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Rebuilding failed institutions: How to restore the American dream

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Matthew Schmitz of First Things recently reminded readers that it was Barack Obama who, in 2018, encouraged his social media followers to read Patrick Deneen’s “Why Liberalism Failed,” a book detailing the “liberal dismantling of social norms.” In an age rife with “increasing disillusionment,” Obama wrote at the time, society neglects “meaning and community” to its own detriment.

He’s right. And conservative thinker Yuval Levin believes there may be a way for America to regain what’s been lost. It starts with rebuilding institutions.

His latest book, “A Time to Build” makes the case that America’s social crisis is, at its heart, a failure of institutions — the media, the judiciary, the academy and Congress, to name just a few.

Repairing such large, unwieldy bodies may seem overwhelming. And, Levin seems to concede that it won’t be easy. But if progress is going to start anywhere, he argues, it needs to begin with individual actors within institutions asking, “Given my role here, how should I act?”

For Levin, by making institutional duty a guiding force for human action — rather than, say, personal whim or ambition — behaviors begin to gradually improve. Members of Congress or parliament become more effective legislators; journalists more focused truthtellers; spouses more faithful partners.

Recently, a soccer fan made headlines after he was caught on camera canoodling a woman other than his wife in the stands during a live broadcast. After the man realized the world was watching (including, potentially, his spouse) his expression immediately changed. He knew his behavior was disconsonant with his spousal commitment.

He blanched.

“Marriage,” Levin writes, “gives spouses roles that help them think about what behavior is and is not appropriate.” It’s not just the institutions of marriage or family that nudge us toward better behavior; according to Levin, universities, churches and even Congress should help channel and connect citizens to a higher purpose.

Levin worries, however, that some of our most cherished institutions are increasingly abdicating their formative functions, serving as little more than rostrums, podiums or pulpits from which to preen and perform. Levin contends that Congress, in particular, is worse off as members increasingly arrive with a message to deliver rather than a duty to perform; with a Twitter megaphone rather than a pen and pad and a desire to draft sound legislation.

“We lose faith in an institution,” writes Levin, “when we no longer believe that it plays this ethical or formative role of teaching the people within it to be trustworthy. … what stands out about our era in particular is a distinct kind of institutional dereliction — a failure even to attempt to form trustworthy people, and a tendency to think of institutions not as molds of character and behavior but as platforms for performance and prominence.”

This all makes sense. Institutions are on life support, and, in order to turn things around, we need to resuscitate, re-engage and rebuild them.

How do we get there? It starts with individual actions. We begin, once again, by asking, “How shall I act here, given my position?”

If nothing else, Levin’s book is worth reading (and rereading) to internalize this singular injunction. The repetition of the phrase throughout his text functions as a kind of self-help admonition for institutional elites. It’s a reminder that integrity and legitimacy are most often measured by whether leaders fulfill their highest institutional obligations to those they serve.

Of course, such notions are nothing new.

The common law has long acknowledged certain corporate fiduciary duties, including duties of care, loyalty and prudence. But whereas the law continues to act as a cudgel to compel compliance to corporate duty, society has become less eager to take a position on (or much less regulate) various moral matters.

In this context, Levin’s book might be read as a call for institutions to fill the void. He hopes this renewed sense of duty and role is strong enough to habituate virtue, which may, in turn, help breed better policies.

In this sense, Levin has written a book more about moral philosophy than policy. But, as we observe ever-deepening divides on matters of core moral truth, some might wonder whether Levin’s book goes far enough. Is it really sufficient anymore to say “know your role” or “act well thy part” and hope society improves?

Don’t we first need to answer fundamental questions about whether the job to be done or the part to be acted points to the common good?

Levin might respond that our divisions about the role of an institution are typically overblown, and most of the time we agree more than we disagree. This is particularly true when it comes to long-standing institutions that have a centuries-long track record of forming people in particular ways. The military, Levin argues, might serve as one such example.

But the book contains surprisingly few examples of concrete institutions or individuals that are getting it right (or have historically gotten it right). Inasmuch as the book sets out to diagnose a problem and provide some potential prescriptions for solving it, the reader is left scouring the pages for more case studies. Levin offers the forms and contours of good institutionalism, but we rarely see the flesh and bones.

All said, however, Levin offers us a timely and enormously important intellectual contribution for a society confronted by significant challenges. Levin’s diagnosis and his overtures toward some possible solutions are welcome intellectual medicine for our social malaise.

And even though Levin leaves it for others to provide concrete examples of what the ideals the book outlines in theory look like in practice, it nonetheless serves as helpful intellectual grist for those seeking the betterment of a balkanized world. Levin deserves praise for not only giving us a proper outline of the dilemma but also a solution-oriented vision — as one America’s premier conservative thinkers, Levin’s institutional duty calls for nothing less.

Hal Boyd is an associate professor of family law and policy at Brigham Young University’s School of Family Life and a fellow of the Wheatley Institution. His views are his own.