The Failure Cycle

23 April 2012

Monday


Can a pattern be discerned in the failure of major institutions? This is question I ask myself today, and in asking the question in a systematic way — i.e., by proposing such a pattern and examining its potential explanatory power as well as its weaknesses — I find that it raises more questions than it answers. This is promising, in so far as questions suggest further inquiries.

I have written about system failure in several posts, especially in Complex Systems and Complex Failure and Induced Failure in Complex Adaptive Systems. However, these posts came at the problem of failure from a systems perspective, and what I have in mind now is something more in line with my conception of agency (as I have detailed his in several posts, e.g., Agent-Centered Metaphysics).

For the purposes of the failure cycle below, I ask that the reader at this point only think of the institution in question as a nation-state (for simplicity’s sake), and I will refer to this institution as “a state”:

1. A state with weak institutions begins to fail.

2. Institutional weaknesses are exploited by criminal enterprises, exacerbating state failure.

3. Failure becomes so acute that outside powers intervene.

4. Intervention ameliorates the immediate and acute failure, but leaves a state with weak institutions vulnerable to failure.

I will call these four stages of state failure incipient failure, criminal exaptation, outside intervention, and partial amelioration (if I wanted to be tendentious I could call these last two steps nation building).

As I wrote above, even to suggest a pattern of failure poses more questions than it answers. Here are, respectively, some of the immediate questions that occur to me in this context:

Incipient failure — Why are state institutions weak? Can this systemic weakness be traced back to an anterior cause? Why do institutions fail? It would be helpful here to make a distinction between chronic institutional failure and traumatic institutional failure. Some institutions are in a state of near-chronic failure, while other institutions are able to function until presented with a traumatic break with routine to which the institution cannot respond. These are different forms of institutional failure, with different causes. However, they are all linked together in subtle ways in history. A traumatic failure may initiate a failure cycle in which institutional failure becomes chronic and the self-fulfilling source of its own failure.

Criminal exaptation — What kind of criminals exploit institutional failures? To what end? Power? Money? Mischief? What kind of criminal enterprises flourish in the interstices of failing state institutions, and which criminal enterprises hasten state failure? There is a profound difference between the criminality of ideologically motivated terrorists and financially motivated drug traffickers. Is either more likely to hasten state failure? Must we distinguish here between internal and external criminal elements? Transnational criminal elements are like corporations with capital and expertise that can be brought in from the outside in order to exploit the conditions of a failing state. Almost every state has its internal mafiosi, who profit from partial failure but who would be adversely affected by catastrophic state failure that brings about outside intervention.

Outside intervention — What triggers acute institutional failure? What triggers intervention? Who intervenes? Why? What is the desired outcome of intervention? What is the actual outcome of intervention? How long does intervention last? Is there a clear distinction between intervention and occupation?

Partial amelioration — Why does intervention on the pretext of amelioration of failed institutions almost never result in strengthened institutions? Why does partial amelioration of institutional failure so rarely result in an improving base on which further progress can be made toward robust institutions? Why does it seem to be impossible to create strong institutions de novo? Burke and Joseph de Maistre have an obvious answer to the latter question, which I discussed in Fairness and the Social Contract. Why does a newly founded or radically reformed state have such difficulty in crafting robust institutions that can develop and grow and strengthen? After all, existent states today with strong institutions had to start at some time in the past. Have historical changes made it more difficult to found a state than was the case in the past?

As I observed above, a nation-state is only one kind of institution that can fail. For our present purposes, the nation-state is interesting because it is an institution of institutions. However, any sufficiently large institution will be an institution built up from subordinate institutions. An ideal theory of institutional failure would address any and all possible institutions. But set that aside for a moment, and I will make a few more remarks about state institutions more generally, which can include any large political institution of our time, from nation-states to city-states like Singapore to non-state entities like NGOs.

To speak in term of the strength of institutions invites a certain facile misunderstanding. One of the most persistently seductive models of robust institutions is that of the law and order state. Many politicians make a fetish of policing, and equate the strength of a state with the strength of its legal institutions, especially the strength of the enforcement arm of legal institutions. This idea coincides with state power being the ability of the state to impose its will by force. This is an all-too-familiar image, and it is rooted in the geographically defined nation-state’s need to enforce the territorial principle in law in order to provide proof of its own legitimacy.

The need for heavy policing is a sign of lack of social consensus. Where there is a strong social consensus, very little policing is needed. People can largely go about their business unmolested because they are largely doing what comes naturally to them. Thus it is easy to see that the most robust institutions are those that emerge from social consensus. In so far as policing emerges from a lack of social consensus, policing is the sign of a weak state, not a strong state.

The strongest states with the strongest institutions will be those states that are able to honestly discern the social consensus of the peoples of the state, and to formalize this social consensus in their constitution and legal institutions. In this way, the laws of the land would reinforce a social consensus already extant, and the social consensus would reinforce the laws. This virtuous cycle of strong state institutions invites us to speculate on its mirror image, which would be the vicious cycle of failing state institutions: a lack of social consensus undermines the law, while the law’s inability to codify a social consensus undermines the possibility of social consensus.

With these reflections it would now be possible to restate my initial failure cycle in terms of state structures that fail to reflect social consensus, for example:

1. A state lacking social consensus in its legal structure begins to show evidence of institutional failure.

2. Institutional weaknesses are exploited by separatist elements violently pursuing a state structure that will institutionalize their preferred social consensus, exacerbating state failure.

3. Failure becomes so acute that outside powers intervene in the attempt to stop the break up of the state.

4. Intervention ameliorates the immediate and acute failure, but leaves a state with institutions still weak because still lacking social consensus and therefore vulnerable to failure.

This is indeed one form that state failure can take. If outside powers intervene in the attempt to force Azawad to rejoin with Mali, this would be a simplified, schematic summary of Mali’s state failure. However, this is an overly specific account, and I would prefer a more general analysis that is more universally applicable to political failure. This more specific account answers some of the questions that I posed in my exploration of the more general account, but it answers them only by narrowing the focus to a particular failure due to a particular form of criminality (which, but the way, is one of the SCO’s “three evil forces,” and thus not the best example).

Further reflection on the questions that I have posed here will be necessary to arriving at the requisite analytical clarity that might make possible a definite formulation of the failure cycle.

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