Tuesday, May 26, 2015
Kurt Luchs, author of “Frodo in a World of Boromirs,” an essay that appeared in the journal First Things,1 draws an analogy between the lure of Tolkien’s ring of power and the very real temptations associated with governmental power. Using this analogy, he eventually arrives at the conclusion that because power is ultimately corrupting and government is both inefficient and evil, the free market is the only way to appropriately allocate resources, and liberty is only possible when government remains largely out of the picture.
As with all such libertarian reasoning on economics and limiting government power, Luchs’s essay leaves one enormous variable out of the equation: the modern corporation. Free-market proponents invariably fail to account for the fact that the free market isn’t really free, at least not for the people who work as hired labor. Free enterprise sometimes exists between businesses (and even that is questionable), but it rarely exists within them.
In a loosely regulated market, corporations (the real possessors of Tolkien’s “One Ring to rule them all”) have free reign to do as they please. And what they please is to purchase political influence so that they can remain unimpeded in concentrating power and wealth in the hands of a few elite stockholders and executives.
The great misconception about modern corporate capitalism is that it is a democratic economic system. Most Americans have naively associated communism with authoritarianism and capitalism with democracy. They would be shocked, however, to learn that corporate capitalism is, in practice, as incompatible with republican democracy as is the enforced cooperation of communism. Why? It all boils down to ownership and control of capital.
Ownership is the core issue that differentiates all economic systems. The ground-level assumption of corporate capitalism is that individual ownership of capital should be unlimited, resulting in one class of people that owns the time and efforts of another class. This assumption gives shape and direction to our economic system. When we peel away all its window dressing, however, corporate capitalism isn’t really about free markets or free enterprise, as the ultraconservatives and libertarians would have us believe. It is about ownership of capital. Period.
Because of the belief in unlimited ownership, most corporations (and most small businesses too) are authoritarian institutions. As such, they are at odds with our political system and our social ideals. Businesses may resemble monarchies, oligarchies, plutocracies, dictatorships, aristocracies, fiefdoms, or theocracies, but almost never could they be identified as democratic republics. The only exceptions would be worker-owned cooperatives and other businesses that share ownership with their employees.
Some may balk at this blunt description of our very undemocratic economic system, but consider the perspective of Michael Ventura:
As a worker, I am not an “operating cost.” I am how the job gets done. I am the job. I am the company. . . . I’m willing to take my lumps in a world in which little is certain, but I deserve a say. Not just some cosmetic “input,” but significant power in good times or bad. A place at the table where decisions are made. Nothing less is fair. So nothing less is moral. . . . It takes more than investment and management to make a company live. It takes the labor, skill, and talent of the people who do the company’s work. Isn’t that an investment? Doesn’t it deserve a fair return, a voice, a share of the power? . . . If the people who do the work don’t own some part of the product, and don’t have any power over what happens to their enterprise—they are being robbed. You are being robbed. And don’t think for a minute that those who are robbing you don’t know they are robbing you. They know how much they get from you and how little they give back. They are thieves. They are stealing your life.2
What Ventura is claiming is that most businesses in America are not in the least democratic. They are authoritarian institutions that do not give workers a real say in how their time and efforts are employed. Nor do they give workers a fair share of the profits they help create. Most executives treat labor as they would any other resource. But if we want to create an economy in which people are treated not as human resources but as human beings, with all the rights guaranteed by the Constitution, we must transform businesses from authoritarian organizations into small-scale democratic republics.
In order to have economic democracy, we must promote limited and widespread ownership. This is not a new idea. It is certainly not un-American. Thomas Paine declared, perhaps naively, that “commerce is capable of taking care of itself,”3 but he also condemned “all accumulation . . . of property, beyond what a man’s own hands produce.”4 This idea of limited, universal ownership persisted well into the nineteenth century. A mid-century labor leader, Robert MacFarlane, declared that “small but universal ownership” was the “true foundation of a stable and firm republic.”5 During this era, it was generally agreed that freedom could not thrive in a nation of hirelings.
But a nation of hirelings is exactly what we have become. The belief that small but universal ownership is necessary in a truly free society soon withered before the rising sun of corporate conquest, and the focus of those interested in improving the total human picture shifted from equal ownership, which was given up as a practical impossibility, to a vain (and still ongoing) attempt to create a viable substitute for true equality—in short, a counterfeit.
