This morning I was reading Joe Konrath’s post about the Mystery Writers of America, a professional organization which charges $95 per year to belong but doesn’t seem to do much beyond perpetuate itself. It’s not the point of his post, but Konrath appears mystified that things should be this way.
In fact, it is a fundamental law of the universe that no matter what the original plan was, institutions once established exist for the sake of their continued existence. Committees never disband. Taxes never expire. Administrative costs take an ever-larger slice of the budget. Toll roads never finish paying their costs. Charitable organizations never eradicate diseases or social pathologies. The evangelist’s work is never done. The message is continually preached but never sufficiently understood.
For-profit businesses are not immune. Why do money-losing operations continue to operate? Because employees and vendors are making money as long as the business continues to operate. Such a business will eventually implode once its assets are completely exhausted, but long after any sensible person could have seen the trend and cashed out those assets by shutting down.
When evaluating the value of an institution, the least helpful sources to consult are those with a vested interest in its existence. Upton Sinclair once said, “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.” A man can’t be expected to give an objective assessment of an operation that provides his living. It may happen from time to time, but it can’t be expected. Give some weight to an opinion that work against the interests of the one who offers it, otherwise do the legwork yourself.
A commenter in the Konrath thread points to Pournelle’s Iron Law of Bureaucracies, which I summarize as follows: Some promote the goals of an organization, and some promote the organization itself. The second kind always wins.