Monday, July 5, 2021

Institutions and the Bonds that Unite Us

In thinking about the state of the union as I read a couple works of non-fiction by a couple favorite writers, I've been thinking about institutions. By that I mean the structures and systems and connections and foundations that help us establish and maintain a civilized society. Here's this week's column for The Villager. 

Society is built upon institutions, and when faith and trust in those institutions weakens or wavers, the foundations of society are at risk. Family, church, neighborhoods, schools, civic duty, government, these are the heart of any society. They are glue that binds communities together and the systems which allow them to thrive. And Yuval Levin is worried about the rising mistrust in institutions.

Levin, an esteemed scholar at The American Enterprise Institute, recently published A Time to Build: How Recommitting to Our Institutions Can Revive the American Dream. For many years, Levin has worked in government and public policy, and as he witnessed leaders come and go and political parties move in and out of power, he has relied on institutions to preserve continuity and stability. The problem in contemporary society is that because people have become so comfortable living under the stability provided by institutions, they often fail to understand and appreciate their benefits. Levin hopes to restore America’s faith.

The fourth estate of journalism is one of the most important institutions for a free society, and also one most at risk. Disparaging the media and journalists has practically become a sport for commentators and the public alike, with a rising number of people claiming to not read or watch the news while simultaneously criticizing and questioning the coverage of issues. Sadly, the talking heads and political leaders actually depend upon the very newspapers and reporters for the news that they then comment on, even as they disparage the source. As interest in the news goes down and media companies struggle financially, the one institution with the reach and resources to hold people accountable begins to fade.

In a column for the New York Times entitled “What Life Asks of Us,” David Brooks also emphasized the stabilizing and unifying nature of the institutions. Institutions have rules long established precisely because they work. There is prudence and caution in institutions which believe the old and established can often be trusted in ways that the new and untested can not. As such, institutions are society’s hedge against radical change, disorder, and ultimately chaos. What nineteenth century scholar Edmund Burke called “the little platoons” are the first and most personal institutions in which we place our trust. They are “the first link in the series by which we proceed towards a love to our country, and to mankind.”

At times the stability and order offered by institutions can seem to be at odds with the self-reliance and rugged individualism at the heart of the American spirit. Yet, as individuals in increasingly larger and more diverse communities, we can’t know everyone personally. And for society to work, we have to be able to trust people we don’t know. Institutions help support and promote that trust. Institutions are what enable us to trust, yea to know, that when we wake up in the morning, the lights are going to turn on, the water in the shower will be hot, the food in the fridge will be safe to eat, and our fellow commuters will stop at the red lights as we drive to work.

The schoolhouse is one of the first institutions outside of our homes in which we place our faith. A free and public education has long been the foundation for growth and mobility in American society, yet Americans have incredibly conflicted attitudes about schools. While the average person will bemoan the state of education, Americans have a surprisingly high faith in and support of their own schools and their own personal education. Thus, the perception of the institution is often disconnected from the personal experience.

Writer Michael Lewis is also concerned about the strength of and faith in our institutions, and his recent book The Premonition: a Pandemic Story explores the challenges facing them and the potential catastrophe that can result when institutions fall short and faith in them is strained. Lewis has always been fascinated by the quiet heroes who go about doing the work without praise. And having explored topics as vast as data metrics changing the game of baseball to the complicated financial instruments that caused the 2008 economic catastrophe, Lewis has become fascinated by the stories of the people who used their institutional knowledge to identify solutions long before the public ever knew there was a problem. Sadly, people often wait too long before listening to them.

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