Intro. [Recording date: February 24, 2020.]
Russ Roberts: Today is February 4, 2020. My guest is author of political scientist, Yuval Levin. He is Director of Social, Cultural, and Constitutional Studies at the American Enterprise Institute. He is editor of National Affairs. His latest book, which is the subject of today's conversation, is A Time to Build. This is his third appearance on EconTalk. He was last here in July of 2016. Yuval, welcome back to EconTalk.
Yuval Levin: Thanks very much for having me.
Russ Roberts: Your book is really a deep look at what is troubling about America today, and it's probably the first story I've heard, first narrative of what's wrong, that actually spoke deeply to me as a possible explanation for why I feel the way I do about the state of America. And we're going to get to that and I want to let you tell that story yourself first. Which is that you suggest we've lost trust in our institutions. Let's start with what you mean by an institution, and then we'll talk about what evidence we have for that loss of trust.
Yuval Levin: Yeah. Well, obviously the term institution is not a simple thing to define. Such a fundamental thing is inherently going to be difficult to frame. And if you look at the academic literature on institutions, there are just a vast number of different definitions. The political scientist, Hugh Heclo, about 20 years ago wrote a book where he actually tried to go through these different definitions, and he stopped when he reached 100 definitions. But , ultimately, a lot of them do fall into a few groups.
I would say I define institutions as the forms of our common life, the structures, the shapes of the things we do together. So that ultimately what institutions do is allow us to be more than just clumps of individuals, but really wholes that are directed to purposes and that are structured in ways that enable us to achieve those purposes.
So, institutions are very obviously institutions: A company or a civic association, a school, a legislature. These are clearly institutions.
So institutions are a little harder to define as such, but there are central institutions. The family is the first and foremost institution of any society; the institution of marriage; a profession is an institution. They're all ways that form our common action in ways that make it more effective.
Russ Roberts: You could argue they're part of what we call , sometimes, civil society. They're typically emergent--they're not designed from the top down. So, I like distinguishing between, say, the New York Times, which is an institution in some sense of the word. We might call it what such an institution. But at the same time, I think talking about the media, say, or the way we gain information as an institution is, I think for me, a more useful way to think about it. Once you do that, of course it's much harder to define. But I like your point about it's a way that we work together voluntarily, typically. There are involuntary aspects of every one of these. But, what you emphasize are the norms and informal rules that these institutions develop over time.
Why do you argue that we've lost trust? What's the evidence for that?
Yuval Levin: Well, the evidence for loss of trust is just immense . In a simple sense, if you measure people's trust in institutions by asking them about it, as Gallup has done in regular way since the early 1970s, you find a dramatic loss of public confidence in almost all of our major public institutions--where, in the early 1970s, majorities of Americans expressed confidence in our political institutions, in our major professional institutions, in big corporations and banks and the healthcare system. In all of those cases now, we've seen a dramatic decline in trust in institutions.
Now, there are a number of ways to read those numbers. In one sense, American confidence in institutions in the middle of the 20th century was exceptionally high, and we should see that that period was not a norm in American life.
It still matters that we've fallen from that high, and we've lived through the experience of having our confidence in institutions collapse that way. But it is important to see that Americans have not always been a people who are confident in the institutions of their society. I think if you'd looked in on the America of the 19th century, almost any point in the 19th century, you probably would have found fairly low confidence in institutions in a society that was undergoing immense dynamic change, huge waves of immigration, the kinds of things we're living through now. But, that said, there's no question that we have been losing confidence lately; and that the loss has been accelerating and has been dramatic.
The book really tries to think through why that would be and what that has to do with the larger kinds of social problems that we're confronting in American life.
Russ Roberts: Yeah. It's interesting : I asked you about trust--I think that's a word you use a lot in the book--but you substituted the word confidence. They're slightly different, and I would suggest that they're both problems--that both confidence and trust has gone down.
Obviously when you've lost trust, you lose confidence. We used to rely on expertise and decision makers who have power, to some degree that they would do the right thing. We had trust in them that they would do the right thing and then we were confident that they were.
So we've both lost the trust that they'll do the right thing and we're no longer confident that they will do the right thing.
Yuval Levin: Yeah, trust is a useful way to think about our attitude towards institutions because it forces us to ask : What does it really mean to trust an institution, given this sort of definition I've offered of what I think an institution is?
What I argue in the book is that we trust an institution when we think that it forms trustworthy people. An institution organizes common action, and in the process it also creates a kind of ethic, a way that people do what they do together. And, that ethic is not just about performing a function: it's not just about teaching children, or enforcing the law, or providing a good or a service. It's about doing it in a certain way. And that way is what builds our trust. So that we think that the people who are involved in this school have an ethic that takes the education of my children and their safety and happiness seriously. Or we think that these political institutions seem to create public officials who are trustworthy in how they do their work. And it's that formation of trustworthy people that leads us to have trust in institutions.
I think our loss of trust in institutions is a loss of the sense that that is what our major institutions do: that they form trustworthy people.
And that explains some of the exceptions too. The military, for example, is the one major national institution in which we have more trust now than we did 40 years ago. I don't think that's just because we think the military protects our country from its enemies. Well, it does do that. But I think it has a lot to do with the fact that we think the military forms men and women who are better than they were when they came in, and who live by a certain ethic, believe in certain ideals. We take the military seriously that way. And it's become harder to do that with some of our other institutions.
Russ Roberts: But I think there's an additional point you make in the book that speaks a little more deeply to me, or a little more clearly to me, which is: it's not just that the people in these institutions are trustworthy--some examples would be military leaders, university professors, journalists, my doctor. It's not just that the institution molds them in a trustworthy way--and I should add that that word you use a lot. It molds people. It forms them. It's that it molds and forms them in ways that are consistent with what I perceive as the goal of the institution or the achievement that the institution is able to do.
And, it's a challenge for me, as a fan of emergent order, to talk about this because we don't always have the vocabulary to do this. So our institutions aren't designed.
