Sunday, March 18, 2012
A friend of mine recently completed a book entitled "The Mormon People."
I haven't finished it yet, but one idea in the book has really caught my attention. Mormons are progressive. That is, they believe in the power of institutions to improve people and society. Once it is stated in this way, it seems obvious. The LDS church is a behemoth that does a very good job at creating a standardized religious experience in nearly every country of the world. And it seems to work. Mormons are healthy and productive, and I don't think it is purely self-selection.
But I am skeptical of progressive ideals. I tend to believe that giant organizations are out of touch. Grand initiatives have unintended consequences. Change is necessary, and efficient change is most often the result of "market" interactions, that is, free transactions that happen at the level of individuals.
However, I also realize that top down organization is efficient in some circumstances. In fact, one of my favorite articles of all time is the Ronald Coase classic, The Nature of the Firm, in which he tries to analyze the conditions that determine how large an organization can get before the benefits of organization are outweighed by the costs. The basic idea is that organization can reduce transaction costs at the micro level, but that decision makers become too far removed and inadequate to operate effectively.
In general, when there are two competing theories I think it is a good idea to ask ourselves: "are there conditions under which each theory is true?" This applies to individualism vs progressivism, as well as classical vs Keynesian economics, and direct instruction vs discovery.
In my recent post on the purpose of the education system I called public education a progressive institution. I meant this as a bad thing. But surely there is an optimal mix of top down organization and local flexibility. I suppose I just think we are erring on the side of utopian institutionalism. Our ideal of No Child Left Behind is stifling, and I don't just mean the law that goes by that name.