Some two decades ago, I conducted an experiment in institutional mechanics at Harvard University. Now, I didn’t know that’s what I was doing at the time. I thought I was just trying to get some “good run”—slang for a competitive game of pick-up basketball—at Malkin Athletic Center, known as “the MAC.” But now that I’ve read Francis Fukuyama’s ambitious The Origins of Political Order: From Prehuman Times to the French Revolution, I see that I was in fact testing a theory—or rather, his theory—of institutional change. And thanks to that theory, I now understand what happened, which was the following.
One spring—I can’t remember the year exactly—there were too many players for the MAC’s noon game. This meant that many players didn’t get to play more than once, and some didn’t get to play at all. Several of us, graduate students and faculty members every one, sat on the sidelines and considered what might be done. We arrived at an obvious solution: Instead of playing only on the center—read: premier—court, we would play on both the center and the smaller side court, thus allowing more people to take part. We presented our plan to the regulars. They grudgingly agreed to try it. After only a run or two, however, there was mass defection. Almost everyone preferred to play on the center court, even if it meant he might not get to play at all.
Why had our plan, despite its obvious rationality, failed so utterly? At the time, I thought it was due to the pigheadedness and idiocy of the other players. I was wrong: People at Harvard are many things, some of them distinctly unsavory, but they are generally not pigheaded idiots (with a few possible exceptions who shall go unnamed). In the light of Fukuyama’s new book, I now see why our reform not only collapsed, but was doomed from the very start. The reason has to do with two things: human nature and tradition.
Marshall Poe teaches history at the University of Iowa. He is also the host of New Books in History (http://newbooksinhistory.com), where he interviewed Fukuyama about the book under review.