So, let's take the media as an example. The media is not designed to be truth-seekers. There's nobody overseeing it, there's nobody in charge of it. But it has come, through time, perhaps overly romanticized--it has come to be seen as a place that establishes--an institution, an organization, a set of organizations, excuse me, a set of organizations that work at informing me. And, it has a set of ethics for its participants that are consistent with that mission.
Now, there may literally be a mission statement or hippocratic oath in the case of medicine of not doing any harm. But, most of these norms and ethics are vague. What Adam Smith would call 'vague and indeterminate.' They're not closely specified. But I watch and am acted on by the people in these organizations, these institutions. And when I see a disconnect between their behavior and what I perceive as the mission, it's jarring.
And that's one of the first things I should say that your book really brought home for me. Like, why do I find the time we're in, these times, so troubling, so chaotic? Why do I feel like the earth has shifted beneath my feet? You gave me a way to see that, a vocabulary and a framework--and this is just the first part of it. It's not so complex. I just want to go slowly because I think it's so interesting.
But the first thing is to notice that, 'Hey, these people are not doing what I thought their job was.' And when you see that, to take an example, if you see a journalist promoting himself or herself on Twitter to the degradation of their role as truth seeker, I find that weird. Of course, I'm 65 years old. Maybe for 25-year old, it's like, 'Oh, no big deal, and normal.' But for me, it's a breakdown of something.
Similarly, a doctor prescribes a drug that is provided by a pharmaceutical company that takes them on a summer vacation under the guise of a conference--that bothers me. I understand it, but it bothers me.
So I think it's not just that the people don't act in a trustworthy way, like there's something devious about them. It's that they're acting in a way that doesn't conform to what I understood to be the goal of that set of organizations.
Yuval Levin: Yeah. Yeah. There's a lot there and it's quite wonderful, I would say. I think this gets to the key point--
Russ Roberts: I just read your book. You've read it for weeks probably.
Yuval Levin: Yeah. Well, yeah, weeks is one way to put it.
I think that really gets at a core point of the book, which can be very challenging to articulate, which for me is a kind of Aristotelian point about form, about structure. And so I lean on terms like 'mold,' which I think is a big part of what institutions do: We pour ourselves into them and they give us a certain shape and form. Use the term conform, which I think is one of those wonderful 'form-' words: conform, reform, deform, transform. These words are related to each other in ways that really tell us something. And what institutions do when they're functioning well is they give us a certain form that's related to their purpose.
And so that means that there is such a thing in the world as, say, an accountant. That's a certain human type; and it's a person of whom we have certain expectations that are defined by our understanding of what the profession is and what its institutions are and do. Or a lawyer or a doctor or a journalist or a parent or a neighbor in our community. These things are--our expectations of them are shaped by the nature of the institution and by its purpose and its ethic.
And when people behave in ways that don't conform to those expectations, it is, as you say, very jarring. It strikes us as something is wrong, and in some way the institution has failed to form that person through an ethic we can take seriously.
I think one of the things that has happened in our time that's led to this collapse of trust in institutions has to do with failures of formation.
So, there's a simple way that that can happen and that isn't at all distinct to our time, which is just institutional corruption. Sometimes institutions tell us that they make these people trustworthy, but in fact they're just protecting misbehavior.
So when a bank cheats its customers, when a priest abuses a child--this is corruption. It's abuse of power. And it is certainly a failure to behave in conformity with what the institution ought to be doing. But, it's a very familiar kind of failure. I described it in the book as 'insiderism.' It's people using the fact that they're in the institution to abuse their power.
What we see now alongside that is what I call 'outsiderism,' which is people not seeking to be formed by the institution at all--and in some ways the institution is not seeking to form them--but instead looking to the institution for a platform, for a place to stand and be seen in society.
And, when an institution becomes not a mold but a platform, it fails to provide that ethic. It fails to form that individual.
And that actually makes it much harder for us to trust that institution, because it's not only failing to be formative: it isn't even trying. It's only offering a platform for prominence, a way to be seen, a stage to stand on--particularly a stage in our big culture wars. And what you see in a lot of our prominent institutions now is that they are becoming, for the people within them, more like platforms than molds; and so people stand on them and yell about big cultural and political issues rather than treating them as ways to be formed to play a part in our society.
Russ Roberts: I think that's exactly--you really put your finger on what is, I think, some of the most disturbing aspects of both the culture war and the institutional breakdown that you're chronicling.
You concede--I'm going to rephrase your insiderism for a minute--it's a human failure. It's not a so-called institutional failure; it's not a breakdown of anything. We're all imperfect, and sometimes we fail to live up to our responsibilities. We all understand that. That's an indictment of the individual not of a collection of individuals acting in some institutional way.
We also understand--you understand in[?] your book and I, we all understand as people go through life--that a lot of times we don't like to be molded, we don't want to conform to the norms. I won't identify this person, but I remember there was a story--it might be apocryphal; I doubt it, I think it's true--that the chairman of an economics department went in to a senior member of the department said, 'I'd like you to be on such a committee.' Well, committees aren't fun. Most academics don't like them. Faced with that request, senior faculty often say, 'Okay, what will you do for me? What do I get?' They might say they'll just do it. They might say, 'I'd rather not. Is there any way I can get out of it? Can you find someone else?' This person, perhaps apocryphally but I doubt it, yelled at the chairman and said, 'I'm doing really important research. I'm going to get a Nobel Prize. You're part of the problem. Don't [?] say--don't see me as part of the solution.' And the chairman scurried out.
That story is not inconsistent with university life today, which is: it's a set of researchers, often at the top universities, who see themselves as essentially self-employed. They do what they want, they teach a little bit, not too much, and they expect the university to provide a platform for them--for their research, for their speaking, for their media, their social media. And most institutions, most universities say, 'Yes, that'll be--absolutely. No problem.'
So, we understand that human beings don't like to be molded, don't like to be told what to do. I think what has changed is that the people in charge--again, I don't want to use too many verbs after institution. I don't want to say 'institutions don't' or 'institutions do.'
But I would say that the people in charge of individual parts of organizations that make up the larger institution have become increasingly uncomfortable with imposing those norms and social expectations on their participants. Whether that's journalists, people working in hospitals, and people working in universities, and even people working in religion, people working certainly in--not working--family members: We're uncomfortable telling our siblings perhaps, or our children, what they should do. All those things have fallen away to a large extent over the last 50 years, it feels like.
