When Chicago Cubs second baseman “Ryno” Sandburg was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 2005, he told the audience, “I didn’t play the game right because I saw a reward at the end of the tunnel. I played the game right because that’s what you’re supposed to do: Play it right and with respect.” The aphoristic glint of “playing it right with respect” caught my eye. Political scientist Hugh Heclo saw it, too, and wrote a book about it.
Heclo’s book, On Thinking Institutionally, examines how our individual lives are shaped by institutions, and how institutions link generations in a “structure of human interaction.” Heclo admires Sandburg for having a “deferential regard for something beyond one’s self”—namely, the institution of baseball. And like Sandburg, Heclo is critical of the likes of Sammy Sosa and Barry Bonds for being so self-interested that the institution accrues no benefit from having them as players. They may have batted well, but they didn’t play right.
I was never a baseball player, but reading Heclo’s book has me thinking about the other institutions structuring my life willy-nilly. My list is as long as anyone else’s: church, high school, college, military, marriage, parenting, journalism, government, political parties and so on. I feel like the hub of an elaborate Venn diagram of overlapping institutions. Open to conjecture is my value to each of them. I would like to think I have more in common with Sandburg than with Sammy Sosa or Lance Armstrong. Having served on many teams, committees, work groups and the like, I have my own feelings about those who “play it right and with respect” and those who don’t.
In the latter category, I exclude the slackers, shirkers and screw-offs who infiltrate every organization. I include those who “don’t like chewing but sure can swallow,” to borrow a metaphor from folk singer Tom Rush, and those whose devotion to oneself is so consuming that they evoke characters of an Ayn Rand novel. Granted, these egotists are often the standouts, the high performers, the home-run hitters, but they have no loyalty to the organization. In fact, they exploit it for the sake of self-promotion. I believe any member of any organization, business or government agency has an obligation to contribute to the corporate good. To ignore the obligation is to be dishonorable.
That is not a fashionable position to espouse in 2013. It has been 50 years since hippies railed against the oppressive “establishment,” but not much has changed since. Institutions are still held in low esteem. If anything, matters seem to have gotten worse. The Catholic Church is wracked by scandal, Congress is dysfunctional and corporate greed trickles down from the CEO’s office. Only the military has gained in trust. Individualism is the order of the day. Moreover, “to distrust those in institutional authority is to be a savvy, sophisticated person,” writes Heclo. In other words, an anti-establishment mindset is as cool today as it was in the 1960s.
Heclo swims against the current by advocating for much more “institutional thinking,” regardless of how “undramatic, unassuming and unfashionable” it is. He draws a distinction between thinking about an institution and thinking institutionally. To think about an institution is to view it from without, not from within, Heclo writes. Thinking about the institution of marriage from an outsider’s perspective is much different than the thinking of a spouse.
Illustrating the point is the public disagreement between environmental activist Tim DeChristopher and his attorney, Ron Yengich. After his release from prison in April, DeChristopher disparaged the “corrupt legal process” that convicted him in 2011. Yengich responded in a May 7 letter to the editor, published The Salt Lake Tribune, in which he took issue with his client’s characterization of the justice system. “Having fought against injustice in our flawed system for 40 years,” Yengich wrote, “it is my observation that most everyone does their best under difficult circumstances.” Coming to the defense of a “flawed” institution as he does, Yengich exemplifies an institutional thinker who plays the game right with respect. DeChristopher’s allegiance is to other institutions, notably the sparsely populated one called civil disobedience.
Larger by far is the federal government. Its centuries-old institutional values are grokked by Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, as strict a constructionist as Justice Antonin Scalia. If Lee were to read Heclo’s book, he would probably consider himself an institutional thinker. He would be wrong, I think. Sure, Lee has ex officio, insider status, but he doesn’t play the game right. Oddly enough, the senator spends his days attacking the very institution he fought so hard to join. Lee and his fellow doctrinaire Republican senators, Ted Cruz and Rand Paul, lose sight of the overriding function of government—to govern! Their obstructionist showboating dishonors the institution because it impedes such values as reasoned debate, consensus and compromise from being actualized.
Heclo asserts that every institution is an “inheritance of valued purpose with attendant rules and moral obligations.” Institutions are passed from one generation to the next. The problem, according to Heclo, is the neglect of institutions caused by the prevalence of careerism. Nowadays, it’s all about “me,” despite the duty to be loyal and engaged with “us.” There is too much “take” and not enough “give.” The organization pays a price for it. Thinking and acting institutionally is something we should take more seriously, Heclo writes. “Learn about it, appreciate it, teach it and act on it.”
Were we to do so, the highest compliment you could receive on departing an organization would be: “You not only did the job well, you did it right and with respect.”