Why Are Institutions Failing Us?

Perhaps our expectations of them have changed

Last week we looked at how the internet ate media & why we're never going back. This week we'll dig into how trust in institutions has evolved overtime in a more general sense.

Broadly speaking, the macro trend is an overall collapse of faith in institutions.

Gallup has been running polls on trust across a wide variety of American institutions since the 1970s: federal and city governments, churches, non-profits, public schools, boy scouts, the police, the military, and the press, for example. They found that institutional trust peaked in the 60s, only to decline rapidly in the following decades, and, on a national level, almost every major U.S. institution followed this pattern over the last 50 years.

It's interesting to see how this has evolved. The military used to be at the bottom of the trust list. After Vietnam, soldiers were literally spit on when they came home. Now we've put the military at the top of the list, and what’s fallen is the president, the press, and Congress (and more recently, the CDC and WHO too).

It's worth asking ourselves: is this justified?

Well, the way our institutions have responded to COVID is a recent reminder of just how poor their performance was (and is) — nearly every major institution has failed us.

Another question is if things have always been this way.

Last week we talked about this in terms of media:

Was pre-internet journalism better than what we see today?

One argument is that pre-internet, journalists had a more reliable source of revenue, enabling them to do more investigative work, and the business model shift to online advertising meant they'd now have to produce popular pieces more frequently.

To that I'd say the same social media platforms that changed the business of journalism also changed our perceptions of it. Was past journalism actually better? Or was it the same quality, but we called it great out of ignorance?

I think about how coverage of JFK, FDR, and others would have held up under social media. Walter Duranty, for example, won the Pulitzer in the 1930s for his reporting on the USSR, but we later learned he protected Stalin by denying his war crimes. In the 90s, there were calls to take away his prize, but he kept it.

How many other false stories pre-social media were never overturned?

I'd posit that what we see here in media is just a microcosm of our broader society — a shift away from centralized truth & authority towards a more decentralized way of consuming & producing information. With that shift comes various changes.

In the old days, we experienced media, culture, and politics through the lens of a centralized authority — we were fed whatever narrative they provided, and no one really knew just how bad the "bad news" was, nor did we have context to even wrap our heads around the idea of questioning that authority.

Take public schools for example: are they better today than they were 50 years ago? Maybe. Or, are they just as bad as they were 50 years ago and we don't realize it due to lack of transparency & context back then?

Today we see objections to institutional narratives, partly because we have more information, but mostly because that information is spread at an increasingly greater frequency. Our perception of the media has evolved just like it has with other institutions.

As a result, we've seen that institutions get less competent and more bureaucratic as they get older. It's clear that today's government in 2021 is not the same one that accomplished the Manhattan Project in 1950. The smartest people in the country today, on average, don’t go into government anymore, or at least at the scale that they used to. 

We also realized legacy institutions weren't built for the information age, and they’re beginning to show their cracks. As Balaji puts it, “no institution that preceded the internet will survive the internet.”

But there’s another way to look at this, that only tells a small part of the story but is a new lens by which to view it: Maybe our problems with current institutions aren’t only that they’re functioning poorly. Maybe it’s also that, for some institutions, we merely expect different things from them than we used to. 

Indeed: Maybe what’s changed isn’t that we think institutions and elites are failing us, but instead the scorecard by which we use to evaluate them altogether. 

We used to think institutions were a place for *formation*. Certainly education, that was where people learned how to be citizens. 

This expectation rested on certain assumptions on human nature, namely Christian or Hobbsean ones. We are born savages, the logic goes, and civilization makes us good. The goal of education is to mold us, to transform our caveman-like instincts into productive members of society. This also implied that the highest good for people is to contribute to something bigger than themselves (society, god, etc).

Today, we don’t think the role of institutions is formation. Instead, we think of institutions as places for individuals to *perform*. The role of institutions is explicitly not to form us, or at least not without consent — that would be oppression. 

This expectation rests on Rousseauian assumptions around human nature: We are born pure, and civilization corrupts us, the logic goes. Thus, the goal of institutions/elites is to get out of the way so we can maintain and perform our pureness.  So the goal in Rousseauian society is not to serve society or god, it’s to serve the self first and foremost. It’s embodied by the quote: “Don’t ask what the world needs, ask what makes you feel alive. Because what the world needs, is more people who feel alive.”

You can imagine an alternative version of this quote that might have different expectations of our institutions: “Don’t ask what makes you feel alive, ask what the world needs. Because what makes you feel alive, is giving the world what it needs.”

Put differently, the shift from a Christian/Hobbsean mentality to a Rousseauian one can be looked at as a change from "honor culture" to "dignity culture" (which I explored in more depth in my piece on therapy culture).

"Honor" was thought of as fitting yourself into the role society expected of you — "knowing your place." Whether you had honor depended on whether you could step into the role that was expected of you. When Socrates said “Know thyself” he really meant "know your role in society.” 

Today we live in a “dignity culture” — one where we believe we should have a right to pursue any role we want. Whether you have dignity depends on whether society recognizes you for who you want to be seen as.

In addition to the focus on the self as the highest goal, another corresponding shift is a change in how we think about truth. Given that man is born perfect in a Rousseauian world, any knowledge that asks man to change is oppressive, whether it’s religion, science, or any other external truth. Truth is not “out there”, the logic goes, it’s within you. So the new spin on Descartes is basically “I feel it, and therefore it is true.” Which of course results in relativism — if there’s no way to adjudicate competing truths, then everyone’s truth is fair game. This is a recipe for conflict. 

Which is why stronger institutions — at least institutions that we think of as forming, like education and media — won’t fix this problem. The Rousseauists don’t want institutions to help them acclimate better to society, they want them to get out of the way so they can be themselves — or more precisely, reengineer society so they can be in reality who they are in their imaginations (totally equal to others). The Hobbesians want the opposite; they want formation and cohesion.

There are plenty of institutions that could be performing better in ways everyone agrees with, where we all have the same expectations of them and their failures are seen and agreed upon by all.

But there are other institutions where our expectations diverge — education being a prominent example — and if we want them to perform “better”, we should first align on exactly what “better” means and looks like.


Read of the week: Interview with Mike Solana

Watch of the week: Learning to Fight, by the founder of Replit. Excited to see follow up videos.

Listen of the week: Julia Galef and Jonathan Haidt

Cosign of the week: Geoff Schullenberger and his podcast, Outsider Theory. He’s coming on Big Ideas Clubhouse show this Wednesday night at 730 PM PST.

Until next week,

Erik