Yuval Levin: Yeah, I think that's right. And there's an element of this that's always there. The resistance to being formed is a natural thing, and nobody likes to be made into something that isn't what they're trying to be. It's also a distinctly American thing, in some ways. Our culture is rooted in a kind of Protestantism that doesn't like mediation, that doesn't like the intrusion of institutions between man and God, and identifies directness with authenticity. And so I think there's always been some American resistance to what institutions actually do. Even though at the same time, we've always been institution builders as Americans.
But I do think there's also a way, now--in our time or in recent decades, say--that our cultures encourage us to be ourselves rather than encouraging us to be better than what we came into the world being.
And in some ways, there are elements of what we describe broadly as our culture war. They are actually about the question of which of those is more right? Do we enter the world ready to be free but imposed on and oppressed by various institutions and what we need from our politics is liberation? Or, do we enter the world fallen, unprepared and in need of formation, and that formation is what we need from our institutions? That's an old Left/Right difference. And I think that it's a difference that's become very important in our cultural combat lately. And it shows itself in our attitude toward institutions.
When a major university--and I won't name it either--sends a catalog to prospective students, and at the top of it it says, 'Be yourself,' I think that's an institution that's confused about what its purpose is.
Russ Roberts: Yeah; I'd say it differently. I'd say it's got a different purpose than it had 50 years ago, a purpose that you and I might not like. But that's the question I hope we'll get to, is that some of these institutions have just evolved in directions that are different. I think they're good, or bad, but they're certainly different. I think just noticing is an enormous and fascinating way to think about this. In fact, just to summarize what we've been talking about, because I think this was just so helpful to me: I was talking earlier about how it felt like the earth was moving beneath my feet. I've written an essay called "The World Turned Upside Down." Something has gone wrong. What it is? Some people are, 'It's too much populism,' or 'It's too much cosmopolitanism.' We all pick our own favorite '-ism' that we like and then we don't like, and make that comparison.
But I think you've really identified something much deeper, which is that the ground has shifted beneath the feet of the people in these institutions. And those of us who are part of them, those of us who consume their output, their work, who contribute to them or enjoy their--what they do--across the board, and this is why it's such a useful of deep insight--across the board, these institutions as you put it, have become per-formative rather than formative.
And that just--a light bulb came on for me when I read that. I tend to think about the media as the most disturbing thing that's going on. I follow a lot of journalists on Twitter from the Left and the Right, and they write things that are shocking. And retweet things that are shocking to someone who purports to be objective. I know in the past they weren't objective. That's okay.
But they pretended to be and they at least strove to be. They tried to be. And now they seem like they don't try to be.
I understand that different things happen in universities besides the pursuit of truth. But when it's shoved in your face that this institution, which has been the backbone of, say, Western civilization to some extent for the last 400 years is now doing something really different. And, it's just like, 'Oh my gosh, things are out of control.' Well, no, there's actually this uniform thing going on across the board that you've identified.
So, I just I want to salute you and encourage readers to read your book, just for that. And there are other things we're going to get into. But using that lens as a way to look at what has, quote, "gone wrong" or at least what has changed, I think is extremely useful.
Yuval Levin: Well, thank you very much. I do think that it helps us see some of the ways that people behave in inexplicable ways that aren't really inexplicable, that speak of their having different expectations of themselves and those around them than we might imagine.
Journalism--I talk about journalism in the context of professions. And I think that professions are enormously important institutions in forming people and in forming our place in society. And journalism is a good example because what the profession does for its members is, in a sense, ensconced them in a set of rules and norms and practices that they can point to in order to make a claim to some authority or legitimacy or expertise. A lot of our institutions do that.
I would say journalism is modeled a little bit on science in the way that. It has a method at the core of it, and that method says, 'What I say is what I know and here's how I know it.' And, it also enables people to exhibit their very sense of the limits of what they know as something to be proud of. They can be proud of their modesty. Scientists are better at this than journalists, but--
Russ Roberts: And fiscal scientists are better than social scientists--
Yuval Levin: Yeah, they really are.
But what you find happening now with social media, in some ways with cable news and other things, is individual journalists taking themselves out of that formative shell and putting themselves, as individuals, on a performative platform, and just being out there, building their own brand, rather than allowing themselves to be shaped by the frameworks of the institution. And they are simply shredding any authority that the profession has. They're out there undermining the authority of the institutions that they are part of in just a dramatic, obvious way. And there are a lot of incentives driving them to it. They're not crazy. But what they're doing ultimately is making it much harder for us to trust journalism.
And then they complain about other people doing the same thing.
I think when reporters complain about Donald Trump--as they rightly do, in a lot of ways--they should think about whether what Trump is doing relative to what the Presidency is supposed to be isn't very similar to what a lot of political reporters are doing relative to what journalism is supposed to be. They are engaging in a kind of indulgent performative version of the real thing that makes the real thing much harder to do.
Russ Roberts: So, the way an economist would usually look at this is it's a free rider problem. So: My incentives aren't perfectly aligned with the group's, and so I have an incentive to free ride: 'I have an incentive to pursue my own self-interest at the expense of the group's.'
And, societies, organizations, cultures find ways to punish free-riders. It's usually with anything from shame, to jail, to fines--all kinds of ways.
A journalist who looks out for herself rather than for her institution, a professor who teaches poorly and spends his time on research so that he can enhance his brand name outside the university--those things have happened; like you say, in a way, those are just a form of corruption that has happened all throughout human history.
What seems to be that's changed, as I said earlier, is the willingness of the people with some power to impose costs on people to do that.
Now, one of the reasons that's true is that if you impose those costs, some of those people now just leave: they go to another place where their costs won't be imposed. So, that just pushes the question of what's going on here back another layer. But I do think that's a huge part of what we're talking about--an unwillingness--excuse me, an inability. The incentives that you just mentioned briefly, it's a huge part of what's going on here.