Huge corporations, says historian and social critic Christopher Lasch, as well as the wage system and a more and more intricate subdivision of labor made it pointless to restore the independence of individual proprietorship. Instead of giving the wage earner a piece of the action (meaning capital), “enlightened social policy” aimed instead to make his job secure, his working conditions tolerable, and his wages equitable. “Hardly anyone asked any more whether freedom was consistent with hired labor. People groped instead, in effect, for a moral and social equivalent of the widespread property ownership once considered indispensable to the success of democracy.” But redistributing income, guaranteeing job security, and turning the working classes into consumers are nothing more than pale substitutes for ownership or real control of capital; for none of these strategies produce “the kind of active, enterprising citizenry envisioned by nineteenth-century democrats.”6 The consequence is that our authoritarian business arrangements tend to overwhelm our political democracy as well, since political influence is available only to those who have the means to purchase it.
The forsaken idea of widespread, limited ownership was also at the heart of the many utopian and communitarian experiments of the nineteenth century, including the failed attempts Joseph Smith and Brigham Young orchestrated among the Mormons. But we live in a different world today—so much so that many modern Americans would be surprised to learn that the definition of the American Dream is not “a mansion, a million dollars, and twenty milligrams of Ambien before bedtime.” The dictionary defines it instead as a “social ideal that stresses egalitarianism and especially material prosperity.”7 Yes, one of our uniquely American social ideals combines the notions of prosperity and equality, suggesting that they are not incompatible after all.
We live in a democratic republic, which, while imperfect, is better than any other political system humankind has yet devised. Within this democratic republic, we enjoy a wide variety of freedoms as well as having a voice in electing our governmental representatives. This is a right our forebears and many other oppressed peoples around the globe have been willing to fight for. Does it not seem odd then that we so willingly embrace economic authoritarianism?
William Greider identifies one fundamental element of freedom that the free market does not disperse very broadly: capital. “The problem,” says Greider, “is not that capital is privately owned, as Marx supposed. The problem is that most people don’t own any.”8 One might wonder how we can even call a system capitalism when only a small minority of the population can be considered capitalists. And please don’t confuse stock ownership through pension plans or 401k’s with being a capitalist. Recent statistics show that about 70 percent of stock is owned by the top 5 percent of the population. The top 10 percent own 81 percent of all shares. A staggering 53 percent of Americans do not own any stock, and the trend is not favorable for the noncapitalists.9 One fairly recent development is that excess profits that companies used to reinvest in their operations or share with workers in other ways are now being used to buy their own stock back on the open market. This increases the value of the shares owned by top executives and shareholders, further concentrating wealth and power in society.
Corporations often pay lip service to the idea of workplace democracy, but there is a world of difference between employee “empowerment” and worker ownership. A great deal has been written about giving employees a “sense of ownership,” but what on earth is a “sense of ownership”? Ownership is ownership. A “sense of ownership” is a mirage, a lie business owners and executives perpetuate to make their employees feel better about the inherent injustice and inconsistency of their organizational relationships.
How a business might actually share ownership with the workers is a subject for another day, but when all is said and done, ownership should reflect something similar to what we ideally experience as citizens in a democratic republic. Employees should have a voice in choosing their leaders and have input in major operational decisions. Anything less is authoritarianism.
1. Kurt Luchs, “Frodo in a World of Boromirs,” First Things, October 2008. Apparently, this essay is now available online only to subscribers.
2. Michael Ventura, “Someone Is Stealing Your Life,” Utne Reader, July/August 1991, 78, 80, reprinted from the L.A. Weekly.
3. Thomas Paine, The Political Writings of Thomas Paine (Granville, Middletown, N.J.: George H. Evans, 1839), 398; http://books.google.com/books?id=42AaAAAAYAAJ&printsec=toc#PPA398,M1.
4. Moncure Daniel Conway, ed., The Writings of Thomas Paine (New York and London: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1895), 3:340, http://books.google.com/books?id=1ToPAAAAYAAJ&printsec=titlepage.
5. Christopher Lasch, The True and Only Heaven: Progress and Its Critics (New York: Norton, 1991), 205.
6. Lasch, The True and Only Heaven, 207–8, 224–25.
7. Webster’s Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary (Springfield, Mass.: Merriam-Webster, 1990).
8. William Greider, One World, Ready or Not: The Manic Logic of Global Capitalism (New York: Touchstone, 1997), 416.
9. Stephan Richter, “Stock Ownership: Who Benefits?” Salon, September 19, 2013, http://www.salon.com/2013/09/19/stock_ownership_who_benefits_partner/.
