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Culture Versus Institutions

By Oliver DeMille

Free citizens are innovative, independent and giving.

When these characteristics wane in a society, freedom decreases. When these values are bolstered, freedom grows.

Because they are so important in free nations, institutions attempt to produce and market them.

But the nature of innovation, independence and giving make them resistant to institutionalism; when private and public institutions take over these values, they slowly (sometimes more quickly) begin to diminish in the character of individual citizens—and freedom goes with them.

Such shifts come in both evolutionary and cyclical patterns. Each new age (Nomadic, Agrarian, Industrial, Information) is forged and grows when the freedom values flourish, levels off as they stagnate, and declines as they are lost among the citizenry and later from institutions.

On a cyclical level, nations rise in power and prosperity as innovation, independence and giving permeate the culture at the individual level. They weaken as individuals focus on other things and leave these values to institutions, and they move into periods of crisis when the institutions fail to deliver.

Crisis ruins societies where the citizens don’t restore these values to their daily lives, while such crises are building blocks to growth and empowerment when the regular people re-adopt innovation, independence and giving.

Governments try to force things along by requiring and regulating these values, but this very act moves nations toward crisis. If the people are forced to innovate, creativity shuts down. Forced independence is dependence. And forced giving without the value of real charity is a form of enslavement.

Institutions are, at their best, designed to perpetuate the values of a society or group—but when the people lose values the institutions themselves often become the enemy of these very values.

Combining the Values

The American ideals of freedom and prosperity “through opportunity for all” are the basis of our greatest institutions — both private and governmental.

Perhaps the single greatest generational foray into entrepreneurial government gave us the U.S. Congress, Presidency, Supreme Court and a republic of 50 sovereign and united states.

These institutions were designed, above all, to perpetuate a citizenry steeped in the freedom values including innovation, independence and giving.

Where these three values are found in combination, we see the hope for America’s future.

Those with strong political attachments or party affiliations may find this disturbing, since the budding of freedom values in culture doesn’t always match one’s pre-disposed view of how things work. Our institutions tell us about our past and what we have become, but cultural trends tell about our future and what we are becoming.

Those whose status or self-perception is based on ties to the institutional are mostly, by definition, caught in the cultures of maintaining the status quo, dependence and “getting.”

As a result, they often feel threatened by those whose cultures center on innovating, independence and giving.

From the perch of credibility, which institutions seek to bestow, the “experts” too often preach against innovation (“too risky”), independence (“obviously ignorant”), and giving (“too idealistic”).

It is poignant that the same Establishment which says that “The upstarts must be put in their place, lest things change,” also preaches that,

  • “The world is what it is, and you’ll never change it.”
  • “It’s just business.”
  • “Security is the name of the game.”

Ironically, the Innovators don’t see the Maintainers as enemies or competitors, just as allies who have yet to grasp reality. Things change. Or more accurately, all things change. The Maintainers are fighting it, while the Innovators set out to shape and lead it.

Both groups win some, and both lose a few. But over time, as the Greeks taught, the bold lead. The risk-takers accumulate. The independents spread freedom and prosperity. The Establishment stagnates and is replaced.

Consider the following groups/systems which combine the values of innovation, independence and giving (note that some on this list may offend the Right while others discomfit the Left—but Left and Right are institutional values which are being remade by the Innovators):

  • Downshifters (highly compensated professionals who leave big-city careers for more laidback rural lifestyles and family time);
  • Charter Schools;
  • Homeschooling;
  • The Neo-Private Schools (what some call the “Chicken-Wire Harvards”);
  • Tea Parties
  • Immigrants
  • Opt-Out Moms (highly-educated women who choose homemaking over careers; sometimes called “femivores”)
  • Multi-Level and Network Marketing Entrepreneurs
  • Small Business Entrepreneurs and Investors
  • Social Entrepreneurs (who build organizations to combat societal challenges rather than focus on mere profit)
  • The Corporate and Societal Ethicists (who promote a higher level of ethics in all sectors of American life, public and private)
  • Self-Help Enthusiasts (who emphasize “positive mental attitude,” “leadership,” “habits” and “manifesting,” and apply improvement literature from Dale Carnegie to The Secret and beyond)

Say what you want about any of the groups listed above, but each is clearly innovating toward a new future, taking on the stagnant parts of the Establishment and charting a different course.