I want to home in on that actually because--let's take an example from economics. Thirty, forty years ago, there were three famous economists in the world who were alive. There was Paul Samuelson, there was Milton Friedman, and there was John Kenneth Galbraith. Friedman and Samuelson were famous because they got to write a weekly column, they took turns writing in the back of Newsweek. John Kenneth Galbraith was famous because he wrote books that people wanted to read. There really weren't too many other than that. Right now, there's probably only a few economists as famous as those three, but there's another 500 that are pretty well known, and those folks do well. I might be one of them. Pretend I'm not part of this problem. We suddenly have opportunities available to us, that weren't available before.
In the old days, a professor made something probably close to the median salary and was not well known other than to the 50 or 100 or a few hundred students that they taught over the course of a few years. And, that's all changed. As a result--and that's technology mostly. There's other reasons too, but it's mostly technology. Suddenly I have a platform, potential platform, others do, to spread my name, get famous, have people pay me to come to hear me talk, pay me for my books, pay me to come be a name on the letterhead of their institution, even if I'm not much in the classroom. So how much of this is the enormous opportunity that the prosperity of the last half of the 20th century has created?
Yuval Levin: Well, I think a lot of it is, and it's not just prosperity, but also a kind of fragmentation of culture that has created a lot more small worlds where you can be big. And so, those three economists were able to be famous in a mainstream-oriented society where you needed a column in Newsweek to be famous. You don't need a column in Newsweek now to be famous--or at least to feel famous. They probably have a lot fewer, in fact, people who know them than Samuelson and Milton Friedman did. But, within the world they care about, they're real celebrities. Everything they write gets read by everybody they know. And that's a big thing. I think we all feel this in different ways who kind of operate in this world; and that feels like fame and it causes you to behave like a celebrity.
I think both fragmentation of media and also especially the rise of social media more recently has meant that we each can be little micro-celebrities in our own little circles. Even apart from the professional world. If you just follow a few friends on Facebook, you'll find that we've all become our own paparazzi. We hound ourselves for photographs all the time, we trade our privacy for some kind of prominence or what seems like prominence. I think that pattern has a lot to do with what I'm describing.
But it's also connected to the the case you raise about incentives. I think part of the problem is that there's a trade-off involved in the kind of rise of performative professionalism that I'm describing here, and we're not aware enough of the trade-off yet. And the people who run these institutions don't have a clear enough sense of the price they're paying for having all these people as individuals on platforms and for imposing fewer restrictions and constraints on them.
Part of the reason to write a book like this is to surface that problem--to help us see that this is part of what's going on here, and therefore to think, both in our own behavior and in whatever roles we play in different institutions, about that cost.
I think this move from institutions that form individuals to those that offer platforms, it's pretty easy to see the benefit because the platforms are very attractive; and they also have financial benefits and they give a status and they make us feel good. To see the cost and to see how it's related to some really profound social problems that we're living with in American society now, and that we easily incline to just blame on other people we don't like--whether that's the elites, if we're not elites or whether that's populism, if we are elites--I think we don't see that in fact we're all participating in this transformation that is coming at a great cost. The cost is unfamiliar. We don't quite have a language for it. I think we're still learning how to live with social media and learning how to live in this environment generally.
I am actually fairly hopeful that we will learn how to live with it. I think--I wouldn't bet a lot of money on this-- but I think that 10 years from now the New York Times isn't going to be allowing its journalists to be on Twitter in the way that they are now, if Twitter is even here 10 years from now. But I think there are going to be more controls, more constraints, more of an awareness that there's an enormous cost for this kind of de-professionalization. And, in other parts of our public life, too. In politics, we're paying a huge cost for the transformation of Congress into a performative institution. I think members increasingly feel that something is wrong and if they have the language to see it in this way, they actually have the means to do something about it, and they just might take some action.
I'm not as optimistic as you are--about the New York Times, anyway. Or newspapers generally. I feel that the breakdown there is partly driven by the incentives and newly competitive environment, the technology that allows people to define their own radio station, TV station. So they listen to the podcasts they want to listen to, they read stories they want to read, they read the authors they want to read, and if you don't give them what they want, you disappear.
Yuval Levin: Well, but I think all of that creates a question of what can I trust? That's a question that we're only starting to come to terms with.
So again, the benefits of being able to define your own world that way are enormous, but the costs of it are very real. And I think they create an economic niche for institutions that can make a claim to legitimacy and trustworthiness that's evident, right? Not just a claim on authority but a claim that's based on something they can point to.
And, it does seem to me that in the media environment we're living in there increasingly is going to be some comparative advantage to just simply following some standards in a way that viewers, listeners, followers can see. And we're only beginning to see that, and I may just be wrong about it and maybe the economic incentives aren't there.
But I'm not an optimist: I'm a conservative, so I don't believe in just sitting around waiting for things to get better. But I am hopeful, because I think that we are dissatisfied with this situation in a way that's likely to lead some people to try to do something about it.
Russ Roberts: I want to talk about part of your response, the media part. I was thinking about--in 2003, I started Cafe Hayek, a blog with Don Boudreaux, who was my colleague at the time at George Mason University. I'd write these long essays--sometimes they'd be short, but often I'd write longer essays. And my dad would say, 'Why are you wasting your time writing there? Why don't you submit something to the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times?'
And, I said, 'Well, Dad, you know what I really like about Cafe Hayek? I know the editor really well and he likes everything I write.'
It's really nice to publish your own stuff, be you're on paparazzi, living in a dream. A dream world, baby. It's fantastic. And I think the challenge, the tension that you're pointing out, really, is that when I only consume the stream of information that makes me feel good, which I think is what a lot of us do, I am fooling myself. I've lost something. I've lost the voice of--the contrarian voice. I've lost the voice of counterpoint. I've lost the voice of 'Maybe you're wrong.'
I think most of us don't care. And in fact, why would I? Where's the grounds for thinking that that niche--I love the idea that there's a niche for a trustworthy media source, and of course people think there are such [?] already. I might disagree--you and I would probably disagree which ones those are. But that idea is very comforting. Why would anyone want to be subscribing and paying for them?
