on the other hand, we’re about reforming how we conduct democracy. They said that there needs to be a distinction between the folks who say what policies should be and those who actually put policies in place.
So why does this matter? Because over time our conceptions of what a properly functioning organization looks like have evolved to be necessarily handled by specialists and professionals. These are called technocrats. I’m becoming increasingly convinced that this has led to an abandonment of the collective governing of our communities, resulting in less community ownership and less recognition of the benefits of democracy and understanding of the value of democratic norms.
To put it differently, it’s entirely possible that we’ve given up on democracy by handing over authority to “experts” who might not do what’s in our best interest. Moreover, we can’t know if they’re doing something that’s in our best interest because the wide array of topics that go into modern governing makes it difficult to navigate institutions to make a difference.
We are then faced with a question: do we want a well functioning, boring government that we don’t understand or do we want a messier government that we can more easily influence?
I’m confident that my conceptions about this issue will evolve over time. I’m not yet an expert on the evolution of Western institutionalism, bureaucratic governance, and the relationship between organizational innovation and democratic reform, but I will be eventually.
As I’m writing this, I can sense that there’s more to the story. To some degree, the specialization is necessary, and it is possible to make a difference if you know how. You don’t necessarily have to know all the institutional aspects. If you have enough people show up and express that they care about some issue, then it’s likely you can be heard, especially in a smaller city.
But it’s tough. The world does seem to have become increasingly complex, and it’s hard even for a highly educated governing pro to make a rational decision.
The central question, I suppose, is how do we better prepare our citizens to handle the responsibility of self-governance despite accelerating societal complexities?