• [I]nstitutions should be formative… they should act as links between the personal and the social. What we need, then, is a recommitment to such an understanding of institutions. Our challenge is less to calm the forces that are pelting our society than to reinforce the structures that hold us together. That calls for a spirit of building and rebuilding, more than of tearing down. It calls for approaching broken institutions with a disposition to repair so as to make them better versions of themselves. And it calls for a willingness to adopt a new attitude toward the various social forms in which we each are embedded.
  • —Yuval Levin, A Time to Build, page 411
In his latest book, Yuval Levin argues that our institutions need to serve us better; but he argues even more strongly that we need to better serve our institutions. It is not enough just to come up with reasons for criticizing or tearing down institutions. In order for society to function, its institutions must work. Levin pleads for us to go beyond complaining and instead to participate in the process of building and shoring up our institutions.

A number of questions arise at the outset of the book. Are contemporary problems unusual? Can these problems be traced to a decline of institutions? For that matter, what is the definition of an institution?

In answering the first question, Levin begins on page 2 with a long quotation from Robert Nisbet’s Twilight of Authority.2 Nisbet speaks darkly of “twilight ages… Processes of decline and erosion… a vacuum obtains in the moral order… Retreat from the major to the minor, from the noble to the trivial, the communal to the personal, and from the objective to the subjective… degradation of values and of corruption of culture… estrangement from community.”

Levin wishes to borrow Nisbet’s rhetoric to describe our current predicament. But a careful reader will note that Twilight of Authority appeared in 1975, which is close to what Levin will later suggest was a high point for trust in American institutions. In that respect, the quotation subtly goes against Levin’s thesis that institutional decay is a distinctively contemporary phenomenon.

Levin is more persuasive when he names the characteristics of our age that are troubling. He speaks

  • of the isolation that afflicts too many Americans, of the dysfunction that torments our politics, of the polarization that excessively sharpens both estrangement from some and affiliation with others, and of the resulting culture war that seems increasingly to be dividing us into two armed camps angrily confronting each other in every corner and crevice of American life. (page 3)

My own impression is that when it comes to politics, everyone is highly dissatisfied. People on the Left believe that the Right has too much power. People on the Right believe that the Left has too much power. And moderates believe that they are being crushed by extremists on both sides. It is the latter phenomenon that I would say is most true and unsettling about the current era. Centrist elites have lost their grip on the culture, and the rise of populism is associated with a steep decline in support for free markets and limited government. Our political life is dominated by outsiders who denounce international trade in particular and the capitalist economic system in general. This hostility toward the liberal order can be found in populist movements throughout the world.3 I believe that this justifies viewing the contemporary scene with great concern.

Levin wrestles with the problem of defining his key term, “institutions.” He settles on calling them:

  • the durable forms of our common life. They are the frameworks and structures of what we do together.
  • Some institutions are organizations and have something like a corporate form. A university, a hospital, a school, a legislature, a military, a company, or a civic association are all institutions. They are technically and legally formalized. But being an organization in this sense is not essential to being an institution.
  • Some institutions are durable forms of a different sort: they may be shaped by laws, norms, or rules but lack a corporate structure. The family is an institution… We can speak of the institution of marriage, or of a particular tradition or profession… (page 19)
“The way that I like to look at it, institutions add formality to human interaction.”

The way that I like to look at it, institutions add formality to human interaction. In traffic, courtesy is informal; the rules of the road are formal. In relationships, cohabitation is informal; marriage is formal. In commerce, black market transactions are informal; transactions sanctioned and enforced by the legal system are formal.

Formality becomes important when humans need to cooperate in large groups, above the Dunbar number of approximately 150 persons. A small business can be operated almost entirely on the basis of personal communication and tacit understandings. A thousand-person firm needs an organizational chart and written policies and procedures.

Institutions operate by defining roles, setting expectations, articulating rules, and imposing restrictions. This creates some conflict with our desire for freedom and individual expression. But Levin argues that formality ultimately promotes meaning and satisfaction.

  • It both protects us and empowers us to interact with others. We aren’t just loose individuals bumping into each other. We fill roles, we occupy spaces, we play parts defined by larger wholes, and that helps us to understand our obligations and responsibilities, our privileges and benefits, our purposes and connections. It moves us to ask how we ought to think and behave with reference to a world beyond ourselves: “Given my role here, how should I act?”(pages 20-21)

Levin suggests that a decline in institutions creates wide disparities in social capital. In a footnote, he tosses off an intriguing sentence:

  • We live in a time that overflows with varied and interesting ways to spend social capital yet is desperately lacking in ways to amass it. (page 215)

I read this as suggesting that some individuals are endowed with valuable skills and interpersonal connections that give them the ability to choose from among many appealing roles and life trajectories. But people who lack those advantages are blocked from obtaining access to those sorts of opportunities. The decline of institutions means that they cannot develop a secure base from which to explore any of the possibilities available to the elites.

