The failure of institutions in the pandemic crisis

Yuval Levin argues that the institutions of contemporary society, primarily America in his account, have become degraded. There is a good discussion with Yuval Levin on this topic over at the Hoover Institution Youtube channel.

We have lost trust in these institutions, he argues, because simply they have become less trustworthy. Their performance has been sapped by a perversion of purpose of these institutions.

Institutions work well when they are forges for the character of those who come to belong in them. Then the institution allows ordinary people to achieve extraordinary things – winning wars, making laws, dispensing justice, raising children to be solid citizens, preserving both freedom and order, even protecting the frail heritage of our dead ancestors from the ravages of forgetting and the furies of the future. A soldier becomes part of an army; a street fight is transformed into a victorious battle. But for this alchemy of character to occur, the individual needs to accept the constraints, the heritage, the norms and the gifts of the institution that exceeds him or her. Then the institution is formative of virtue: from such little platoons good men and women are formed to resist the evils and tragedies of the world.

But institutions have stopped being formative, Yuval Levin contends. Changes in incentives and in culture have led people within institutions to resist being moulded in these forges. In the world of social media, service economy and 24/7 news, everyone wants to break the mould, be made of stars, be the leader on the panel show, not the follower in the trenches. Institutions have lost their way: they no longer discipline their members’ characters through convention, tradition and order; they have become platforms to promote the brands of the individuals who occupy but do not belong to them.

This deformation of institutions from formative to performative is seen in many types of institutions. For example, parliamentary institutions – the Congress in Levin’s nation, the Australian and Victorian Parliaments in mine – become platforms to get youtube and campaign highlights; they do not work as assemblies who deliberate on the critical issues, scrutinise the executive, and debate the merits and pitfalls of legislation. Read Hansard from any day of the Victorian Parliament (if it ever sits), and you will see the pathetic spectacle parliamentary democracy has become. But the same perversion of purpose, twisted from disciplined character to shallow performance, is seen in education, arts, the media, bureaucracy, business, philanthropy, social services, and even, disastrously so during this pandemic in Victoria, in health.

The unmooring of institutions from their past has weakened their immune system, and enabled their colonisation by the parasitic viruses of innovation and leadership. Everyone wants to be a leader, not to learn their craft. The fastest route to be a leader to drop into institutions from above like a paratrooper Do things new, don’t do things well, and, most of all, sell your brand – this philosophy underpins the overwhelming of institutions by the new nomenklatura of our society. The same philosophy underwrites the catastrophic failure across so many institutions over the last twenty years, including the tragic cluster of failures in government, health, universities and the media that has unfolded during the pandemic crisis.

Sadly, this cluster of failures has occurred in the institutions I have worked in for the last thirty years. Truly, the Victorian Government’s response to the coronavirus pandemic is the worst failure I have witnessed in government institutions in my entire public service career. I now live under government house arrest in a deep lockdown and cruel curfew, under orders not made lawfully by a Parliament, but arbitrarily, without public justification or reasoning, by a Chief Health Officer in command of nothing but his daily media performances. In the words of the Chief Health Officer himself, the latest episode of draconian interventions are structured as performance. They seek to send a message of “shock and awe,” directed by a government against its very own population, not to build the habits, institutions and immunities with which the people can resist the virus.

What is the treatment against this virus of institutional decay? Levin argues for restoring an ethic of institution building, including in the family, thinking of de Tocqueville’s observation of nineteenth century America that wherever three Americans are gathered, one will be elected Treasurer. I can think of no better cure.

It is perhaps put more extensively in the final chapter of Patrick J. Dineen’s Why Liberalism Failed.

“Building a culture in the midst of today’s anticulture is a profound challenge because of the flattened cultural wasteland produced by modern liberalism, as well as its jealous hostility to competitors. A culture is built from the bottom up, and like an organism, it maintains its DNA by passing itself on to subsequent generations. A self-conscious effort to build a new culture exists in basic contradiction to more organic origins and development of cultural practice. Yet the unique context of liberalism’s blighted cultural landscape demands something new. Ironically, given the default choice-based philosophy that liberalism has bequeathed to us, what might someday become a nonvoluntarist cultural landscape must be born out of voluntarist intentions, plans and actions. Such efforts should focus on building practices that sustain culture within communities, the fostering of household economics, and “polis life,” or forms of self-governance that arise from shared civic participation.” [my emphasis]

Patrick J. Dineen, Why Liberalism Failed (2018).

We must found new schools of our culture and our republics, and in the discipline of their education of our character find our way to true, ancient liberty.

Image Source: Yuval Levin speaking at Hillsdale College before a piece of art depicting the rebuilding of institutions.

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