This blog is primarily about the organization of business firms, but let me start at another “level of analysis” this time: The organization of societies.
As all of you, I have been watching with horror the brutal and senseless war in Ukraine.
I have also been reading the discussions about Putin’s intentions and speculation about his mental health.
Up until recently, you could argue, as did the renowned political scientist John Maersheimer, that Putin was a rational person and that he was “playing the winning hand”. But right now it is harder to defend that viewpoint; this war will only have losers.
But in addition to focusing on Russia’s leader, we also need to recognize how a system of government can allow a despot like this to emerge and completely control not only political decision making, but also the media, the courts, and the military.
And unfortunately, Russia is only one of many totalitarian states, which not only repress their own citizens, but also pose security risks for the rest of the world.
A few years ago, I visited the building where Norway’s constitution was drawn up and signed in 1814. Next to this building, there is a museum, with various displays that describe the principles that our constitution was built on.
The first thing I saw in the museum was the description of Rousseau and his book “The Social Contract”. But the next one I found even more interesting: The principle of separation of powers, proposed by Montesquieu in 1748.
To learn more, I ordered Gwyn’s book from 1965.
As he explains, the principle proposed by Montesquieu also formed the basis for the U.S. constitution. One of the founders, James Madison, wrote the following (the Federalist papers, 1788):
“The accumulation of all power, legislative, executive and judiciary in the same hands, whether of one, or few, or many, and whether hereditary, self-appointed or elective, may justly be pronounced the very definition of tyranny.”
To avoid tyranny, Madison explained that each branch of the government needs to have a “will of its own”. As explained by Carpenter (1932, cited in Kemp, 2010); this is:
“a mechanism for the distribution of power between discrete components that [are] locked into constant tension by an arrangement of checks and balances so as to achieve and sustain a dynamic equilibrium”
I am simply in awe of the people who, more than 200 years ago, were able to not only propose but implement this principle. Today, it forms the basis for every democratic country, and its absence characterizes the failure of every totalitarian state.
This principle is also more broadly relevant to the design of organizations, because even within each branch of government, and within each individual organization, we need to separate incompatible roles if we are to minimize conflicts of interest (more about that in a later blog post).
Still, we are probably overstating it if we say that failures to adhere to the principle is the root cause of dysfunctional government.
The problem is that in addition to laws, democratic governance also relies on norms. So if leaders don’t adhere to democratic norms, it may not be possible to establish or maintain separation of powers.
So it is a fragile system.
If something good can possibly come out of the current crisis, it must be that we develop a stronger commitment toward the norms and values that underpin democracy, while doing what we can to manage the risk posed by authoritarian regimes.
What is happening now should never happen again.