Yuval Levin: Well, I think the unease that we feel when we're confronted with our own biases is actually a real thing. It's not something that we respond to all the time, but I think it is part of the unease of this moment, and it is part of that sense people express when pollsters ask them about their confidence in institutions. We do have a sense that we can't just really be sure of what we're getting here; and, 'Who is this guy?' and 'Where did you hear that?' I think that is increasingly a concern people have. We've not been concerned about it enough as social media has made its rise. But I think we are beginning to feel that concern in some real ways around our politics, around some cultural questions.
I'll tell you a story similar to your story. I started a quarterly journal in 2009 called National Affairs, and in the first couple of years, I published myself several times in the journal. At some point I came to the realization that I didn't really know if this was worth publishing, and the people who work for me aren't going to tell me. And I just haven't done that since 2010 or 2011 or so, because I want some kind of market test for what I write. I think that sense that I just can't be sure--everybody's telling me what I want to hear.
I'm not saying it's going to overtake the economy of journalism, but I think there is a niche for it that could help create a real space where that happens.
Russ Roberts: So, I'll give you a piece of evidence for your theory. Tim Ferriss, the phenomenon--the blogger, podcaster, whatever--I don't know how you described him--but he announced recently he's not going to read any books that have been written in the last year. He's only going to read books that have stood the test of time.
Now, that's like saying, 'I'm not going to believe anything I read on Twitter.' Which is not a bad starting point.
The upside of that is that you will have more trustworthy--in theory at least because things have stood the test of time. The problem is you won't read A Time to Build, by Yuval Levin. He's missing out, doesn't it know that. Tim, if you're listening, you might consider it. You might make an exception. Don't tell anybody.
But you're right. There is a--there's just a tension here between craving what makes me feel good and craving what I think maybe is good for me.
Yuval Levin: Yeah. I think that tension is something to work with--that it creates an opening. And that we are going to find ways to live with social media. It's not just going to be permanently an acid that burns down everything in our society.
I will tell you--I hire people out of college every year, and I've seen in, over the last 10 years that I've been doing that, a vast improvement in the face that people put before me as a potential employer. I'm sure they're still doing whatever they were always doing--and even on social media. But they've realized that that shouldn't be too easy for other people to see.
That, to me, suggests--I know [inaudible 00:38:31] you can say, 'Well, that's just hypocrisy. They're just pretending to be better people.'
And I say, 'Yes. Pretend to be a better person. That is in fact how you become a better person.'
Russ Roberts: Yeah. No, that's a fantastic example. Yeah. I mean a lot of people I've talked to, young people, I'll say even my kids, are wary of the impact it has on their lives. Two of my sons have asked me to ban a set of websites from their phone. I have the code if they ever need to get back to YouTube or Twitter, but they've decided it's not good for them. There's an app--I forgot the name of it. We'll put a link to it. You have somebody else have access to it. So you're not saying, 'I'm never going to look at this again, but I know it's not the best use of my time.' I've mentioned on the program before I've occasionally taken Twitter off my phone.
Russ Roberts: But I think it's a real question of--when we talk about this, a lot of the younger listeners to EconTalk, of which the bulk of my listeners are, I think in the 25 to 34 age group, they're like, 'What's wrong with you old fossils and dinosaurs? This is the new normal. This is how we interact with each other. This is how we spend our time.' I do think one has to be careful in judging other people's behavior.
Part of what you've identified in the book is our need as human beings to come together in these institutions to do things together--to be part of something larger than ourselves. And that's been frayed by these phenomena. Talk about that because I think that's incredibly important.
Yuval Levin: Yeah. I think that's one way in which this pattern that I'm describing here relates to some of the larger social challenges that we face as a society. We live in a time when our problems are a little hard to define. It's reasonably clear that there's some kind of crisis in American life. It's not an economic crisis: it's maybe, in some ways, a political crisis, but not obviously so. We're doing fine if you look at most of our individual measures of wellbeing. But something's broken down in our sociality, in the kind of interstices of American life, where people connect with each other.
And when we think that problem, we tend to think about it, still, in individualistic terms. We imagine American life as a vast open space, full of individuals. And they need help connecting.
So we talk about building bridges and tearing down walls and casting unifying visions. And it seems to me that what we miss in that are exactly the structures of what we do together, the ways in which we are more than just clumps of individuals. Those structures are institutions. So, if American life is a big open space, it's not just full of individuals. It's full of institutions. And something's gone wrong with those in a way that makes it hard for us to feel like we are equal parts of a larger whole. Not just of a whole nation, in fact, not above all of a whole nation, but parts of various wholes in our lives that are the ways we actually live--
Russ Roberts: Wholes, W-H-O-L-E-S?
Yuval Levin: Yeah, with W, right.
Russ Roberts: [inaudible 00:41:43]
Yuval Levin: That, they are actually how we do everything, and they are ultimately how we turn our desires and priorities into actions.
And so, the challenge there is--a basic premise of Communitarian Sociology, which is people don't come together just to be together. People come together to do something together.
And, when we no longer think of our institutions as necessary for our doing something, we're just less likely to be drawn into them.
We have a lot more options now for how to live our lives. And this is in many ways of course a good thing. A lot of those options are very individualistic options. A lot of what our technologies do for us is allow more of us to live as functional loaners than could ever have happened before.
If you think about what many of the more recent popular Internet innovations really do, they just let you not talk to people. You can show up at the restaurant, pick up the bag and go, and you never talked to anybody or said anything and you got exactly what you wanted. That's a way--or Uber. You get in, you get out. Everything else is taken care of in an automated way. That's one of the ways that we've made our lives more efficient, but it also means we don't think of ourselves as interacting with other people in the course of doing what we want to do in life. Seeing that that's the nature of a problem, we have also let's us see that it's not the case that we can do everything without being part of institutions.
In fact, we're very limited in what we can do without being parts of institutions.
But at this point we have to want to be part of them. We have to see that a flash mob that expresses disapproval of Donald Trump actually hasn't done anything in the world. And that to really make your disapproval matter, you have to be part of some kind of durable structure of action, and that means you have to build institutional forms [forums?]. That's just less obvious than it used to be, and so it needs to be surfaced as a reality in some explicit way.