Tuesday, May 19, 2015
Last week I started with a story about an East German official who appeared on West German television and claimed the Wall had been built not to keep East Germans in but to keep capitalism out. There was indeed a shred of truth in this lie. Though the Berlin Wall was constructed to stem a tide of refugees (more than two thousand of whom were leaving the East every day in 1961), the Wall also separated two economic systems, and the Cold War was very much a war of ideologies. At least in part, the Berlin Wall was constructed to keep capitalism out. Though freedom and democracy were denied the people behind the Iron Curtain, authoritarian rule of itself was not the original reason for the oppression of entire populations. Oppression was merely a sad by-product of the prevailing economic ideology’s need for survival. The people, had they possessed the power, most certainly would have tossed communism out once they had experienced its supreme practical flaw—namely, that it couldn’t provide them daily bread. It therefore became imperative to the new elite that the people be denied that power.
The survival of the Marxist ideology thus became a moral imperative to its true believers (and also to those who sought power and privilege through confessing their belief in it). Instead of admitting the theoretical flaws and practical limitations of their system, the communists actually resorted to a philosophically indefensible, totally uncommunist method of preserving the ideology. They attempted to enforce cooperation, a terribly ironic solution to the practical shortcomings of their ideology.
Marx, it should be remembered, didn’t envision the totalitarian regimes that sprouted from his own version of dialectical materialism. He merely predicted a revolution of the working class against the capitalist class, which would ultimately result in a classless society ruled by rational economic cooperation. (It should be noted that democracy was to be an inevitable part of true economic cooperation, hence the repeated insistence among dogmatic communists that their system was indeed democratic in nature. The official name of East Germany, after all, was the Deutsche Demokratische Republik. But enforced democracy is as much an oxymoron as is enforced cooperation. And enforcement is exactly what happened.)
When it became apparent that the idealistic end result of the working-class revolution would never materialize on its own, the communists forced the people into a cooperative, classless mold. But this plan had two small defects: first, you can’t force cooperation; and, second, you can’t enforce a classless system without setting up a separate, privileged class of enforcers. So, in a strange twist of logic, the communists tried in vain to transform the common people into a classless, well-fed, “democratic” society by taking away their liberty and at the same time establishing a new bureaucratic aristocracy.
The root cause of all this unanticipated authoritarian rule, however, was the communist ideology and the perceived necessity to make it work somehow. And, quite logically, if it was to work, it had to be separated from capitalism, its opposite, for the two are quite incompatible. Capitalism had to be eliminated, fenced out, and the people had to be corralled, fenced in. The oppression was merely a tragic by-product of the blind devotion of a few to a flawed ideology and their perceived need to force others to accept that ideology. The ideology was sacred, beyond the reach of public questioning, certainly beyond public rejection, and also beyond the reach of obvious facts. (It is sobering to note that in America today we see shades of this same sort of dogmatic devotion to a political ideology that is being required by one party to the extent that facts no longer matter. This is also a form of oppression, mental oppression, that is in some ways more frightening than the physical oppression brought to bear behind the Iron Curtain.)
One point of this analysis is to show that the Cold War was not a battle between freedom and oppression, as some have portrayed it. It was a conflict between incompatible economic theories, capitalism and socialism on the one side and communism on the other. Thus, it is interesting to note that as economic reform (a forsaking of communist principles) moved forward in the former Soviet Bloc, the oppression eased. And there is a reason for this. When communist leaders gradually admitted that their economic system was terribly flawed, that it couldn’t feed its own slaves, they also recognized that their moral imperative was both embarrassingly stupid and outrageously immoral. The economic reforms themselves were proof of this recognition. Of course, authoritarianism has re-entrenched itself to a certain degree in Russia and some of its former Soviet satellites in recent years, but not for the same reason as under communist rule. Authoritarianism is very difficult to root out of any human society, but particularly in countries addicted to corporate capitalism. (More on that in future posts.)
To wrap up our little examination of communism, however, let me simply point out that almost all but a few remaining communists in the world have finally had to face the fact that their ideology is bankrupt. Consequently, the Cold War is now history; East Germany no longer exists; the Berlin Wall has been sold piece by piece, in good capitalist fashion, as souvenirs; the Soviet Union has disintegrated; China has embraced various market reforms; and communism, as it existed in the last century, is all but extinct. For good or ill, the Cold War is long past, and communism lost.
