Are America’s social and political institutions to blame for the culture wars we witness today? Have the norms and rules for civil interaction irrevocably decayed? Questions such as these are at the heart of this episode, in which EconTalk host Russ Roberts welcomed back Yuval Levin to discuss his book. In A Time to Build, Levin claims that we’ve lost trust in our institutions, the result of a culture that encourages us to “be ourselves” rather than striving to be better than we came into the world being. Roberts fears that those  “in charge” of institutions no longer impose their norms and social expectations.


Are people today drawn together to do something and simultaneously no longer drawn to our institutions? Have institutions become more performative than formative, as Kevin claims? To what extent should we view this as a problem, and what can we do about it anyway?




1- What evidence does Levin cite for the loss of trust in institutions at the center of his argument? How do institutions make people trustworthy, according to Levin? To what extent do you agree with his diagnosis?



2- Levin describes institutions today as follows: “… rather than people seeking a microphone in order to get power and change something, people now are seeking power in order to get a microphone. And that’s a bizarre situation.” What does Levin mean when he says our institutions have become per-formative rather than formative? To what extant is this change attributable to widespread prosperity?


3- Levin describes  a fragmentation of culture and the rise of “micro-celebrities”, in recent years, enabled in large part dues to technology. He believes we’re not yet aware enough of the trade-offs inherent in these trends, and he predicts MORE controls in future. What are some of these trade-offs and restrictions he predicts? Do you think we’ll see more such restrictions in the future? Explain.


4- In describing how we’ve gotten to this low point for American institutions, Levin asserts, “we’ve had now a politics of liberty in American life for 50 years, 60 years, where both parties are arguing about which of them gets to define the meaning of liberty. Is it fundamentally economic? Is it cultural?” How would you answer that question? And is Levin correct to characterize American political debate as centered on liberty?


5- The conversation closes with Roberts and Levin discussing how to close the culture war gap. What does Levin suggest in terms of institutional reforms? What does he posit as the “great unasked question of the moment” and what role does it play in mending our cultural divide? To what extent are you optimistic about its potential effectiveness?