To a large extent, people do what is generally expected from them, simply because it simplifies their lives in society. This is how and why rules develop that facilitate social coexistence. The danger is that these rules turn out to be stifling and economically inefficient, which means that they impede trade, innovation, and prosperity. Primitive tribes provide an extreme example. The opportunity is that some social rules—and institutions, which are sets of rules—may allow a large measure of both individual liberty and social regularity.

A long tradition of (classical) liberal thinkers, often economists, from David Hume to Friedrich Hayek, has emphasized the benefit of evolved social conventions, as opposed to diktats from political authority. Such conventional rules, in large part based on trade and trust, have been responsible for the development of individual liberty, the Industrial Revolution, and the escape from poverty of a large share of mankind.

I was reminded of the importance and perhaps fragility of good institutions by a piece by Steven Greenhut reproduced in Reason Magazine. Greenhut asks:

What can you say when a major political movement (Trumpism) finds it easier to believe that every major American institution is potentially corrupt than it is to think that a president with a history of telling whoppers is being dishonest again?

What we have seen in the 2020 presidential election and its aftermath is, as far as we can tell, a defeated president (by about seven million votes) trying to stay in power by claiming, on the basis of absurd conspiracy theories, not much better than those of Alex Jones, that he actually won a majority of the votes. But note how election officials (probably nearly all of them, from the lowest to the highest), judges including some nominated by Mr. Trump, state officials including Republican ones, and even some officials of the Trump administration, honestly did what was expected of them and, at each stage of the long post-election process, contributed by words or deeds to ensure that the election was free of fraud and to defend it against unsubstantiated and self-serving accusations.

This, of course, is not to deny that the state is dangerous and far too powerful. It must be continually held in check, both by private institutions and by its own institutions. The hope of classical liberalism is that this is not impossible. An optimist may hope that the 70 million Americans (or perhaps half of them if we exclude those who just voted against the Democratic party) who voted for Trump after having been officially and openly lied to by him and his sycophants during four years, will wake up to the danger of Leviathan.