It is instructive, however, for us to understand exactly how the Cold War ended. In spite of our national pride (Republicans call it American exceptionalism) and Ronald Reagan’s eagerness to take credit, we must resist the temptation to assume that we beat them. We didn’t. Communism collapsed from within—a point that should cause some introspection on our part. You see, even though the people behind the Iron Curtain were fed up with political oppression, even though many of them protested against authoritarianism, the Cold War’s deciding battles were not fought on political battlefields. They were fought instead in the grain fields, factories, and marketplaces of the respective ideologies—and the communist economic system lost the Cold War for the simple reason that it collapsed first. It was the more flawed, the more inefficient.
In short, communism died from self-inflicted wounds, corporate capitalism was declared the victor by default, and freedom and democracy were always secondary issues. Indeed, it is possible to argue that liberty and democracy were actually hostages and casualties of the Cold War, prisoners who dramatically escaped because of the incompetence of one side, only to be slain by mercenaries on the other. The survivors of the collapse of communism had a unique opportunity to actually embrace economic democracy and freedom. Instead, because they didn’t understand the options, they chose to replace one authoritarian system with another.
Tuesday, May 12, 2015
In 1976, while I was serving a mission in West Germany, I was told about an East German official who appeared on television and gave the standard communist party line in trying to explain the reason for the Berlin Wall. He apparently insisted with perfect sincerity that the Wall hadn’t been built to keep the East Germans in. It was there to keep capitalism out. When I heard of this I laughed, of course. But in the intervening years I have decided that, as with most lies, this one also contained a shred of truth. And that shred of truth concerns the real nature of what came to be called the Cold War.
* * *
One sunny afternoon in August 1984, my wife and I wandered the streets of East Berlin. We witnessed the somber, hopeless faces of the city’s few pedestrians. We marveled at the cheap-looking Trabants that motored loudly up and down the streets and farted foul fumes out of their tailpipes. We passed soldier after soldier, each fully armed, each exuding an almost tangible assurance that the Cold War was as real as any hot one. We watched people stand in lines a block long to buy produce. We tried to spend our allotted fifty Ostmarks in the city’s most prestigious department store but couldn’t find even a souvenir we wouldn’t have thrown away. We finally bought a cheap noodle press and a metric measuring cup. We ate at a cafeteria where the food tasted as unappetizing as it looked, then stopped at an ice cream parlor on Unter den Linden that was already out of practically everything on the menu by 4 p.m. By evening we were more than eager to return to the hustle and plenty of West Berlin. We left with most of our Eastern currency and absolutely no illusions about communism.
I can still remember later that evening visiting a little Slavic restaurant in a quiet corner of Neukölln and how ecstatic I was over a tossed salad with tomatoes and green peppers. “I could never get a salad like this in East Berlin!” I exulted. That one afternoon behind the Iron Curtain had made me see the world with new eyes. I marveled at how many stores and shops there were in the West, and at how fully stocked they were. In fact, because of that one afternoon, I can perhaps dimly imagine what the East Germans must have felt that November day five years later when the Wall came tumbling down. I can understand their desires for reunification and prosperity. I can understand their naïve assumption that capitalism is right—because communism is definitely wrong.
I watched with intense interest during the latter part of 1989 as Eastern Europe retreated from communism and authoritarianism. Having lived for four months in West Berlin, that one-time island of hope in a sea of despair, I was overwhelmed by what I witnessed on television on November 9, 1989—East and West Berliners dancing atop the Wall of Shame, holes being pounded in that concrete barrier by people wielding everything from sledge hammers to ice picks, the suddenly released floods of revolution flowing through those gaping holes like water through a burst dam, the giddy intoxication of reunion as long-oppressed East Germans clasped hands once again with their prosperous West German brothers and sisters.
And yet in the ensuing weeks and months, many in the East, not entirely convinced that materialism was more noble than poverty, criticized the masses, suggesting that they were motivated not by love of freedom, but by greed. Now, this was an ugly accusation, yet it is an accusation that all believing capitalists must repeatedly explain away. “Is it wrong to have enough to eat?” they exclaim incredulously, misunderstanding the accusation. “Is it wrong to be able to purchase a few luxuries? Is prosperity bad?” they mock. “It’s certainly not as bad as poverty!”
