Every cause and faction, every institution and organization, every government and every army … is people. Even corporations are people—not just in the sense that a corporate entity can own property, enter contracts, and issue checks as any normal person can2—but in the deeper sense that every corporation is simply a collection of people.
The first lesson I take from this obvious truth is that every human organization is fallible. People can make mistakes. People are subject to perceptual errors, false beliefs, and faulty reasoning. Logic is not a natural human trait but a learned response, taught through discipline and practiced through self-examination. The courage to encounter unpleasant circumstances and yet move forward, or to accept contrary evidence and change one’s deeply held beliefs, is not found in every person. The iron will to act upon principle, even when such action will hurt one’s own party or one’s personal prospects, is rare in the human race.3
Self-interest may cause the people in any organization to ignore or hide evidence that lies in plain sight before them. Human beings are smart and skillful, and when the gift of language has become separated from logical reasoning and strict adherence to the truth, human emotion can willfully father many untruths. Of course, most people possess a level of self-awareness that permits them to observe their own actions and evaluate their own motives, but under the sway of strong beliefs and long-held values, people can learn to ignore such objectivity.
Of course, organizations may inculcate values and belief systems that oppose tendencies like self-deception and self-interest. For example, it’s a popular notion these days that government representatives and regulators can be trusted more than corporate officials operating in a free market, because the government people have dedicated themselves to public service, to the pursuit of higher goals and greater goods than people who are driven only by making money. It’s a popular notion that members of the clergy, who have dedicated their lives to their ideals and their god, will be more reliable and personally moral than those of us who have made no such vows. It’s generally accepted that members of what used to be called the professions—doctors, lawyers, and persons put in similar positions of trust—are bound by the canons of those callings and their vows to uphold them. So, for example, one might believe that the American Medical Association or the American Bar Association is a more trustworthy institution than, say, the Better Business Bureau, Consumers Union, or the National Rifle Association.
While we can hope that people who have dedicated themselves to a certain proposition and taken vows to demonstrate their loyalty will act more consistently and with greater purpose than the rest of us, that is not always the case. Personally, I trust the motives of self-interest and economic efficiency—that is, the pursuit of money or other valuables that can be squeezed out of current operations—over personal idealism.4 And I know that strongly held beliefs can blind one to other opportunities, new innovations, or the cries of innocents caught and crushed in opposition.
The second lesson I take from the truth that organizations are people is that every human organization is temporary in the greater scheme of things. True, we have some long-lasting institutions, like the Roman Empire, the Catholic Church, and the English Crown. But over time these nearly immortal organizations—and one of them has already disappeared—have seen their fortunes change, their powers wax and wane, and their allegiances shift.
In the rapidly changing world in which we now live—the product of escalating technological advances5—perceptions, capabilities, and even basic, scientific facts can change faster than the generations that hold them dear. A government that once was kept more or less honest by the logistical impossibility of steaming open the paper correspondence of the entire population or peeking into everyone’s bedroom window can now monitor and collect every telephone conversation, email exchange, and internet site visited by the average person and employ supercomputers to put together a convincing case against anyone for any kind of malfeasance or corruption. Such a government might almost make itself invulnerable and permanent, riding on the back of a collective tyranny about which the East German Stasi could only dream. Except …
That same digital connectivity and computing power enable a level of personal freedom, association, and exploration for today’s masses about which the average philosopher or scientist of the middle 20th century—let alone the average citizen—could only dream. We are engaged in a vast social experiment where established scientific truths, fanciful theories, popular perceptions, and idle rumors swirl through the polity at virtually light speed. Where it will all end, I don’t think anyone can foresee. But I don’t believe that anything so vastly uncoordinated as our hydra-headed federal government will fare any better than the Soviets or the East Germans did. The flood will sweep them away like the horses of the Ringwraiths at the Ford of Bruinen. Free discussion and free association will erode and then collapse any kind of iron rule. All forms of civil order may be swept away, too.
Lesser organizations than civilizational empires and religion orders—those built by people who are engaged in only a single purpose for a specific time—will be even more short-lived. I saw this firsthand when I worked at Kaiser Engineers, which was the engineering and construction arm of the Henry J. Kaiser organization in Oakland, California.
