There’s a well-known professional services group at PricewaterhouseCoopers who have just released their annual study of the priorities of CEOs. At the top of the list is over-regulation. The report says that climate change did not make it into the top nineteen. Again, the CEOs are doubtless not stupid individuals. Presumably they run their businesses intelligently. But the institutional stupidity is colossal, literally life-threatening for the species.
Individual stupidity can be remedied, but institutional stupidity is much more resistant to change. At this stage of human society, it truly endangers our survival. That’s why I think institutional stupidity should be a prime concern.
How might it be possible to make institutions less stupid?
Well, it depends on what the institution is. I mentioned two: one is the government in control of a nuclear capacity; the other is the private sector, which is pretty much controlled through rather narrow concentrations of capital. They require different approaches. With regard to the government situation, this requires developing a functioning democratic society, in which an informed citizenry would play a central role in determining policy. The public is not in favour of facing death and destruction from nuclear weapons, and in this case we know in principle how to eliminate the threat. If the public were involved in developing security policy, I think this institutional stupidity could be overcome.
There’s a thesis in international relations theory that the prime concern of states is security. But that leaves open the question: Security for whom? If you look closely, it turns out it’s not security of the population, it’s security for privileged sectors within the society – the sectors who hold state power. There’s overwhelming evidence for this, which unfortunately I don’t have time to review. So one thing to do is to come to an understanding of whose security the state is in fact protecting: it’s not your security. It can be tackled by building a functioning democratic society.
On the issue of the concentration of private power, there’s also basically a problem of democratisation. A corporation is a tyranny. It’s the purest example of a tyranny you can imagine: power resides at the top, orders are sent down stage by stage, and at the very bottom, you have the option of purchasing what it produces. The population, the so-called stakeholders in the community, have almost no role in deciding what this entity does. And these entities have been granted extraordinary powers and rights, way beyond those of the individual. But none of it is graven in stone. None of it lies in economic theory. This situation is the result of, basically, class struggle, carried out by highly class-conscious business classes over a long period, which have now established their effective domination over society in various forms. But it doesn’t have to exist, it can change. Again, that’s a matter of democratising the institutions of social, political, and economic life. Easy to say, hard to do, but I think essential.
Stupidity comes in many forms. Generally it is easier to spot when other people are being stupid and harder to notice when we ourselves are being stupid, in the sense of relying on unexamined assumptions, entrenched mental habits or poor reasoning. Yet we’re all guilty of these sometimes. Trying not to fool ourselves in these ways is central to philosophy.