But the question is not whether wealth and prosperity are better or worse than poverty and destitution. The real question is whether our modern form of capitalism is right simply because communism is wrong. And, oddly, in all the celebrating over the demise of communism, few in the United States seemed willing to question the fundamental moral validity of America’s version of capitalism, which can more accurately be labeled corporate capitalism. Certainly communism and corporate capitalism are opposites. But two opposites can both be wrong. Just because stealing from the sick is detestable doesn’t make stealing from the healthy commendable. Stealing of any kind is wrong.
For some reason, though, the triumph of the democratic West in the Cold War seems to have rendered this question immaterial. Of course capitalism is right, we naively boast. Freedom and democracy triumphed, didn’t they? Capitalism conquered Eastern Europe and even killed the Soviet Union. And capitalism is the economic manifestation of freedom and democracy, isn’t it? Isn’t the free-market system synonymous with freedom?
Perhaps, but only on a very superficial level. The simplistic nature of these questions can be illustrated by looking more carefully at the recent conservative campaign in the United States against socialism. Republicans, who are religiously devoted to free markets, deregulation, corporate welfare, and tax cuts for the wealthy, have also sounded the warning cry against socialism, particularly any tampering with the health-care industry that approaches socialized medicine. How many times have we heard that socialism is evil, just one step, or perhaps even a half-step, away from communism? How often have the conservatives lashed out loudly but irrationally against the government takeover of the automobile industry, against the bailout of Wall Street, against Obamacare?
But is socialism really just a half-step away from communism? Remember the contrast I drew between the scarcity of goods in East Berlin and their abundance in West Berlin, between the oppression in the dismal East and the freedom in bustling West? Yes, this was a contrast between two opposing systems. But it was not a contrast between East Germany and America; it was a contrast between communist East Germany and socialist West Germany. West Germany in the 1980s was a solidly socialist country, with socialized medicine, high marginal tax rates, a statutory guarantee of four weeks’ paid vacation every year (compared with none in America), and a substantial social safety net. Yes, West Germany was a welfare state. It also had one of the strongest economies and highest standards of living in the world. It was strong enough to absorb the crumbling mess that was East Germany and still remain the strongest economy in Europe. Even today, Germany is strongly socialist and yet has only recently been overtaken by China in total exports; and, like China, Germany is a net exporter.
I have lived in Germany. I have friends there. They do not consider themselves deprived of freedom or democracy. They are prosperous. Their country has less income inequality than ours, and comparatively little poverty. Indeed, they would probably argue that because of their socialized health care, they are more free than we are—free to get the care they need, free from worry about high costs, free to go to any doctor they choose, free from the prospect of bankruptcy due to a serious illness or tragic accident. They would never trade their socialized medicine for the American health-care system (if we can even call such chaos a system), for their system ranks higher in quality than ours while costing only half as much as a percentage of GDP. And now you can even get tomatoes and green peppers on your salad in East Berlin. Socialist East Berlin.
So, to return to the question at hand, did freedom and democracy really win the Cold War? Or were they merely secondary issues in the real conflict? And anyway, does winning prove anything about rightness or wrongness? I suppose before we tackle these questions, we first ought to take a closer look at the nature of the Cold War, because our misunderstanding of its outcome has validated in most American minds the moral correctness of our current system of corporate capitalism. That will be the topic in part 2.
Tuesday, May 5, 2015
As mentioned last week, one of the structural tendencies of bureaucracy is centralization. So, where does this tendency to centralize power and control come from?
Order and Freedom
In his influential book Small Is Beautiful, British economist E. F. Schumacher elaborates on the tension between order and freedom that exists within virtually all organizations:
Nobody really likes large-scale organisation; nobody likes to take orders from a superior who takes orders from a superior who takes orders . . . Even if the rules devised by bureaucracy are outstandingly humane, nobody likes to be ruled by rules, that is to say, by people whose answer to every complaint is: “I did not make the rules: I am merely applying them.”
Yet, it seems, large-scale organisation is here to stay. Therefore it is all the more necessary to think about it and to theorise about it. The stronger the current, the greater the need for skilful navigation. . . .
In any organisation, large or small, there must be a certain clarity and orderliness; if things fall into disorder, nothing can be accomplished. Yet, orderliness, as such, is static and lifeless; so there must be plenty of elbow-room and scope for breaking through the established order. . . .
