The default state of an institution is to become a permanent thing dedicated to its own self preservation

As a culture we tend to assume an institution will keep existing by default. It’s “sad” if a company goes out of business, a department is shut down, etc. People associated with the institution are incentivized to keep it alive and prestigious. It looks much better to be a former employee of a rich and powerful company than a fallen one.

The incentives to keep an institution alive regardless of its outcomes is made worse in situations where it’s hard to fire people. Permanent employees can become people whose comfortable jobs are dependent only on the institution continuing to exist rather than achieving anything. And since people tend to bring on people like themselves (A players hire A players and B players hire C players) eventually all the people in the institution will become like that the same way volatile gas boils off and leaves more sedate gas. It’s generally harder to fire people in the government so this phenomena is especially apparent in governments.

Philanthropies dedicated to a specific mission become caught in a trap where they can eliminate their own reason for existing. Sub-optimal monopolies are the business world instantiation of this phenomena.

It’s possible that default temporary members of an institution can help combat this phenomenon. Universities have managed to stay pretty constant for hundreds of years Intergenerational culture is like a standing wave possibly because professors had to be graduate students before that. DARPA Program managers have a tenure of four to five years and Publishing feels more like hardware development than software development has managed to stay high quality for decades.

This may have been the founding fathers’ thought behind the temporary congresspeople and executives in the United States government. Sadly, the US government also demonstrates that the temporary nature is clearly not sufficient. Could you make an argument that the ratio of elected to unelected people in the government shifted and led to the change? The same has been true in universities - the number of people who weren’t default temporary graduate students have exploded.

This note was originally The default state of a government entity is to become a permanent thing dedicated to its own self preservation - very hard to fire people but it’s actually true of large businesses and philanthropies as well.

Is this related to why people stay in bad marriages and relationships?


From Mark McGranaghan

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