Ebola and America's epic institutional fail

And just in case that sounds like a set-up for a libertarian manifesto in favor of privatization, note that institutional failures haven’t been limited to government. From the banks and other financial institutions that nearly wrecked the global economy in 2008, to the sex-abuse scandals that have been rocking the Catholic Church for over a decade, to General Motors’ deadly ignition-switch cover-up, big organizations, whether private or public, have been behaving badly and ineptly.

That’s troubling news, because the modern world needs big, bureaucratic institutions to function. Whereas pre-modern societies rely on personal, family, and tribal networks, modernity rationalizes and formalizes human interactions. That leads to a quantum leap in equality, fairness, and competence, and an accompanying decline in the petty corruption that plagues pre-modern social systems.

But it also generates new problems of its own. The enormous size and complexity of large bureaucracies — built to manage societies of enormous size and complexity — can make them sluggish, inefficient, and prone to stupidity, with one part of the organization unaware of what other parts are doing. This can also set up conditions for chronic blame-shifting when things go wrong. “Mistakes were made” is the kind of evasively passive construction that only a bureaucrat or a corporate tool could utter with a straight face.