Therefore any organisation has to strive continuously for the orderliness of order and the disorderliness of creative freedom. And the specific danger inherent in large-scale organisation is that its natural bias and tendency favour order, at the expense of creative freedom.
We can associate many further pairs of opposites with this basic pair of order and freedom. Centralisation is mainly an idea of order; decentralisation, one of freedom. . . .
The larger an organisation, the more obvious and inescapable is the need for order. But if this need is looked after with such efficiency and perfection that no scope remains for man to exercise his creative intuition, for entrepreneurial disorder, the organisation becomes moribund and a desert of frustration.1
We should probably view the tension between order and freedom, between centralization and decentralization, through the lens of the question suggested in an earlier post: Which is more important, the individual or the organization? If the answer is the organization, then order and centralization should weigh more heavily than creative freedom and decentralization. If, however, the individual is more important than the organization, then freedom and decentralization should take precedence.
This question is particularly relevant in the Church, because of its hybrid nature. While the wards and stakes are in many ways a fine example of decentralization, in other ways centralized bureaucracy has been the predominant pattern at both the local and the general level for decades. Not surprisingly, some of the Brethren have expressed varying degrees of discomfort with the inevitable fruits of centralization. For instance, in a talk given at a regional representatives seminar in1990, Elder Boyd K. Packer, comparing Church leaders to a team of doctors, stated: “While we all seem to agree that over-medication, over-programming, is a critically serious problem, we have failed to reduce the treatments. It has been virtually impossible to affect any reduction in programs. Each time we try, advocates cry to high heaven that we are putting the spiritual lives of our youth at risk. If symptoms reappear, we program even heavier doses of interviews, activities, meetings, and assessments. . . . In recent years I have felt, and I think I am not alone, that we were losing the ability to correct the course of the Church.” He then suggested that “the most dangerous side effect of all we have prescribed in the way of programming and instruction and all, is the overregimentation of the Church. This overregimentation is a direct result of too many programmed instructions.”2 In other words, too much order, too much control, too much centralization.
Similarly, in a 2004 presentation to a worldwide audience of ward and stake leaders, Elder Richard G. Scott quoted a 1940 memorandum from the First Presidency that conveyed their concern about the regimentation that can occur in the Church if leaders are too directive or programs too prescriptive. “The work of the Church, in all fields, is standing in grave danger of being regimented down to the minutest detail. The result of that will be that not only will all initiative be crushed out but that all opportunity for the working of the spirit will be eliminated. The Church has not been built on that principle. In all their work, the Auxiliaries must not only give opportunity for initiative, but . . . must encourage it.”3 The fruits of centralization were apparent in 1940, and they certainly have not diminished in the intervening seventy-five years. Indeed, the bureaucracy grew more dense and difficult with the implementation of Correlation in the 1960s, and by the turn of the millennium it had become so cumbersome that it yielded the candid admission from President Gordon B. Hinckley that I quoted last week: “As thrilling as [Church] growth was, he abhorred bureaucracy and at times felt himself swimming helplessly against a mounting tide.”4
But it has not been just President Hinckley or a few of his apostolic colleagues who have expressed frustration over Church bureaucracy. As I have talked with various people about organizational issues (and as I have listened to or overheard others speaking spontaneously), I am amazed at how many have had some sort of unpleasant encounter with the Church bureaucracy. I have a friend, for instance, who was looking for a job several years ago and applied for a position as a sales rep with a large computer manufacturer. He happened to meet the man who had vacated the position and asked him why. The reason was that his major account was the LDS Church, and it was so frustrating dealing with the Church bureaucracy that he quit his job and looked for something less stressful. Those who have worked inside the bureaucracy have an intimate acquaintance with the difficulties centralization and heavy top-down management can create. Schumacher’s observation that too much emphasis on order produces organizations that are “moribund and a desert of frustration” certainly rings true to me based on my seven plus years with the Curriculum Department. And just this week I sat in a meeting at BYU with a former Church Magazines colleague whose feelings about working at Church headquarters mirror my own.