Russ Roberts: I want to make it clear that your book has--one of the things I of course would like about and did is that you is examples on the Left and the Right. You're a conservative, but you find examples of conservative failure. I assume you'd see the Tea Party as a similar failing.
Yuval Levin: Yes. I do. I think that it's another way--
Russ Roberts: It's theater.
Yuval Levin: Yeah, it's another way in which we mistake expression for action.
And so, politics becomes performative and theatrical.
If you follow Congress now you see that this is a thoroughly bipartisan failing. It's what younger members, in particular, in both parties in Congress are doing. They understand Congress as a way to be seen--to have a better time slot on cable news and to have a bigger Twitter following, and then they feel like they can take action.
So, 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.
Russ Roberts: Let's talk about the role of individualism. You mentioned earlier this American tension between freedom to do what you want and freedom to join an organization and build something. Let me indict my profession. I don't think this is the cause of the problem. I have a different cause I want to put forward in a minute, and we'll talk about that. But, you could argue that economists focus relentlessly on individual satisfaction, individual maximization, individual optimization. It's all about the individual. Other than Gary Becker, maybe a couple of other people--don't come to mind, but I'm sure there's a couple other--most of what economists teach and are taught is that we act alone.
Now we know in real life that's not true. We know we have friends, we have clubs, we have religious communities we join, we go bowling not just alone, and we all understand that. Yet, our mechanism for looking at it is all through the individual. There's obviously a strand of libertarianism, which I'm somewhat associated with this particular strand, but increasingly uncomfortable with, that says, 'It's all up to you. You can do whatever you want.' In fact, it's virtuous to do whatever you want; and the idea that you would restrain yourself is a fool's game. You're a sucker. Contributing to those causes is for suckers.
I have lots of friends who don't vote because they think it's irrational, and are proud of it because it's a sign of their intelligence that they don't waste time doing something that has a little impact. I vote. I think--I don't vote because I think I'm going to change the outcome. That would be foolish. It doesn't. There's never been a tie in any election I broke, and I don't expect there to be. I vote because I think I'm supposed to.
So, I think there is this strand of philosophy that I'm part of and uncomfortable with, but I think I have to reckon with it both in economics and in my political outlook to some extent as a libertarian, not so much as a 'classical liberal,' but that says, 'Hey, it's all up to you. It's freedom. That's the beauty of it. It's up to you. You decide.'
Yuval Levin: Well, I am a conservative and not a libertarian, and in the sense that I'm a kind of Burkean conservative. I wrote a book about this a few years ago that we--
Russ Roberts: We talked about it, yeah.
Yuval Levin: Yeah. And, what that means for me to begin with--so, I would say I'm not a libertarian, but also I'm not one of those conservatives who thinks that libertarians are the cause of the problems we're dealing with in this moment in American life. I don't think that really makes sense.
The sense in which I'm a conservative first and foremost is that I do think that we enter the world very imperfect--call it fallen, call it a unprepared--and we need to be formed by society's institutions before we can be free. So we can't just be set free.
And we need to be formed in an ongoing way. That formation is not just about raising children. It is really about allowing the evolved institutions of a successful society that have taken shape over many, many generations to shape us and make us better, more effective, more virtuous.
I think we need that. And what we need from politics is not just liberation but formation. That's part of why I emphasize institutions in this way.
It is obviously possible to get carried away with that view; and when you get carried away with it, you point toward a politics that is too oppressive of the individual. I think American politics has often been able to sustain a balance between individualism on the one hand and a certain kind of moral communitarianism on the one hand--a balance we've sustained especially with the help of subsidiarity or federalism, allowing different groups of people to live in different ways together within our larger society. And, I think in some ways we're finding it harder now to sustain that balance.
Part of the reason for that is that a certain individualism runs amok or is empowered by technological changes and cultural changes that have led to trade-offs that we haven't come to terms with, costs that we don't see as clearly as we should.
I attribute that I think more to a certain kind of progressive cultural vision than to libertarianism. Mainly because I just don't think it's true that libertarians have actually run things for the last half century--which, I think that's a strange way to think about the last half century.
But, there is a radical individualism in libertarianism that I disagree with, and that I think is rooted in an excessively high expectations of the individual, and therefore points to excessively low expectations of our institutions.
Russ Roberts: So I was pleased reading the book that you didn't take cheap shots at your libertarian cousins on the so-called Right side of the spectrum. At the same time, you don't take cheap shots at the Left side of the spectrum, which was interesting.
I think there is a certain sense in which the liberation of the 1960s, which emphasized an anti-authoritarian ethos and the--I would call it the triumph of the self esteem movement, maybe modern psychology--that the individual is at the center of things: 'You are at the center of the things. What you need is what matters. What you enjoy is what matters.' Ironically, I think this is where the horseshoe comes full circle and bends towards--it's a component part in the other side.
Yuval Levin: I think that's right. I think that makes some sense.
But I would also say that the reason that I'm also not all that hard on the Left--I'm somewhat hard on the Left in the book--is that I think there's a pendulum here. There's a way that society responds to problems and then over-responds and creates new problems.
The America that came out of Second World War--the 1950s and early 1960s--was, in some ways, an overly conformist society. And, the culture of that time very much reacted to that problem. What we think of as the social revolution of the 1960s was a response to what was actually a problem and left people on the margins of society outside of our national life in ways that we should not have been willing to accept. And so, that reaction did solve some of that problem, and there was a sense that after decades of mobilization in war and in depression, people just needed to be told it's okay to pursue your own happiness. But where everything in American life--
Russ Roberts: --and be the flavor of whatever you want to be. Explore it.
Yuval Levin: Exactly. Yeah.
Russ Roberts: 'You're a blank slate. Write your own story'--
Yuval Levin: And so we went from everything in America telling us to be like everybody else to everything in America telling us to be ourselves.
And there's a cost to that, too. We've been doing that now for more than half a century and we're seeing what it looks like when that goes to excess.
So that, I think 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? Who is going to free you more?
I think we are entering a period now where alongside that case for liberty--which is always part of American life--we're also going to have a politics of solidarity; and both parties are going to be arguing about who gets to define national unity.
