Confessions of an Institutional Dropout

Editor’s note: This essay is part of a Law & Liberty Symposium on Yuval Levin’s A Time to Build.

In 1956, William H. Whyte published a book that would transform the American conversation about management and corporate culture. A classic of post-War America, The Organization Man argued that sprawling institutions were smothering creativity and stifling entrepreneurship. People need freedom, Whyte claimed, to develop their personal potential, setting the stage for a thriving economy and culture. When managers become habituated and insular, they will also be complacent and risk-averse. Institutions must be constrained to enable individuals to flourish.

More than sixty years later, Yuval Levin has written a book calling for more organization men. It’s an unusual take, but as with most of Levin’s work, the volume gives readers plenty to think about, offering an insightful critique of American politics and culture. Already the book has inspired much worthwhile discussion about institutions, and their potential to help repair America’s fraying social fabric. Coming to the final page, though, it still feels as though the ghost of William Whyte may be lingering on the premises somewhere, itching to offer a rebuttal. Stronger institutions would be beneficial in many ways, but conformity still has serious costs. If we are planning to embark on a new era of building, we need to do it with our eyes open.

Purposeful Institutions

Levin’s book offers an excellent explanation of why institutions matter. There is, indeed, a certain genius to the way he turns populist memes on their heads, showing how the medicine Americans most fear, may in fact be the cure we need. For the past several years, he observes, populist movements left and right have called for the dismantling of many of our key institutions: Wall Street, Congress, the universities, our health care system, major media outlets. We’ve persuaded ourselves that we want our organizations to be more democratic, transparent, and responsive to popular demand. What we actually need, Levin argues, is the reverse: stronger, more purposeful institutions that can channel their members’ energies towards the fulfillment of shared goals.

When institutions are obsessed with transparency and responsiveness, they lose the ability to maintain an institutional culture. Inevitably, institutions then lose focus and fragment. Instead of working together to fill a core social function, individuals start treating the institution itself as a platform, which they may freely use to advance personal goals. Journalists stop fact-checking and focus their energies on promoting preferred political candidates. Scholars shelve the classics of their discipline, and race to join the social justice parade. Congressmen neglect the hard work of hammering out effective legislation, instead treating Capitol Hill as a stage for a histrionic performative politics.

As institutions continue to erode, we find ourselves with a wealthy elite that has all the entitlement and privilege of a landed aristocracy, with no corresponding sense of noblesse oblige. Understandably, ordinary people become angry and rage against a system that feels rigged. In fact though, Levin argues, we don’t need to dismantle the institutions that have elevated our entitled technocrats to their lofty perches. Rather, we need to strengthen them, enabling them to channel and constrain the activities of their contributing members. It’s good to help talented people find their way to appropriate work, but those opportunities need to be paired both with institutional duties, and with that, a sense of professional obligation.

This is an impressive argument, with a great deal of explanatory power. Even better, Levin’s theory points us in the direction of some real solutions. To move forward from our present political funk, we must embrace this moment in history as “a time to build”. The future will belong to the party, movement, or group that can pull themselves together and create something (or many somethings), instead of raging endlessly against political failures that no one is willing to own. At present, both the populist left and the populist right prefer to cast themselves as political outsiders, seeking to dismantle a broken system. Levin hopes to inspire fellow conservatives to lay bitterness aside, instead putting their energies into the vital work of building a future. If he can persuade at least a share of them to do this, his book will be a triumph indeed.

Strong Platforms and Weak Molds

It will not be easy. Institution-building presents certain challenges in our time, some of which seem underexplored in this book. Levin has admirably sketched the characteristic strengths of institutions. What about those weaknesses that led Whyte and others to reject institutional culture in favor of ingenuity, creativity, and personal integrity? A Time To Build does discuss at some length the regrettable tendency of institutions to preserve and perpetuate real injustice. That is indeed one potential problem, but institutions have other drawbacks too. Throughout the book, Levin repeatedly contrasts the “mold” of a healthy institution with the “platform” of an unhealthy one, arguing that human beings can only thrive with the help of organizations that habituate virtuous tendencies, and constrain vicious ones. There is an obvious Aristotelian logic to this, and no reasonable person could really be opposed to the sort of institution that inspires its members to work earnestly and responsibly towards salutary goals. If we presume, though, that our present culture is fractured, demoralized, and steeped in vice, it’s unclear whether institutions can really be an effective remedy.