Henry Kaiser had a genius for recognizing opportunity—“Find a need and fill it”—and he prospered greatly with government contracts for civilian hydroelectric projects in the 1930s (Kaiser Sand and Gravel, Kaiser Cement), war matériel in the 1940s (Kaiser Steel, Kaiser Shipyards), and consumer goods in the boom time of the 1950s (Kaiser Aluminum, Kaiser Motors). He built a huge organization of like-minded people who operated with efficiency and integrity. This organization even spun off a new type of employer-based health care (Kaiser Permanente). The Kaiser organization was a marvel of both vertically integrated and horizontally diverse conglomeration.
That group of companies prospered while Henry was alive and had hope for the future while his dynamic elder son Henry Kaiser, Jr. lived. But when that young man died in 1961, the life seemed to go out of the organization. His father lived another six years, and then his other son Edgar stepped in to run the umbrella corporation, but it was not the same. When I arrived in the mid-1970s as a technical editor in the engineering unit, the breakup was already starting. Today, the various corporations are mere shadows of themselves, and the landmark aluminum-clad buildings of the Kaiser Center on the shores of Lake Merritt are now occupied by other tenants, including various headquarters departments of the University of California.
Of course, organizations can improve their odds of operating efficiently and of surviving through the way they write their internal rules and organize their internal structures. By giving more or less power to the person at the top or to the individuals at various levels of responsibility, they can become either more rigid or more flexible. The Kaiser organization was and remained the brain child of Henry J. Kaiser, and when he was gone no son or subordinate could quite fill the shoes and supply the vision. It remains to be seen whether the phenomenon that is Apple, Inc. will survive the death of its founding genius, Steve Jobs.
In my forty years inside the corporate world, I’ve seen the nature of business organizations change. Starting from the fairly rigid cultures that expressed strong values and interdepartmental discipline, like the Kaiser organization or, say, IBM in the 1950s and ’60s, I’ve seen the rise of the conglomerates through debt-driven—now called “leveraged”—mergers and acquisitions. These amalgamation schemes almost invariably put disparate organizations with different cultures together under the personal hand of a dominant chief executive, whose power and influence within the organization becomes almost pharaonic.6 And then, toward the end of my career, I saw the breakdown—or relinquishing—of such command-and-control mentality and the inculcation of “entrepreneurship,” where each employee was supposed to think and act as if he or she ran the company, or at least his or her small part of it.
I’m not saying that one system is better than the other, because each approach has its good and bad points. In a human organization, almost any structure and rule set can be made to work—for a while, and with the right sort of people. But no government or corporation or charitable institution or interest group is free of human feelings and human failings. Even those created to serve a higher power, like the church, or a greater good, like the environment, are still founded, directed, supported, and staffed by fallible, all-too-human beings.
It does matter what principles drive the founders and organizers of the organization. If the founders express fear and hatred in their purpose, like the thugs who thought up National Socialism, then the organization can hardly expect to escape damnation despite all the good works it might do. But even an organization founded on high ideals, like a church or an environmental movement, can cause great harm if those ideals are not tempered with common sense, compassion, and recognition of and respect for the lives of average human beings. Fanaticism is a kind of emotional virus that can suck the life from and pervert any good purpose. Think of the tragedy at the People’s Temple. Think of those environmentalists who consider human beings to be a kind of plague on planet Earth. Think of the Bolshevik wing of the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party, which gladly purged and executed thousands, and eventually millions, of people in order to create a paradise on Earth for all humankind.
Whenever I consider today’s worst problem areas—whether it’s mass suffering in that giant penal colony known as North Korea, the rampages of Boko Haram, or the wave of atrocities under the black banner of the Islamic State—I remember that these too are organizations of people. Not monsters or magicians, but people who think they have a valid purpose in life. It’s just my way of saying, “This, too, shall pass.”
1. With apologies for the pun on an excellent Charlton Heston movie, which was made from Harry Harrison’s even better novel Make Room! Make Room!.
2. See my refutation of the current challenge to corporate personhood in When Corporations are People Too from November 6, 2011.
3. Here in evaluating people and their traits, as so often elsewhere, I invoke Sturgeon’s Law: “Ninety percent of science fiction is crap. But then, ninety percent of everything is crap.” For how, without the crap, would we know and appreciate the good things in life? Contrast is everything.
4. See my blog Money vs. ideology from May 13, 2013.
6. I once heard it expressed that the management philosophy at Citicorp, the banking giant produced by aggressive expansion under Walter Wriston, was “the three Ws”—Whatever Walter Wants.