In some ways, the 2016 election, which was a very divisive election, was actually divided about how to be unified--about how to think about what brings us together as Americans. I think that question is going to be much more central in our political life now than it has been for a while--as a reaction to period of both progressive and libertarian liberation.
Russ Roberts: This is way out outside the scope of the book, but you've raised it. We've talked to a number of people on the program about patriotism, nationalism, what it means to be an American. The way I look at it is that there's a bunch of people who think there's nothing distinctive about America: it's--in fact, we shouldn't want there to be anything distinctive. 'We're all part of one nation, one world; that's a beautiful thing.' Versus the people who argue that America is distinctive: 'We have a gift to give to the world and we should maintain that distinction.'
Those two sides, which--it's a different way of looking at the culture war than--it's a variant of the ones you've been talking about--they don't respect each other. They only not respect each other, they think the other side's dangerous, treasonous. As we've talked with Sebastian Junger when we were talking about his book, Tribe. How are we going to close that gap? For a semi-optimist: How are institutions going to help us get along given that crevice?--
Yuval Levin: So I think of this very much in the context--
Russ Roberts: chasm?--
Yuval Levin: or through the framework of institutions.
I think that the problem we face on that front, the tribalism we see, is not a function of our failing to agree. It's a function of our failing to disagree in ways that are sustainable.
American life is always going to be defined by disagreement. The problem is that, because the institutions through which we have disagreed and accommodated each other, and bargained and compromised, have grown weaker, have grown less capable of performing those functions--because they now just elevate the people in them as performers--we find it much more difficult to think of our politics as fundamentally about pursuing accommodation and compromise.
And instead, we see our politics as about performative outrage, as about playing out the frustrations of the culture war.
That's what we do in Congress. That's what we do in the media. That's what we do every time we think we're engaged in politics.
And I think that is a failure to understand the underlying purposes of our political institutions.
And, in America in particular--and in this sense I think America really is distinct--our politics is rooted in an understanding that compromises the best we can do. Our national legislature, for example, is not a European parliament that says there's going to be a majority--it gets to do whatever it wants until the public says you're not the majority any more.
Instead, our Congress is designed in a way that forces and compels accommodation. I think that's a good thing. But it means that in a moment like this, it's especially important that our political institutions recover an understanding of their core purpose. And there are just a lot of cultural forces and incentives that are pushing in the other direction.
Again, what to do about it? Because of the limitations of what I can do, the only thing I can do about it is write a book and try to persuade people that this is the nature of the problem: To see it in these terms and therefore to do something about it in these terms. I do think that can make a difference.
But there is clearly also a need for real institutional reform. And that's true across the range of our institutions. I don't think the problem to be solved is that people don't trust our institutions as much as that they're not trustworthy. And that means more than just seeing the problem anew. It means thinking about what could be done about it.
Russ Roberts: Well, the book is called A Time to Build. It's not called A Time to Tear Down. And you explicitly talk about why so many people--the people who are tearing down institutions--are making a mistake. They may be trying to change and mold them, improve them. We'll talk about that in a second.
But I want to just come back to your part about Parliamentary Democracy versus the American system. It seems to me we're moving--again slightly off the topic of the book--but it seems like we're moving toward that European system. The use of executive orders by the President, which just keeps growing, which I find repellent. The extremes that are going to, I think, be increasingly frequent in terms of who's going to get the nomination. The idea that an avowed socialist could be the Democratic nominee could win is striking. It's unimaginable, five years ago. And, if Bernie Sanders wins--you know, there was a leak a week ago of all the executive orders he's going to put in place in the first three days in office.
And I think the argument there for his side--it's the same argument that Trump made on his side--is, 'Oh, we have to because the other side, when they get in, they're going to ruin everything. So we've got to save it now.'
And that lack of trust, there, in the system: The idea that there's a pendulum. The idea is that there's counterbalance. The idea that there's a compromise required to get stuff done. That seems to be disappearing in American political life. And it's deeply disturbing.
Yuval Levin: I think that's true. One of the ways it's being lost is a loss of the premise that the people we disagree with are still going to be here tomorrow, and the day after tomorrow.
I worked in Congress in the 1990s. I worked for Newt Gingrich for a while and I worked for John Kasich for a while when he was the Dhairman of the budget Committee. And the two of them didn't always see eye-to-eye. And the way that John Kasich described the difference between them is that he thought that Gingrich's objective was to make the Left disappear; and that his own objective was to find a way to get the most out of a divided political life.
I think a lot of our politics now is about making the other party disappear. The strategies are about how do we win everything so that we don't have to deal with those people any more.
And, the trouble is those people aren't going away.
So, things like basic civility. I think civility is just rooted in the premise that the people that I don't like aren't going anywhere. Therefore, how do I act in a way that could achieve something?
It's not just--it's not about being nice. It's not about being polite. It's actually about being effective. And, I think we've sight of that because it's much easier now to lose sight of that. You can live, as we've said, in your own world, in a bubble where everything that's wrong is the fault of the other party.
The biggest problem the country has is the other party. And it's a deadly problem. 'If we don't win this election, then everything goes away.' That's nuts, and I see that as in large part a function of the decline in function of some of our key political institutions.
Russ Roberts: I have a feeling that 2020 will be the most important election of our lifetime.
Russ Roberts: Just a guess. I mean, we're going to hear that over and over and over again. And of course it could be true.
Russ Roberts: Let's talk a little bit about the question of what might we do besides write books, which is I think always admirable and a good start; and as you point out, diagnosing the problem is a big step. I don't want to minimize it. But, your book is called A Time to Build, so let's think about what might be done besides exhorting people to be better. So, exhorting people to be better is not a bad idea. I think preaching is always better than nothing, usually, as long as you're aware it's only preaching. I try to stress the importance of humility in economics, and I think there's good reason to be humble about what we understand and don't understand in the economics.
But I'm drowned out by much louder voices who claim to know how the world works, that we can fix it, that we can twist this style, move this lever, etc. And that's where the money is, that's where the action is, that's how you get on TV, it's how you get more followers. I have to confess: this quiet niche I'm in, it has some returns, also. I don't want to suggest I'm in the cave and you and I are just talking to each other. There are people craving, as you suggest, some alternatives.