To this reviewer’s mind, it seems that the proliferation of “platforms” is actually one of the most encouraging signs of vitality in contemporary American culture. A corresponding revival of healthy institutions would be welcome indeed, but if such a thing is possible, I suspect it will involve the forging of a productively symbiotic relationship between the institutional “mold” and these more adaptable “platforms” that have enabled individuals or small groups to foster some of the creativity, ingenuity, and optimism that Whyte celebrated in his classic book. Levin’s contrast of “molds” and “platforms” is evocative, but this paradigm also has obvious limitations. Even if we leave aside concerns about corruption and abuses of power, no reasonable person supposes that our run-of-the-mill institutions can be so benevolent, judicious, and well-governed as to balance employee needs and institutional mission with perfect exactitude. In a deeply fractured and unmoored society, institutions will struggle to “keep their balance” just as individuals do, and we can’t assume that the former will always be the more successful. Instead of viewing “platforms” as competitors to healthy institutions, it would be better to find ways to employ each as a salutary counterbalance to the other.

Life on the Outside

After reading A Time To Build, I started reflecting on my own personal history with institutions, and I noticed to my bemusement that I’m really something of an institutional drop-out. This isn’t entirely true, insofar as I am a wife and mother (to five sons), and a faithfully practicing Catholic of nearly fifteen years. Having said that, I’ve walked away from many of the most important and defining institutions of my life, and even my commitments to home, family, and Church have been solidified in significant ways by my involvement in “platforms”: the relationships I’ve formed through social media, and the opportunities I’ve found as a freelance writer in an ever-shifting gig economy.

At present, I feel deep gratitude for one institution that has contributed richly to the life of my family: my children’s classically-oriented parochial school. When my boys grumble about school policies, I steadfastly support the school. Outside that context though, I’ve noticed that my parental instincts favor the more self-reliant virtues. I do want my kids to be pious, courteous, and public-spirited, but I seem to put more energy into instilling curiosity, creativity, courage, and resourcefulness. I suspect this reflects my own mixed history with institutions, and my general perception that modern life simply doesn’t (and perhaps can’t) supply the sorts of “molds” that can form us as prudent, conscientious, purposeful human beings. At the risk of navel-gazing, it may be worth elaborating on this point.

I was raised in what is arguably one of America’s most robust and healthy institutions: the Mormon church. Growing up, my spiritual and social world was overwhelmingly Mormon, which was a blessing in myriad ways. Mormons build wonderful, family-oriented communities. I never doubted that the expected lifestyle choices (avoiding tobacco and alcohol, respecting traditional sexual norms) were a small price to pay for the good of maintaining standing in that community. There was one obstacle, though, that eventually became overwhelming. I found it hard to accept the LDS Church’s account of its own history and theology. In rejecting that, it seemed I necessarily rejected its authority too, which made my Mormon life feel like a lie. I walked away from the LDS faith with clear conscience, but also with considerable regret.

Eventually I found in Roman Catholicism what Mormonism could not supply: a faith I could genuinely affirm. I am grateful for this, but on the level of community, leaving Mormonism for Catholicism seemed a poor trade. The institutional (Catholic) Church is deeply troubled on many levels, so it took considerable time and initiative to find my way to a Catholic community where I actually wanted to live.

What About Liberty?

There is, it seems to me, a broader point to be found here. Insofar as institutions do have thick content, and a robust defining culture, there will inevitably be people who have strong and conscientious reasons to walk away. Constraints can be salutary, but they can also be personally compromising, and communities that are admirable in certain senses may still impinge on our personal integrity in unacceptable ways.  A more strongly institution-oriented society probably won’t restrict itself to threatening trivial personal freedoms. It may trespass on more significant and defining personal commitments too. In some respects, Silicon Valley corporate culture or Middlebury College campus life may represent comparatively successful efforts at building a strong institutional subculture. This isn’t the sort of institution-building Levin hopes to see, of course, but why assume it wouldn’t be representative? Can a society as divided as ours reasonably hope to have strong institutions that are genuinely unifying?

