“Path Dependency” or When Good Becomes Evil

P. Garriga was an industrialist, a member of the Catalan bourgeoisie that flourished in the  IXXth and XXth centuries in Sabadell, just 30 km west of Barcelona. Together with his brother, J. Garriga, they turned their sheep shearing business into a textile behemoth, Garriga Hermanos SL. But what drove his life was not solely money but a mission for greater purpose.

P. Garriga was a devout Catholic, which he practiced in all his actions. He married his wife because of her appearance to the Moreneta, or “the little dark one”, a statue of Madonna and the Child kept in the monastery of Montserrat revered by Catalan Catholics for centuries. Together, they created a “poor bench”, a piece of furniture they placed just outside of their home for the less fortunate to sit down, express their pleas and wait to receive alms.

The Garriga’s style of “paternalist capitalism” meant that they got involved in their workers’ lives, making sure they were well taken care off, sometimes going as far as intervening in their domestic disputes. Their good deeds were carried out well beyond their industry,  as P. Garriga donated to charity generously.

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Things have changed, Great-grandaddy.

Proof of all this is the fact that during the Spanish Civil War, when industrialists such as the Garriga where being chased into exile by anarchists, the employees in the factory personally smuggled and hid Mr. Garriga from harm’s way. Even in a time when class fight was at its peak, his goodwill and altruism were recognised and respected by all. Charity for the poor was his life’s work, and the mission that gave him meaning.

So perhaps it is not that paradoxical that one day Mr. Garriga woke up and confessed his nightmare to his wife. “I’ve had a terrible dream,” he proclaimed, “I dreamt that there were no more poor in the world!”.

Mr. Garriga was my great grandfather, and I can still remember my grandmother’s smile when she recounted this anecdote. Of course, there is no way of checking the veracity of this story, or of giving Mr. Garriga a chance to explain himself. Whether it was a misinterpretation, an incomplete piece of information or just plain false, we will never know. But the anecdote does illustrate a perverse phenomenon that repeats itself  in the world today.

Mr. Garriga’s heart was in the right place, and it is hard to argue with his intentions of helping the less fortunate. The same can be said of myriads of NGO’s and organisations that are put in place to solve a problem and make the world a better place. Names like Greenpeace, the United Nations (UN) or the american Organisation of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP), are good examples of organizations looking to solve important problems in the world, whether environmental, world peace or drug addiction and its impact in society.

The issue becomes, as the theory of Historical Institutionalism and Path Dependency states, that in some cases the founding of theses institutions leads to their self-imposed, perpetual existence. Basically, that we do things just because we have always done them. Institutions are built to outlast even the reason they were set up for in the first place.

The most blatant example is that of the ONDCP. The organisation was set up to reduce the consumption of drugs by implementing and assessing US drug policy. Ironically, though, it also has legal mandate to oppose any attempt of legalizing illicit drugs. What if doing so and regulating them properly could mean that drug enforcement is not needed anymore? It doesn’t matter, they need drugs to be illegal, otherwise they would have no reason to exist.

It is a perverse thought, but one that can be observed in many areas. We assume that organisations are not actively sabotaging the efforts to find progress, but they can do so by being passive or resisting change. What if research shows that economic development is what ensures the preservation of the environment in the long run? What will Greenpeace do with the Rainbow Warrior and all its funding schemes?

On an individual level, this phenomenon also takes place. Imagine that a new piece of evidence demonstrates that the entire life’s work of someone has been worthless or even counter productive. It is very easy for that person to dismiss this piece of information and carry on his or her daily struggle. After all, it is what has given their life any meaning. This phenomenon can be observed in academia and within organisations, and it is partially to blame for organizations being slow to adapt. This is why the now late professor Hans Rosling made it his life mission to change peoples’ world views, making sure they updated their understanding of reality based on actual facts. Many NGOs and charities still operate on a system build decades ago, when reality was much different.

However, society is forgiving with this sort of behaviour, because intentions are good. We prize goodwill and effort, regardless of results. But it is this perverse judgement that is hindering progress. We should encourage flexibility and acceptance of change. Furthermore, we should thank people like my great grandfather Mr. Garriga for their intentions, but measure their actions through the assessment of their results. And if needed, send them off on their next mission.

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