So, is it possible to defuse bureaucracy? Certainly. But it involves a reshuffling of values, perhaps even a discarding of certain notions that have become extremely entrenched in the organization. To start with, organizational values such as malleability (requiring people to conform to organizational needs), strict obedience to institutional edict (never being allowed to question anything that comes down the line of authority), and paternalism (treating employees like little children) need to be abandoned. The desire for members to exercise creative freedom needs to outweigh the desire for order (or control). Trust is imperative. Allowing the democratic aspect of the Church to blossom again after decades of being chased into the wilderness by the theocratic impulse is also necessary. These are all topics I’ve addressed in recent weeks. They are also incredibly difficult changes to make, especially for an institution that has carefully and intentionally nurtured a top-down culture, but they are imperative if Church leaders really want to tame the bureaucracy. If, on the other hand, maintaining central control and enforcing cultural and behavioral uniformity end up being too dear to give up, then we must simply resign ourselves to dealing with an increasingly intractable bureaucracy. What we must recognize, however, is that this is a choice. We are not (contrary to President Hinckley’s sentiment) helpless in the face of a mounting tide of bureaucracy.
Change in the Wind?
This discussion may not be totally pie-in-the-sky wishful thinking. The wind may actually be shifting slightly. The fact that Church leaders have recognized the dangers of overregimentation is significant. Changes in the new Church handbooks are encouraging. An Ensign article introducing some of these changes stated: “The handbooks provide greater simplification and flexibility to avoid two great dangers, according to President Boyd K. Packer, President of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. The first is the danger of regimenting the influence of the Holy Ghost out of Church programs. ‘It is a spiritual work that we are about,’ he said, ‘and a spiritual work must be guided by the Spirit.’ The second is the danger of ‘establishing the Church without establishing the gospel.’” The article goes on to say that the changes are “meant to reduce the complexity of Church programs and allow some local adaptation where necessary without sacrificing the uniformity of policies, procedures, and programs”5—a perfect description of the uneasy tension that exists between creative freedom and order, between centralization and decentralization. This is of course a delicate balancing act—allowing local adaptation while preserving uniformity—but the fact that some space has been allowed for change is an acknowledgement that Church leaders understand this inherent tension and the dangers of its elimination.
How these changes play out in practice will be interesting to observe, because, as Elder Packer suggested, bureaucracy does not easily yield territory it has won, nor does it readily loosen its grip on the lives of those it controls. As Schumacher points out, the larger an organization grows, the more inescapable and obvious becomes its need to maintain order. Not surprisingly, the compulsion to preserve order (and uniformity) can overwhelm the impulse toward freedom and creativity and toward the unpredictability they inevitably generate.
The Spirit, I would suggest, fosters creativity and is generally unpredictable. But in a highly structured and hierarchical organization, it is very difficult for those responsible for maintaining order and uniformity to trust lower-level leaders and rank-and-file members to receive their own inspiration regarding programs and structures that can deliver gospel blessings most effectively in a variety of cultural settings around the world. Needless to say, American corporate structures and methods are an awkward fit for most cultures (even, I would suggest, for most parts of the United States). So, the big question is, can the Church allow sufficient decentralization so that local Saints can experience the creative freedom of following the Spirit, no matter where it takes them? This all comes back to the issue of trust. Joseph Smith claimed that he taught people correct principles and allowed them to govern themselves. Whether he was as consistent in achieving this ideal as he liked to think is questionable, but it certainly is an ideal worth pursuing.
1. E. F. Schumacher, Small Is Beautiful: A Study of Economics as if People Mattered (London: Blond & Briggs, 1973), 226–277, italics in original.
2. Boyd K. Packer, “Let Them Govern Themselves,” an address delivered at a regional representatives seminar, reprinted in Sunstone 79 (October 1990): 28–33, quotation at 30.
3. “Memorandum of Suggestion,” March 29, 1940, 4; quoted in Richard G. Scott, “The Doctrinal Foundation of the Auxiliaries,” Worldwide Leadership Training Meeting, January 10, 2004. This memorandum was likely written by J. Reuben Clark, since President Grant had suffered a stroke the previous month and remained largely incapacitated until he died in 1945, and Second Counselor David O. McKay was seriously ill with a lung ailment. Quinn, J. Reuben Clark, 83.
4. Sheri L. Dew, Go Forward with Faith: The Biography of Gordon B. Hinckley (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1996), 408. Undoubtedly, President Hinckley was intending the colloquial and not the formal definition of the term. See note 33 above.
5. “New Handbooks Introduced During Worldwide Training,” Ensign 40, no. 1 (January 2011): 74.