March 21, 2016

DAVIES | A Means to an End

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Separating a goal from the methods employed to achieve it — distinguishing between an end and its chosen means — may at first appear to be a rather academic distinction. However, mixing and muddling of the two has serious consequences. While the exact natures of both ends and means are frequent sources of disagreement, it is important to separate the two, a fact which is increasingly neglected by our society. Public structures and organizations have become de-instrumentalized — rather than serving as means for achieving society’s goals or representing supporters’ interests, Americans today consider national institutions as ends in themselves and acknowledge the primacy of those institutions’ self-interest over their role as means of achieving ends.

Institutions and collectives at any level have always sought to further their own goals and concerns, for disregarding their self-interest prevents institutions from orienting themselves within society and presenting a coherent agenda for action. Without protecting what they possess and seeking what they desire, religious, political and other public organizations wither away, their members and societal relevance poached by more rational institutions.

Reading the previous paragraph, the discerning reader may declare the thesis of this column null and void after falling victim to its author’s blunders. Not so, the author ripostes. Whereas in the past it was understood that national organizations should work for the common good or at least represent the public groups to whom they are supposedly beholden, nowadays we accept as normal that these institutions champion their self-interest over that of society and their constituents. The true shift is thus in our conception of institutions, which has morphed into seeing them as ends rather than means, not any real change in organizational behavior. It is what we consider acceptable institutional purposes that has changed, not the actual actions of collectives.

Such “endification” pervades society. The rise of the megachurch exposes the effects of this transformation on American religion. These stadiums of God enrich their pastors — whose average salary of $147,000 dwarfs the $45,550 earned by ordinary members of the clergy — rather than serving as institutions which further any “common good,” such as providing an ideological mooring or spreading the gospel of Christian salvation.

The “electoral-industrial complex” is another symptom of endification. The transformation of politics into business has diluted its role as an arena for policy discussions and public accountability. Armies of reporters, commentators and consultants depend upon this industry for their livelihoods. As components in the political business, these people have hollowed out its function as a means for social change and, in much of the American consciousness, turned it into an end that must be sustained for its own benefit.

Our conception of public organizations as ends has eroded the connections we draw from them to broader societal effects, thereby promoting a narrow understanding of trends and phenomena and isolating institutions in our minds from the social fabric in which they are truly embedded. If an institution is understood as a discrete entity whose most important task is pursuing its own interest, we become concerned primarily with effects upon that institution and ignore its effects upon society as a whole. Organizations are contemplated not as entities acting in and shaping a complex world but as individual objects whose only understandable importance is to themselves.

This limited view promotes quantitative inquiry over qualitative understanding, an attitude that in turn reinforces the disregard for holistic contemplations of society. Statistical data is no longer a tool whose import depends upon its situation within a larger interpretive framework. Rather, numbers have become our primary interface with social reality. In a vicious cycle, this reliance on quantitative data and lack of interpretive framework has obscured the true nature of institutions as means whose actions have wider consequences.

One can observe the primacy of numbers in the reduction of electoral campaigns to little more than opinion poll gatherers. Polls have become such a central tool of electioneering that, seduced by their reductive simplicity, the public now upholds poll numbers as approaching an absolute truth measuring support for a candidate. Despite their power, polling has failed to predict the outcome of major elections. Indeed, the increased reliance on polls as a source of supposedly objective information has come at a time when conducting opinion polls has become significantly more difficult (fewer people with landlines; fewer people with patience), hampering the applicability of the insights gleaned.

Finally, society’s endification of its institutions has reduced voters’ decisions down to allegiance to one of two political tribes. Because political parties have begun to be seen as ends in themselves, the national discourse has grown more polarised as citizens become more concerned with supporting the Democrats or Republicans for their own sake rather than because of either party’s real actions in office. Voting — and politics more broadly — has mutated into a method of furthering one’s own ideology instead of deciding between different options based on which is best for society. Despite their protests to the contrary, the endification of political parties has contributed to the demonisation of the other side — many are thus Democrat or Republican first and American second. As a result, not only have institutions become separated from the social fabric but so have Americans begun to cleave themselves from any sense of national cohesion. The consequences of this fragmentation in a country as large and as powerful as the United States should concern us all.

Alex Davies is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at ajd253@cornell.edu. Have I Got News For You? appears alternate Tuesdays this semester.

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