Recent decades, Levin says, have brought a withdrawal of trust from all but a few of our institutions, ranging from the family to the political order, and a rise of antinomian sentiments on both the right and the left. But we cannot do without these institutions, he argues: Not only are they instruments for accomplishing essential goals, but they form our character in ways essential for individual and collective flourishing. When we lose sight of the role that only institutions can play and misconceive them as vehicles for self-interest and self-display, we end up undermining ourselves and others.
In focusing on the need for character formation in every walk of life, Levin consciously breaks with the argument James Madison famously urged in Federalist Papers 10 and 51: Because good character is typically in short supply, we must use the artful arrangement of institutions to compensate for ambition, self-interest and the absence of devotion to the common good.
Levin appeals instead to a tradition reaching back to Aristotle that holds thatinstitutions are what form us to practice the virtues we cannot do without. We suffer from our current ills, he insists, because we have forgotten why we need institutions. We think we want to break free from institutional constraints, but in fact, we yearn for structure and belonging — for institutions to which we can devote ourselves. We demand a politics that breaks down authority when what we really want is a politics that rebuilds authority we can respect. To get this, Levin says, we must “pour ourselves” into our institutions and “let them form us.” This is a stringent demand, because it requires “a kind of devotion, even submission, to institutional formation” that finds its natural home in religious experience.
At a time when so many religious institutions are seen as hypocritical and corrupt, making a wholehearted, quasi-religious investment in secular institutions is a tall order. But Levin is undaunted. “What’s required of each of us,” he declares at the end of his book, is “devotion to the work we do with others in the service of a common aspiration, and therefore devotion to the institutions we compose and inhabit.”
Why then have Americans ceased to trust most of our institutions? According to Levin, trust is based on the belief that institutions have an internal ethic that makes their members more trustworthy. When we regard our institutions as having abandoned this mission in favor of individual ambition and self-display, we withdraw our trust.
I find this explanation less than fully persuasive, in part because Levin’s account of the sources of trust is incomplete. Trust has two dimensions: motivation and competence. We may regard institutions as untrustworthy because we regard their members as unconcerned with the welfare of others, or because they do not know how to do their jobs, or both. Good intentions are not enough, and neither is technical competence untethered from appropriate motives. A trustworthy institution needs both.
Over the past two decades, we have seen both kinds of institutional failure. No one believes that the U.S. intelligence community did not want to prevent the 9/11 attack, but it still failed to do so. Similarly, this community wanted to provide an accurate assessment of Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction, but it got this assessment wrong, with disastrous consequences that reverberate to the present day. Policymakers totally misunderstood what the postwar reconstruction of Iraq would entail and were slow to admit their error. With few exceptions, economic analysts underplayed the systemic weakness that led to the Great Recession. Policymakers across the political spectrum believed that China’s entry into the World Trade Organization would accelerate the convergence of Beijing’s economic and political models with those of the West, a misjudgment with which we are just beginning to grapple. In these circumstances, the populist rejection of expertise is anything but surprising.
On the other hand, institutions whose formative mission is central to their identity have also fallen short, sometimes shockingly so. The Catholic Church became a venue for sexual abuse, a fact that its officials covered up for decades. No wonder 13 percent of all U.S. adults are former Catholics; for many, the strain of continued commitment became too much to bear. We cannot devote ourselves to institutions that we regard as unworthy of our devotion. And if we see no prospect of changing them to become worthy once again, exit may be the only option.
Another problem goes even deeper. The fact that an institution is formative says nothing about its ethical character. It may form us in positive ways, or it may deform us by stunting the development of our gifts and distorting our character in harmful ways. Employers may require employees to behave in ways they regard as demeaning or outright immoral. So may government leaders.
This problem extends to our most intimate relations. To be sure, as Levin says, families require sacrifice and can constrain personal choice. But this does not mean that women’s revolt against the family arrangements of the 1950s was selfish, unjustified or a mere reflection of the culture war. We cannot expect institutional devotion from those who experience institutions as stultifying and unfair. We all owe a debt to the women and men who decide to reform the family rather than abandon it. Today, families that have embraced a more balanced understanding of gender roles have remained strong, even as others have weakened.
Despite these objections, which are not trivial, Levin’s core contention remains compelling. Our institutions are not machines that run smoothly, whatever the character of their members — a fact of which we are reminded in daily headlines. Even James Madison acknowledged that without a measure of virtue, Republican self-government would be impossible. We rely on individuals in positions of responsibility to take their institution’s rules and norms seriously and to put its mission ahead of their personal advantage. This requires strength of character, which must be cultivated; it is not innate.
We need an approach to politics and society that combines the best of the right with the best of the left — that brings together the right’s concern about character and the left’s concern about fairness. Only institutions whose mission incorporates both can help break our current impasse.
A Time to Build
From Family and Community to Congress and the Campus, How Recommitting to Our Institutions Can Revive the American Dream
By Yuval Levin
Basic. 241 pp. $28