1. This seems like something that would be more useful with actual expertise, which I don't have.
2. There are experiments that seem to suggest that countries we think of as having more and better such institutions tend to be countries whose people are more willing to trust one another (in "toy" econ/psych games) -- actual causation is highly nonobvious of course.
3. Maybe useful to look at this at the level of individuals -- what can an individual person do to make such institutions more or less likely to come into being and flourish, what incentives do they face, and what might change how they respond to those incentives?
4. First guess is that the main thing is the temptation for small individual "defections": one police officer taking a small bribe, one corporate executive taking a decision that's bad for the company but good for his annual bonus, etc.
5. "Better" countries/communities/... will be ones where (a) the incentives for such misbehaviour are weaker, perhaps because of stronger formal or informal enforcement or because somehow they're better at keeping incentives aligned, and/or (b) individuals' motivations are less selfish so that given bad incentives move them less.
6. People are not idealized consequentialists and often we just do whatever first occurs to us, what we did last time, what we have seen others do, etc. So to the above we should add (c) opportunities for misbehaviour are less salient, others seem to be less inclined to misbehave, etc.
7. Note that this may mean that _hypocrisy is good_: if everyone else seems to be doing the Right Thing then you will be more inclined to follow suit, even if in fact they're all secretly on the take and you just haven't noticed.
8. But of course _hypocrisy is bad_ too: it depends on whether the question is "behave badly for sure; admit it or not?" or "hide misbehaviour for sure; actually misbehave or not?".
9. I realise I've tacitly been thinking specifically of incentives rewarding "bad" behaviours, but surely there are also rewards for "good" ones: social approval, wealth from long-term success of employer, actually valuing whatever good the institution does, etc.
10. That bit about "long-term success" may be important. Suppose I am purely selfish and have no scruples, and I'm a CxO. I can embezzle a pile of money from the company and get away with it, but that will make it less likely to succeed. If I value getting _really_ rich in the longer term over getting _slightly_ rich in the shorter term, and if the prospect of longer-term success is real, I may choose not to embezzle.
11. Of course, if my individual embezzlement makes a negligible difference to the company's prospects I may do it after all, so there could be a tragedy-of-the-commons effect; perhaps incentive-crafting for good institutions needs quite different adjustments for individuals at different levels.
12. Seems like it would be worth looking at more and less successfully stable cooperative institutions in a single country / of a single type, looking for patterns.
13. Even better would be _experiments_ where we try to establish institutions in various ways and in various places and see what works and what doesn't, but that seems like it would be pretty much 100% impossible.
14. Some of the longest-lasting institutions are religions. Why?
15. To some extent many religions can be viewed as devices for encouraging cooperation and stability. (Cooperate, because the gods like it. Cooperate, because you are all part of a single whole. Don't change, because we already have the final revelation of all truth. ...)
16. Some other long-lasting institutions are nations.
17. Part of that is cheating: we tend to think of, say, "England" as having persisted for something on the order of a thousand years or so even though its exact boundaries have changed, it's more or less merged with Scotland and Wales and (Northern) Ireland, the way it's governed has changed radically, etc.
18. Part of it is that to some extent nations are discovered as well as created. E.g., England and the UK are not the same thing as either of the geographical entities Britain or Great Britain, but there's a close relationship; England and the UK are not the same thing as "where English is spoken natively", but again there's a close relationship.
19. One thing (related to those factors) that helps nations cohere is a sense of having common interests and purpose. Religions try to encourage this too.
20. Other institutions also try to foster that sense, both by making it true (e.g,, company bonus schemes and share options) and by trying to make people _feel like_ it's true (e.g., use of "family" language).
21. If we feel that stable cooperative institutions are suffering lately, could it be that people in them either _have_ fewer common interests or _feel_ fewer common interests?
22. It's a commonplace observation (and probably true) that there was a considerable shift towards individualism in the West during roughly the 20th century.
23. Note that we don't necessarily _want_ an unconditional increase in stability of cooperative institutions. Suppose the institution is the Mafia, the Nazi Party, a price-fixing cartel, a cult designed to exploit its members for profit.
24. When thinking about incentives, or paths of least resistance, we need to bear in mind indirect effects. How do we incentivize A (earlier) to set things up so that B (later) is incentivized to do what we want?
25. In some cases A and B may be the same people at different times, and these may be particularly difficult. How do we get politicians _now_ to arrange their procedures so that _later_ those same politicians will be difficult for lobbyists to corrupt? How do we get company executives _now_ to set up their compensation schemes so that _later_ they will act in the company's interests? Their own present incentives may point in the wrong direction for this already.
26. Arguably, the norm of _trying to establish and maintain stable cooperative institutions_ is itself a stable cooperative institution. So if there's some general decline, it may feed on itself. "Gradually, then suddenly."
