Send out the Clowns

21 October 2020
Send out the Clowns - Featured image

This book review from the Winter 2020 edition of the IPA Review is written by IPA Research Fellow, Cian Hussey.

According to a 2019 election study published by the Australian National University, only 25 per cent of Australians think our government can be trusted. While certainly a low figure, it becomes more alarming when compared to the 1969 result of 51 per cent. This decline reflects a systemic issue facing Western societies: public trust in institutions has been in free fall in recent decades.

Why do people feel they no longer can trust society’s major institutions, from media reporting the nightly news to banks holding their life savings? If one is to believe the elites within such institutions, any lack of trust is the fault of the public. Never before have institutions been filled with so many experts who can model every conceivable issue, and design just the right intervention to solve it.

Many institutions have become mere platforms for personal celebrity.

But the public are right to be distrustful, Yuval Levin argues in his new book A Time to Build. When institutions fail to fulfil their essential roles in society—and instead focus on trivial matters outside their remit—trust in them declines. The basis for Levin’s thesis is this distinction between formative institutions serving a social role and performative institutions that only provide a stage for partisan politics.

A Time to Build
Yuval Levin
Basic Books, 2020,

The World Health Organisation is a clear current example of a failing performative institution. In December 2018, the WHO’s director of public and environmental health was busy chastising world leaders for not providing enough solar panels and windmills, claiming failure to do so made them “responsible for millions of deaths every year”. Only a year later, the WHO completely abdicated its responsibility to protect millions of people around the world from a genuine and immediate threat to public health: COVID-19.

As outlined by the Hoover Institute’s Lanhee Chen in a piece for the Wall Street Journal on April 8, during the pandemic the WHO has prioritised “politics over public health”, acquiescing to the whims of Beijing rather than protecting the lives of millions of people around the world who have been infected.

The WHO is the epitome of a performative institution, one in which the public can have little faith. As Levin notes in his book,

When we don’t think of our institutions as formative but as performative—when the presidency and Congress are just stages for political performance art, when a university becomes a venue for vain virtue signalling, when journalism is indistinguishable from activism—they become harder to trust. They aren’t really asking for our confidence, just for our attention.

The difference between institutions seeking confidence (formative) and those seeking attention (performative) is key to understanding how much trust the public places in them. Many institutions have forgone their role of being formative moulds for the individuals within them, and have instead become mere platforms for personal celebrity. Instead of carrying out their important work in society, and in doing so imposing standards and rules that make their members better people, they step back and pass the microphone to pontificating individuals who do not have a framework to act responsibly in the interest of the public. As a result, trust in these institutions has fallen off a cliff.

As Levin notes, one institution which (in the United States at least) stands apart as a clear example of a trusted formative institution is the military. While trust in every other major institution has decreased over the past 50 years, trust in the military has actually increased. As Levin argued in an opinion piece for the New York Times on January 18, the military is the most “unabashedly formative of our national institutions—molding men and women who clearly take a standard of behaviour and responsibility seriously”.

Institutions must reorient themselves from performative to the formative.

Restoring institutions to be formative moulds, then, is key to rebuilding trust in them. Institutions act as a mould when they impose expectations on those within them, when they hold them up to a certain standard while expecting them to fulfil a given function. This cannot be done when those within an institution do not take their role and responsibility seriously. While it may seem trivial, and perhaps harmless, that institutions and the individuals within them engage in the political or cultural issue of the day, by doing so they undermine their ability to serve the community.

The military is a trusted formative institution: US soldiers commemorate
Abraham Lincoln’s 211th birthday at the Lincoln Memorial this year.
Photo: US Army/Staff Sgt Maryam Treece

For example, a Californian police force which purchased an electric car in an effort to appear more environmentally conscious undermined their role to protect the public when the car ran out of charge during a pursuit.

And at the height of a safety crisis during which six workers died in mines and quarries, the Queensland Government’s Coal Mining Safety and Health Advisory Committee could not meet for four months as it did not have at least 50 per cent female representation.

Levin’s framework is useful for understanding these examples. The police force should protect the community and in doing so acts as a formative mould for the individuals within it to respect, protect and serve their communities. And a safety and health committee is pointless if its first priority is not to ensure health and safety. Instead, when these institutions focus on performing they prioritise vain virtue signalling to the detriment of the public.

So, can the public really be blamed for their falling trust in institutions? Levin argues the institutions themselves are responsible, and to restore the public’s trust they must reorient themselves from the performative to the formative.

Levin has no silver bullet. Rather, he sees it as the responsibility of the individual to constantly ask “given my role here, how should I behave?” This is a prerequisite rather than a substitute for reforms within institutions. When a journalist, for example, asks themselves how they should behave given their role, they are allowing the integrities and purposes of the institution of journalism to mould them in some small way. Levin sees this as a practical step for the journalist to be guided by the pursuit of truth and a desire to impartially and reliably report to the public, rather than lecture them on any given controversy.

Individuals must focus on building up institutions rather than giving up on them.

If more individuals did this they would become more trustworthy, and over time the institutions they are a part of—whether familial, educational, professional or civic—would become more trusted.

As suggested by the title, A Time to Build recommends that individuals focus on building up institutions rather than giving up on them. While institutions have failed demonstrably, they are worth preserving and rebuilding. Asking ourselves what we can do to participate in this restoration is the first step.

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