Levin sees today’s elites as unwilling to abide by institutional constraints. Some abuse their power within an institution. Levin terms this “insiderism”. Others only use institutional prestige to enhance their personal ambitions but eschew any obligations to bolster the institutions that support them or to conform to institutional norms. Levin calls this “outsiderism” or “platforming,” meaning using the institution as a platform from which to expand one’s personal recognition.

Institutions in Decline

Levin offers insightful descriptions of the institutional decline of Congress, journalism, and higher education. Congress has become less effective at arriving at bipartisan legislative solutions. Journalism has become more partisan and less authoritative. Higher education has deviated from open inquiry and the pursuit of truth.

In the case of Congress, Levin writes:

  • [M]any members of Congress have come to understand themselves most fundamentally as players in a larger cultural ecosystem, the point of which is not legislating or governing but rather a kind of performative outrage for a partisan audience… they view the institution of Congress as a particularly prominent stage in that theater—a way to raise their profiles, to become stars in the world of cable news or talk radio, to build bigger social media followings, and to establish themselves as celebrities. (pages 48-49)

Members of Congress used to strive for rewards that came from working within the institution, such as committee chairmanships and legislative accomplishments. Now instead they seek attention by engaging in outsiderism.

In the case of journalism, Levin argues that in the middle of the twentieth century journalism borrowed from science

  • [A]n institutionalized commitment to a process of verification that aimed to distinguish fact from fiction… a journalistic code of ethics, layers of something like peer review in the editorial process and procedures for punishing, shaming, or ostracizing violators… That ethic required both serious professional discipline and institutions capable of prioritizing professional standards over personal glory or political victory. (page 81)

Journalistic ethics have eroded as social media

  • has turned many journalists from participants in the work of institutions into managers of their own personal image. Even reporters for major national newspapers and television networks… now have a constant presence on Twitter and other social media platforms… This makes it hard to distinguish the work of individuals from the work of institutions and increasingly turns journalistic institutions into platforms for the personal brands of individual journalists.
  • These brands, moreover, often plainly fall on clearly distinguishable sides of our culture wars… journalists promoting a politicized self-image outside the professional, institutional framework of journalism cannot help but undermine the integrity of the profession. At the same time, the elite journalistic institutions themselves increasingly lean into the culture war. They do this both in search of audience share and under the influence of a younger generation of journalists who have been shaped by other platform institutions (particularly elite universities, as we will see) to expect the institutions they are part of to openly affirm and display their cultural attitudes and political instincts. (page 83)

When it comes to higher education, Levin suggests that universities have always had to balance three purposes.

  • The first suggests that the university exists above all to give people the skills our economy requires… The second suggests that the university exists to give students a consciousness of the moral demands of a just society… in fact, this was the original purpose of the university in America. The third suggests that the point of the university is to expose a rising generation to the deepest and best of the wisdom of our civilization, and to enable a search for the truth wherever it leads, without regard for economic or sociopolitical utility. (page 92)

Nowadays, it seems that the search for social justice is crowding out the search for truth. Levin writes that

  • the culture of moral activism is most significant precisely because it is a culture. For good and ill, it pervades the communal environment of campus life in many universities, shaping the framework of praise and blame, norms and habits, expectations and peer pressure. Its intensity and the aggressiveness with which it is at times enforced… contribute to a sense that the university is a monoculture, closed off to some of the traditional norms and goals of academic life.
  • Those norms and goals that seem most threatened are associated in particular with the third campus culture, the culture of liberal education. (pages 95-96)

To me, it appears that universities have succumbed to a reductionist form of what I have termed the oppressor-oppressed framework employed by Progressives. This outlook sees every issue in terms of group identities that oppress and identities that are oppressed. The reductionist Progressive admits of no other values—not free speech, not free and open inquiry, and certainly not the wisdom of the past.