27. This suggests that if we're in a situation where stable cooperative institutions are generally doing well and we want that to continue, we may want something like a zero-tolerance policy towards defection. Public outrage any time any politician shows even a hint of corruption. Instant termination for employees who aren't working hard.
28. _Explicit_ attempts to maintain stable cooperative institutions can backfire if they aren't felt to match the real underlying values. So once the rot starts, the only paths to fixing it involve decisive actions (e.g., hire/fire to make sure the people you have are actually aligned with your company's interests) and not just proclamations about what "our company culture is".
29. The stablest institutions might be ones where something about the nature of the institution itself automatically produces stability.
30. That's not necessarily a good goal to aim for; optimizing for one thing tends to worsen others and the same traits that make an institution super-stable may e.g. make it super-unresponsive to change. (Consider, e.g., the Roman Catholic Church which arguably has both those characteristics.) Still, it might be worth looking for such traits. Let's stick with our example of the Catholic Church, or maybe Christianity more generally.
31. Feature: making the persistence of the institution an explicit goal of the institution.
32. (Cf. Pournelle's "Iron Law of Bureaucracy".)
32. Feature: a near-watertight belief that the institution and its goals are supremely valuable.
33. In many places, Catholicism took a _really bad_ beating because of child-abuse scandals; does that near-watertight belief in the goodness of the institution have the consequence that when it does something too bad to ignore, people are more likely to give up on the institution wholesale than to try to amend it? (It sounds plausible but I'm not at all sure it's so; perhaps other institutions in which similar bad things happened would have suffered even more attrition.)
34. Feature: explicit, written beliefs, values, procedures, etc. (Harder for them to shift gradually, that way.)
35. Feature: the institution's official values are explicitly cooperative. (For-profit businesses may face a fundamental disadvantage here.)
36. I should note that I'm only _guessing_ that all these things are features that promote stability. The real causes might be other things entirely. But they seem like plausible stability-promoters.
37. Let's consider now another institution that we might _want_ to be stable, but that's been called into doubt in some places lately: democracy. It's lasted quite a while in many places. What helps its stability? What hurts?
38. Presumably voters like democracy because it gives them (or at least seems to give them?) some control over their rulers. (So one might hope that democracies are somewhat "stable against popular revolution". This seems like a big deal.)
39. Whoever's on top in _any_ system might be expected to like the system because it gives them power. (So maybe _any_ political system is somwhat "stable against attack from the top".)
40. So explicit attacks on democracy may come from (a) groups that hope for more power than democracy looks like giving them -- e.g., people/parties/... who have tasted power but are currently out and don't expect to win the next election, or people/parties/... who are in power but fear that they're about to lose it -- or (b) breakdowns in voters' trust that democracy actually does empower them.
41. As well as being overthrown outright, democracy can fail if it stops actually making power responsive to voters' wishes. E.g., falsified vote counts, all candidates having to be approved by some institution that has the _real_ power, enough corruption that you can't tell what a candidate will actually do without knowing who'll be bribing them, etc. These are probably bigger dangers, in most democracies, than overt abandonment of democracy.
42. (More generally: Stability of a cooperative institution isn't enough; it needs to remain genuinely cooperative, and that rather than stability as such may be the most important failure mode.)
43. One reason why democracy tends to persist is that nations and their people are _proud_ of having it and often make it a key part of their identity. Of course this leaves open failure modes where the name remains but the reality fades, but it does seem that _being something people are proud of_ is an advantage. This is not exactly surprising.
44. It doesn't feel as if I'm producing any very interesting or original thoughts. What happens if we reverse the question and ask: Suppose we have some cooperative institution and we want to _make it fail_ (either when designing it, or later); what would we do?
45. We could make it so that keeping it working requires people to do things that are very difficult or against their interests.
46. We could hire some smart and unscrupulous people and say "make this thing fail; I don't care how you do it".
47. We could design it to pit people against one another, and hope that the resulting acrimony will itself be destructive. (Since this seems like it describes both capitalism and democracy, and both are doing pretty well all things considered, maybe it wouldn't work.)
48. We could aim not to make it _die_ as such but to make it _unstable_, so that small changes tend to produce larger changes, in the hope that eventually that will kill it. So e.g. if the institution involves some sort of division of power (as e.g. the legislative/executive/judicial split or the House/Senate split or the state/Federal split, in the US), try to make sure that when one entity starts to get more power there are ways for it to parlay that into more more power. (Consider e.g. gerrymandering, court-packing, etc.)
49. The above has mostly been considering institutions whose existence is somehow formalized and explicit. Even, e.g., "democracy" cashes out in any particular place to a bunch of laws. Some important institutions aren't explicit in this way; consider e.g. mutual trust in a community (or a family or ...).
50. It seems like it makes an _enormous_ difference who's meant to be participating in an institution. Smaller, more homogeneous groups with more common interests cooperate better. Perhaps we can, and if so perhaps we should, somehow build larger-scale cooperation out of smaller-scale institutions where cooperation is easier?