My life as a mother has underscored a similar point. For most my early adulthood, I was deeply involved in another kind of institution: the Academy. As an undergraduate at Notre Dame this was a very positive experience; as a doctoral student at Cornell it was a bit more fraught. Cornell’s philosophy department wasn’t entirely comfortable for a conservatively-inclined Catholic neophyte. Still, I found that community invigorating on the whole. It was only after I married and started working as an adjunct professor in my husband’s Catholic institution, that I experienced the soul-crushing side of the Academy. Within a few weeks of my arrival there, I unwittingly tripped into controversy by trying to join an informal reading group. Not everyone thought it appropriate for adjuncts to fraternize with regular faculty in that way. That eye-opening experience was just the first of many, which made clear to me that the university wanted me to contribute to its mission even while clearly understanding and acknowledging that I was not, and could not realistically expect to be, a bona fide member of that intellectual community.

Quite obviously, this was not the sort of institutional involvement that would channel my energies in a fulfilling way. At the same time, my family’s needs limited my options rather severely. I could not move, travel extensively, or keep a regular work schedule. My day-to-day activities mostly revolved around the relentless needs of young children. For a time, I made a sustained effort to re-center my energies around that life, making motherhood itself my primary identity and vocation. The idea made sense to a former Mormon, and much more could be said about the reasons it didn’t work out as I envisioned. In short though, I came to understand that motherhood would be miserable for me unless I could find a way of filling the role that was compatible with the temperament, talents, and personal interests that I actually have. Molds have their place, but it’s simply foolish to spend your life trying to cram a square peg into a round hole. We need to give ourselves to our children, instead of trying to pass off a shoddy simulacrum of the person we feel we ought to have been.

Institutions for the Culture We Actually Have

Eventually, I was able to piece together a new kind of intellectual life, outside the Academy, while still wiping ten sticky hands as needed. I’d like to say that this would somehow have happened even without Facebook, Twitter, or the army of online platforms, always in need of content. Realistically though, it doesn’t seem likely. Institutions, as I learned, are fairly inflexible about the terms on which members involve themselves. The constraints they impose can be salutary, but very often they are not. They may squelch good ideas, exclude people for arbitrary reasons, or prevent healthy communities from forming simply because the would-be members are too diverse (in their ages, locations, or life states) to come together naturally in an institutional setting. One of the most delightful things about online fora (blogs, websites, or social media) is their potential to spark friendships among people with superficial differences, but also some deeper commonalities in terms of their interests or beliefs. Certainly, there are benefits to supporting intellectual life through institutions. But platforms have unique advantages too, which can seem very precious to people who for one reason or another are unable to find an appropriate institutional home. Perhaps we need to think more about the best ways to use those strengths, so that platforms can be supportive of healthy institutions, and not parasitic.

A healthy society will always have need of some good, conscientious organization men. Right now we need more of them, and A Time To Build makes a strong case for this. Levin is at his best when explaining why elites in particular need institutional constraints, both to solidify their legitimacy, and to prevent abuses of power. This is a truth populists need to take to heart: corrupt, unconstrained outsiders cannot solve our crisis of legitimacy. Our technocratic upper class is actually extremely good at many things, but they need to re-commit themselves to acting within set boundaries. We as a people can help them by rewarding elites who demonstrate that willingness to be constrained, instead of flocking to figures who give free rein to personal ambition and ideological zeal.

Having said that, we should also be aware of the limitations of institutions. It’s pleasant to imagine a world in which “there is an institution for everyone, and everyone in his institution”. Perhaps that just isn’t realistic under modern conditions, though. We may need to train our children to be discerning, about their institutional involvement as well as their lives more broadly. They should understand that institutions can be good for them (either despite, or because of, the constraints they impose), but they should also understand how to adapt institutional roles or walk away from them with dignity, if that’s what personal integrity demands.

This is, as Levin says, a time to build. But institutions aren’t the only things in the world worth building.