By the time I was barely a teenager, I had learned an unpleasant lesson that it appears some people are rather slow in learning. That lesson was that institutions are vulnerable to takeover, and are not often worth the faith that we place in them. It is not surprising that people often seek in institutions a way to preserve the efforts of people after their death, but the lure of an institutional legacy all too often leads to some sort of institution capture where people take over institutions who desire to actively pervert and destroy what others have built up and to siphon off those resources for themselves. We ought to think of institutions the way that we think about the luxurious tombs of ancient pharaohs, as hoards that are good mainly for attracting tomb robbers rather than anything that is going to have a lasting benefit to the world as a whole.
Institutional capture is not only something that is a risk of building institutions, but something that seems to be a certainty when one is designing institutions to serve godly and moral goals. The reasons for this ought to be clear. Those who build institutions generally have a desire to serve some sort of genuine need that is present within the world around them. People have certain abilities and create companies that serve needs based on those talents. People settle a wilderness and see the need for educational institutions to train up future generations of people to be learned as they are or desire to be. People go somewhere and find a need to build up churches and granges and other institutions that serve the communities that they are forming. All of that is well and good, for the first generation and perhaps for a few more after that. But before too long, the institutions that are built have money, have prestige, and have some sort of cultural power, and this power attracts those who do not want to serve others but want institutions to serve them, and these people all too easily finagle their way into positions of authority where they twist the institutions to no longer serve godly means but rather their own corrupt ones. And at that point, those institutions are useless as far as any useful purpose is concerned.
Why do people, in the face of the continual failure of institutions, still seek to build institutions in the hope that this time it will be different and this time it will have lasting good? Why is it that good people build up treasures that will simply be squandered by decadent scoundrels in the generations to come when the institutions that they build are taken over and corrupted to serve immoral purposes? Why is it that people continue to have faith in institutions and to credit them as if they still were acting according to their original designs and goals rather than the twisted motives that they now serve under new management? It is hard for us to see such efforts wasted, and yet one cannot help but look around at the outside world and see that no institution that survives a long time maintains its original purposes, but rather sees those purposes become twisted by the influence of later generations that come to replace the founders and those directly educated and inspired by them. Seeking immortality through building institutions is an illusion that simply serves to enrich–at least temporarily–those corrupt people who seek and obtain institutional power for their own selfish gain.
Perhaps we would do better to understand the special vulnerabilities that institutions have. Human institutions must be managed and run and staffed by human beings. We are mortal beings, only capable of having a working life of a few decades before death or poor health removes us from the workforce. during that time we not only have to learn about the ways of the institutions we serve and are a part of, but have to teach others to follow our own example after that. We are engaged in a great game of telephone, taking insights from those who have sought to teach us and then pass those on to someone else, and when this goes on generation after generation, things are very likely to be lost along the way.
On top of this, once an institution gains enough prestige to hold worthwhile property and to make a decent income, the power that the institution has will attract the ambitious and corrupt to seek positions of leadership in those institutions, and once some such people gain a foothold in key positions, they will seek to encourage and develop tyrants like themselves rather than the cultivation of devoted servants to the well-being of others, which is at any rates far more rare and far more difficult to cultivate than selfish ambition and the love of throwing one’s weight around. Under such conditions, the capture of institutions and their corruption and decline from their original efforts is inevitable. The best that one can hope for under such circumstances is periodic institutional revival under those who want to return to original purposes and goals, but to expect long-term persistence of godly authority in any institution is an immensely foolish and reckless bet to make. When will we learn from the lessons of the past and present?