Institutions as Corrupted Promises

Promises, as a pledge of one’s efforts and other resources for another, represent the pinnacle of humans’ moral commitments. Yet a promise reveals our deep commitments most clearly when uncoerced and freely discharged. Thinking of social institutions as standing promises simultaneously highlights the desirable aspects of institutions and yet provides the grounds for their criticism.

Promises are agreements to send forth (or withhold) something for something. Promises differ in terms of method of discharge: some promises are proximal, to be carried out right now; others are distal, to be carried out in the future. Some are indefinite; they might require repeated efforts or repeated satisfaction. The relata (things related) in the promise also can differ: a promise might relate one person through their deeds to another, or a promise might relate a “sort” of person (a person in a role or situation) to another sort. A few examples can illustrate these differences clearly.

Proximal, Binary Promise: Suppose A and B are roommates, and it is A’s night to do dishes, but A is running late for an appointment. A promises B that if B does the dishes tonight, A will do them the next two times it is B’s turn. A gains in convenience now, while B gains by escaping one night of dishes. In addition to these consequentialist considerations, the promise also presents a non-consequentialist consideration: honoring a promise demonstrates the promiser’s value commitments. In doing the dishes, A can demonstrate that B and B’s friendship are valuable to A.

Indefinite, Standing Promise: Suppose a group of roommates forms a pact that whenever someone cooks a meal for the roommates, the roommates who eat the food will do the dishes for the cook. This promise introduces the “role” relata – whichever people eat the food (the first role) owe the cook (the second role) the doing of the dishes. Eaters can “opt out” by not eating. Cooks can opt out by not cooking food for others. So, when the eaters eat, they enter a standing promise to clean the dishes. The parties swap food for labor and might demonstrate their commitment to friendship in the process.

Institutions – as social practices – share crucial features of the above second example. In such promises, someone in Role 1 (R1) does something for someone in Role 2 (R2) whenever it is appropriate. These promises, as expressed, are indefinite: R1 and R2 are specified only by role, so they do not refer to particular individuals until the facts are applied to the case. The time frame is indefinite as well, as “whenever appropriate” could mean “many times” or “once” or “until death.”

If taxation is an institution, then someone (R1: a taxpayer) will do something (pay taxes in amount A) to someone (R2: a tax recipient) whenever appropriate (at tax season). If any amount of the taxes reaches the recipient, then the taxes are, to that extent, a good. Many institutions involve goods, but goods can be outweighed by other goods and by evils and by other considerations. Taxation, for instance, provides goods to some groups and for some activities the taxpayer might repudiate. Some taxes will do more bad than good; some will express despicable values. For instance, some state interventions might simultaneously provide needed medical services and enable drone strikes on innocents.

The fact that the paying of taxes is at best what Aristotle would call a “mixed” action, as opposed to a fully voluntary action, makes institutions, as they exist in industrialized states, more heinous than many promises we reluctantly (but legitimately) make.1 Not supporting taxation often sends the message that one does not support any end the taxes might (allege to) attain, even if the participant supports them when voluntary. For instance, one might simultaneously support voluntary donations (even as a moral duty) while opposing state-enforced redistribution.

This coercive component of institutions reduces many promises from things of beauty to the grotesque. For instance, when B agrees (as above) to do A’s dishes, this behavior demonstrates the friend’s value commitments. By contrast, suppose B were forced to honor A’s suggested promise or face harassment, fines, potentially imprisonment, and physical abuse, enforced by an armed gang. B’s doing the dishes would now seem a betrayal of the B’s deepest commitments, and it would seem absurd to count B’s actions as indicative of B’s deepest moral self.

If institutions are like standing promises, then they likely do some good. Yet the costs are of two types, both likely severe. First, institutions as a matter of empirical fact likely disproportionately harm those who are least able to resist the institutions. Second, institutions likely demonstrate values those involved do not endorse, so institutions force a sort of moral self-betrayal upon those subject to them.

  1. Lysander Spooner noted that, “All governments, the worst on earth, and the most tyrannical on earth, are free governments to that portion of the people who voluntarily support them” (No Treason No. 2. VI.). Spooner spoke of the voluntariness component, but our voluntary actions are most indicative of who we are, in the core of our moral being.
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