But, what can people do or what might people do in moving forward? I think the key for me is I don't want to be a sucker. I don't want to feel like everybody else is killing it except me--everybody else is prescribing these drugs, sold their practice to a group that's going to triple our profits. And, all those professional norms that you've alluded to, they're all getting just sort of stripped away and slashed. Whether it's in university, the media, the professions, somewhat in religion even, which is hard to believe. But that's true, too. Certainly in the family. The loyal person who sticks with a partner, they don't maybe like as much as they used to is seen as a fool and destructive of their own mission in life.
So those kind of decisions where you put yourself second, whatever institution you're in, those don't get a lot of love. And, what I like about your book is you're saying, 'Oh, we should love this. Yeah, we should give it some applause.' That's a start. What else you got for [?]?
Yuval Levin: Well, yeah, to begin with, I think there is a connection between exhorting people to be better and doing something about the problem. Because, the challenge in all of these institutions that I talk about in the book is that in order for them to change, the people inside them would have to want to change; and it can't be forced from the outside.
Russ Roberts: There's no board you can appeal to saying, 'I want a different set of rules for my group.'
Yuval Levin: Right, and it should be, right? It's a free society, so we should want people to be able to establish their own rules.
But when things are broken in this way, they need to want to change. And so I think the first thing to do is to try to find ways to exhort ourselves, even, to think about this problem in its own terms.
One way to do that is to ask what I describe in the book as the great unasked question of this moment, which is: given my role here, how should I behave? Given that I am the President or a member of Congress or a teacher or the principal of this school or a soldier in this unit or just a parent, a neighbor--given that, how should I behave in this situation?
Forcing ourselves to treat moments of decision as moments to ask that question, I think is one way to overcome some of the incentives that we face when we know that we're part of the problem. And we are. We're all part of the problem. I don't care who you are. There's no question that we all respond to these incentives, and therefore we all have to think a little bit differently. And I'm not talking about a big social revolution here, but to think a little bit differently about individual decisions we make.
That's a start. That's not a substitute for institutional reform, but I think it's a kind of prerequisite for it.
And beyond that, I think the people with power to change institutions, which at some level we all have, need to think about the incentives they're creating for the people that they engage with in those institutions, because we have to actively and consciously change some of these incentives so that we value institutional behavior more than we do now.
You can see how that might work in some of our large institutions in Congress. I think there is just a way to improve the functioning of that institution by changing some of the rules.
We can see that in our politics, we can see it in some of our professions. And it would require a consciousness of the problem and an understanding of how incentives work.
I don't think we can make this go away. I think that this is about changing the balance sum so that the trade-off works to our advantage just a little more. We're not going to get rid of social media, and we're not going to get rid of the kinds of illiberalizations that we've experienced in our society over the last few generations, economic and cultural.
But, by seeing some of the price that we're paying, I do think we can push back in some distinct instances and see that there is in fact a benefit, an advantage to responsibility. I think that amounts to more than just hectoring people. But look, it starts with hectoring people, and I don't think that's a waste of time.
Russ Roberts: Yeah. I've used the metaphor of the dance floor on the program a number of times. This idea that when you go out in the dance floor with a partner, the proper thing to do is--there's two things. One is to make your partner look good , and the second is not to hurt the people on the dance floor near you. At the same time, you have this urge to show off and impress people and to gain a claim and fame, and glory, and money, and etc. But we understand that we're on the dance floor: we have a role to play and I think that role to apply is a very powerful idea.
I wrote an essay recently called "The Story of My Life," and I think I suggested in there that we see ourselves as the hero of some great narrative. And that that has often saved us, but often it causes us to do things that are not so kind.
And, it might be better to think of ourselves as being part of an ensemble--a role that's not the starring role; a role that's maybe a cooperative; a role that ties people together; a role that listens to what the other person has to say rather than trying to think of what you want to say next. And, I think that combination--of what is your role in life, what is the proper thing to do in this circumstance, and it isn't all about you--is really a useful way to think about life generally. Forget about institutions, which--in the state of America and the populous[?] versus whatever. Just, that if you want to be a productive and kind person and have a good life, you got to pay attention to this.
Yuval Levin: Yeah . I think that's right. It's very basic in a sense, of course. But it,'s enormously important to having a flourishing life and a flourishing society.
I think it can help to see that through the lens of institutions because that helps us see how this becomes a big problem. Not just a challenge for us individually in our lives, but a problem for society, a problem for people around us, people we care about.
But ultimately, this is about understanding that we have a role to play in the flourishing of a larger whole here. It's a very basic point, it's a very familiar point. And it's not something we've forgotten entirely. But, we need to see it more. We need to see it more often, and rebalance some of the ways we make decisions, respond to some of the changes that we've had to live with.
And that's part of what it is to build institutions. I think Americans in general have been pretty good institution-builders in times of crisis, in times of need. We've lost that knack a little bit; and I think some of the extraordinary options we have now, as I said before, for just being effective loners, have allowed us to avoid being forced to see these things. If we see them, I think it is within our reach to do something about them and make things just a little better.
Russ Roberts: You don't have anything against loners, though?
Yuval Levin: I have nothing against loners.
Russ Roberts: And you don't have anything against introverts, by the way, which is another--
Yuval Levin: I--you know--
Russ Roberts: Sometimes when we have these conversations, people say, 'Well, let's'--you know, this thing about putting your phones down, 'Well, that's great for you. You're an extrovert. I'm an introvert. I like to look at my phone, and leave me alone.'
Yuval Levin: Yeah. I've always described myself as a communitarian introvert. I believe that it is important to be part of larger social and cultural groups, but I don't find it easy. And that sometimes you just have to see the importance of things that you don't find easy. So yeah, I have nothing against introverts. I am one myself, but I think we have to see that we're not alone here, as you say.
Russ Roberts: Yeah, my guest today has been Yuval Levin. His book is A Time to Build. Yuval, thanks for being part of EconTalk.
Yuval Levin: Thank you very much.