Levin includes a long chapter on the deleterious effects of social media, which he calls “the informality machine.” I believe that he would agree with Jonathan Haidt and Tobias Rose-Stockwell, who wrote:

  • The problem may not be connectivity itself but rather the way social media turns so much communication into a public performance. We often think of communication as a two-way street. Intimacy builds as partners take turns, laugh at each other’s jokes, and make reciprocal disclosures. What happens, though, when grandstands are erected along both sides of that street and then filled with friends, acquaintances, rivals, and strangers, all passing judgment and offering commentary?4

Friends, families, and co-workers who were once in our intimate, sub-Dunbar world are now on our screens. Meanwhile, people who we used to observe only remotely and intermittently—politicians, provocateurs, extremists, and celebrities—now are a constant presence.

Levin points out that conservatives hold a distinctively skeptical view of human nature, and this leads them to see institutional constraints in a positive light. But that perspective on institutions is not universally shared.

  • It is not a coincidence that a performative rather than a formative understanding of institutions has arisen in our age of meritocracy. To see institutions as platforms for performance is to deny them their roles as molds of character, and by extension to deny our very need for such formation… Both the libertarian and the progressive ideals of freedom assume a human person already fully formed, requiring only liberation from oppression of various sorts to be free…
  • But this vision has always been opposed in our traditions by a far more skeptical view, which assumes a person that begins imperfect and unformed—not to say fallen… improvement—the formation of character and virtue—is the foremost work of our society in every generation. To fail to engage in it is to regress to pre-civilizational barbarism. This work is the essential, defining purpose of our institutions, which must therefore be fundamentally formative. (pages 194-195)

It occurs to me that institutions may go through cycles. A successful institution emerges that fits the needs of society at a particular point in history. But over time, either the institution degrades internally or its fit for social needs deteriorates, or both. As an institution declines, the Left has an instinct to tear it down and the Right has an instinct to defend or restore it.

But another response to institutional decline is reform, reconstruction, or new development. Levin is advocating this approach, while offering little guidance as to how to proceed.

For more on these topics, see the EconTalk podcast episode Yuval Levin on The Fractured Republic. See also the Econlib articles “The Institutions-Intensive Economy,” by Arnold Kling, Library of Economics and Liberty, Feb. 25, 2013; “The Conservative Way Forward?”, by Arnold Kling, Library of Economics and Liberty, Apr. 4, 2016.

For those of us who are sympathetic to Levin’s outlook, it might help to study the processes of institutional formation, decay, and renewal. Perhaps some institutional case studies, comparable to case studies in business schools, would offer instructive lessons. Some possibilities that might merit study:

  • —the decay of the Catholic Church prior to the Reformation. Note that a new communication technology, the printing press, played a role in destabilizing the institution. Note that new institutions that followed included not only Protestant movements, but also internal reforms of the Catholic Church as well as the emergence of the nation state to try to contain religious violence.
  • —the engineering task forces that have governed the Internet. They have been successful at maintaining the reliability of the communications network in the face of many challenges and stresses, and they have been able to negotiate protocols in a way that fosters innovation while promoting standardization. But they have not solved other problems, including data security and various abuses arising from anonymity, including unwanted email and phone calls. Some of the original objectives of a decentralized network have been compromised over time.
  • —political reforms, including sunshine laws and greater use of primaries. The intent of such reforms has been to broaden access to the political process, but the unintended consequences may include a weakening of institutions, including political parties, that were able to maintain norms for civility and compromise.

Overall, Levin succeeds in making his case that we do not suffer from a lack of criticism of our institutions. Instead, we suffer from a lack of dedication to the reform and construction of better institutions that will enable us to live more amicably in our contemporary environment.


[1] Yuval Levin, A Time to Build: From Family and Community to Congress and the Campus, How Recommitting to our Institutions Can Revive the American Dream Available on Amazon.com.

[2] Robert Nisbet, Twilight of Authority. Available on Amazon.com.

[3] See Martin Gurri, The Revolt of the Public. I reviewed Gurri’s book here: “The Insiders versus the Outsiders,” by Arnold Kling. Library of Economics and Liberty, July 4, 2016.

[4] Jonathan Haidt, “The Dark Psychology of Social Networks,” by Jonathan Haidt and Tobias Rose-Stockwell. The Atlantic, December 2019.

*Arnold Kling has a Ph.D. in economics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He is the author of several books, including Crisis of Abundance: Rethinking How We Pay for Health Care; Invisible Wealth: The Hidden Story of How Markets Work; Unchecked and Unbalanced: How the Discrepancy Between Knowledge and Power Caused the Financial Crisis and Threatens Democracy; and Specialization and Trade: A Re-introduction to Economics. He contributed to EconLog from January 2003 through August 2012.

Read more of what Arnold Kling’s been reading. For more book reviews and articles by Arnold Kling, see the Archive.

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