You may or may not agree with their goals, but they are certainly innovative. Each of these groups is also clearly independent, attempting to go its own way regardless of the “expert,” “accepted,” or “safe” view.

Many members from each of these groups are focused on giving. Critics of each group may call its members selfish in some ways, but it is true that people in these groups see themselves sacrificing for something greater than themselves and for the good of others.

In many ways they are selfless. For example, most Tea Partiers are sincerely seeking to better the nation for their posterity while many immigrants courageously risk and sacrifice themselves to hopefully send a little money home to feed hungry families.

The ends-means criticisms can be applied to any of these on the list; but in absolute terms, and in the context of their own sincere intentions and worldview, how can they be perceived as anything but noble and self-sacrificing? Likewise, those who most succeed as entrepreneurs are the ones who consistently give back.

There are many other groups that are working to combine innovation, independence and giving as they help influence society (see, for example, the Arbinger Institute, Wizard Academy, the Jackrabbit Factor, or Seth Godin’s Purple Cow concepts, among many others).

Alternate Views

There are many groups which combine just two of the freedom values, such as environmental groups which are innovative and giving but push for more independence-killing regulation, or some entrepreneurs who are innovative and independent but neglect giving and emphasize only profit.

A combination of all three of these values is necessary to truly lead the future toward freedom and prosperity—as various other environmentalists, entrepreneurs and additional groups show by their good example.

Some might argue that gangs or cults use these same values, but I disagree. Gang-like culture is anti-Establishment, to be sure, but only to the extent that it promotes its own institutionalism against the “outside” world.

Within gangs, individuals are hardly asked to be truly innovative or independent. This is a sign of cultish behavior—where dependence on the group is forced.

And the requirement to give all, or nearly all, to the gang is extreme and worsened by the way the gang takes from society at large and enriches the ones in power inequitably; this is hardly about giving.

Unfortunately, while the Internet is a great tool for innovation, independence and giving, far too many people bind themselves to e-groups who only think alike and vocally attack all others. Such micro-institutionalism is bad for the culture and denigrates the values of freedom and prosperity.

On the more positive side, many individuals and groups are challenging or simply improving the Establishment through their combined innovation, independence and attitude of giving. Indeed, their numbers seem to be growing.

The media often discount their influence, but even the media are being restructured from institutional to innovative in the Internet age. The near end of local newspapers and the gasping struggle of book publishers epitomize this shift.

Academia is following the same path—the old institutional brands are giving way over time to a rising swell of innovative educational options which promise to entirely revolutionize modern culture.

So much is headed the way of the video store, network television and the tethered, rotary dial telephone. Old replaced by new—institutional succeeded by various entrepreneurial options.

Principles and Change

At the macro-level, the forces that promote “keeping things the same,” “dependence on big institutions,” and “getting mine first” are still strong. In absolute terms, the Establishment Maintainers currently far outnumber the Innovators. But all the momentum is in favor of those who combine innovation, independence and giving.

If you don’t resonate with a group promoting these values, you can start one. The world needs many more of them. But let’s be clear: While the forces of “maintenance, dependence and getting” will surely fight to stay in charge, everything is against them—including physics. Change will come. This is a scientific certainty.

Indeed this change is already upon us. It just remains to be seen what kind of future we will choose.

If we want a nation and world of widespread freedom, opportunity and prosperity, the future belongs to those who embrace, combine, spread and even improve upon the values of innovation, independence and giving. These values are vital to free cultures, and in the cycles and evolutions of history, their time has come.

The irony of this all is that to survive and flourish the Establishment needs innovation. Power and wealth can be held by a dominating aristocracy or upper class, but the masses suffer and prosperity for all declines. Without an independent and giving citizenry, no nation can long remain free or generally prosperous.

For freedom and prosperity to flourish, the freedom values must be actively applied by the regular people. And in times like ours, they frequently must do so without much leadership from the big institutions.

Nations which accomplish this are worthy of the freedom they create and pass on to posterity. It is up to the regular people: We must exemplify innovation, independence and giving. The future of our nation will be determined by this reality.


Oliver DeMille is the founder and former president of George Wythe University, a co-founder of the Center for Social Leadership, and a co-creator of TJEd Online.

He is the author of A Thomas Jefferson Education: Teaching a Generation of Leaders for the 21st Century, and The Coming Aristocracy: Education & the Future of Freedom.

Oliver is dedicated to promoting freedom through leadership education. He and his wife Rachel are raising their eight children in Cedar City, Utah.

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