The very long subtitle of Yuval Levin’s new book, A Time to Build, states the book’s main program clearly enough: “From family and community to Congress and the campus, how recommitting to our institutions can revive the American dream.” In our age of populist cynicism about institutional self-dealing, Levin, the editor of National Affairs who now calls the American Enterprise Institute his institutional home, offers an eloquent brief for the virtues of institutions. By regularizing the pursuit of social goods, institutions instruct us on how we can accomplish worthwhile goals in our lives. By stabilizing our place in the social world, they give us the courage to take risks. By exposing us to institutional memories, they help us understand how our forebears wrought lasting, worthwhile change. Most important to Levin, institutions shape those people willing to humble themselves in service of causes greater than themselves. Institutions “allow us to substitute character for calculation” and, in so doing, make us better people.

This last function is brought out by the book’s central image: Well-functioning institutions are molds, but dysfunctional institutions hollow themselves out and become mere platforms on which their members perform for other audiences. Rather than inculcating the virtues needed to sustain a prolonged and far-sighted pursuit of their particular goods, today’s institutions take their members as they come and offer them a megaphone—with full knowledge that many so empowered will turn around and denounce the institution. Levin convincingly uses this metaphor to diagnose what ails Congress, journalism, and elite American universities, among other institutions.

But we shouldn’t get too hung up on the idea that molds are good and platforms are bad; Levin would not deny that some institutions are well-designed as platforms, or that some institutions mold people in malign ways. His primary fear is that the elites who occupy our national stage are increasingly homogenized and all equally adrift in the stormy seas of culture war. They have rejected the particularistic virtues their institutions once instilled in favor of the naked pursuit of attention. The problem isn’t so much that they are performing, but that they are putting on a truly rotten show.

Read the rest of Wallach’s piece here.

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