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Fading institutional legitimacy and the '3 Rs'
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Fading institutional legitimacy and the '3 Rs'

Recognizing that sturdy, functioning institutions are in the public interest, the solution can be summarized in three words: reject, replace, or reform.

It’s been a difficult stretch for the American institutions forming the cornerstones of our society. Donald Trump’s felony conviction last month in a New York court is only the latest and most extreme example of the increasing weaponization of the criminal justice system. The Supreme Court, with a durable right-leaning majority, has come under sustained attack from the left for the supposed failure of some conservative justices to recuse themselves from certain court matters, or for allegedly accepting gifts from wealthy political patrons.

Several government agencies have exhausted decades of goodwill in service of dubious ends, eroding hard-won credibility in the process. Public health services lost citizens’ confidence during the COVID-19 pandemic by pushing rigid mandates supported by neither science nor objective reality. While challenging such now-debunked policies could result in the loss of one’s livelihood, no apologies (nor proper accounting) have followed.

If institutions are necessary but badly degraded, what can be done?

While the U.S. military discharged unvaccinated soldiers, it also solemnly pledged to root out the so-called existential threat of "white supremacy" in its ranks, which its own studies later revealed did not exist. As the military squandered its traditionally high regard, veterans from various "alphabet soup" intelligence agencies united to support the Biden campaign just before the 2020 presidential election. Dubbed the "Dirty 51" by the New York Post, they declared the Hunter Biden laptop "Russian disinformation," despite the FBI validating its authenticity in late 2019 and Hunter Biden's current criminal proceedings confirming it again.

The pandemic revealed rot at the local level, with public schools pushing DEI, critical race theory, and other “woke” principles through Zoom classrooms, finally observed by previously blinded parents. It also illuminated the unredeemed grift of public sector unions, exemplified by the Chicago Teachers Union, which consistently fought for massive pay increases while seeking to keep schools closed for as long as possible.

Outside the public sector, other revered pillars of civil society have also abased themselves. Fortune 500 companies have eagerly embraced each successive progressive cause, but don't expect a refund or even an acknowledgment of the shareholder value transferred to Black Lives Matter and similar organizations focused solely on self-enrichment. Elite and middling universities have promoted noxious ideologies on campus for years, so it is no surprise that anti-Semitism and other hateful creeds now run rampant there. Meanwhile, major media outlets run think pieces and “news analysis” on the rising threat of disinformation while shamelessly evading responsibility for their starring roles in the Russian collusion and Hunter Biden laptop hoaxes.

I could continue, but there seems little doubt that our institutions are rotten. Gallup’s 2023 survey of confidence in institutions reveals lows not seen in decades, if ever, for the U.S. military, Congress, public schools, the media, and many other organizations. As confidence in the entities meant to embody our values and advance societal objectives recedes, we must ask: Does declining faith in institutions matter? If so, what can be done?

Many on the political right, having observed progressives hijack just about every American institution, have cheered the richly deserved comeuppance of everyone from Ivy League presidents to newly unemployed network anchors. While such schadenfreude is understandable, particularly given the odor of elitism and (whisper it) unearned privilege attached to these institutions and their toadies, it’s not so easy — and may in fact be foolhardy — to cashier them. Why?

Consider what our institutions fundamentally are: repositories of rules and norms that shape or constrain our behavior or advance some widely held objective. They are the pillars of any functioning civil society, providing both a counterweight to one another and, critically, to the public sector and its various instrumentalities. A healthy community benefits from the balance of power among respected institutions with varying and competing agendas. The resulting diversity and redundancy, like telecommunications or neural networks, avoid the “bottlenecks” associated with concentrations of power or influence. Positive values tend to thrive when distributed widely. As the federal government expands in both size and scope, extending ever further into our lives, it is essential to have other legitimate societal loci of authority.

If institutions are necessary but badly degraded, what can be done?

Any solution requires an objective diagnosis of each institution’s specific ills. The nature of the organization is also crucial in devising a remedial strategy. The myriad challenges our institutions face include capture by ideologies or groups with distinct agendas, perverse incentives, lack of viewpoint diversity, groupthink, a dearth of moral courage, and lack of competition, among many others.

Once we properly identify the problems with any given institution, we can develop a course of action. Recognizing that sturdy, functioning institutions are in the public interest, the solution set can be summarized as the new “3 Rs”: reject, replace, or reform. This approach transcends the simplistic right-wing caricature of failed institutions as irredeemably corrupt and avoids the left-leaning establishment’s default impulse to salvage any incumbent organization over which it exercises dominion.

Rejection is most appropriate when an institution is so badly decayed by corruption, a muddled mission, or moral turpitude that it becomes "irredeemable," to borrow from Hillary Clinton. Examples of organizations that have lost their way or succeeded in their grift only through false advertising include the Southern Poverty Law Center, Snopes, and Black Lives Matter. The world would be a better place without these organizations, as they serve no salutary purpose.

A replacement approach may apply where the stated (if not actual) mission has merit and competition is appropriate but where the subject institution is simply too far gone to be saved. Examples include media outlets like CNN and MSNBC, or certain universities. The emergence of schools like the University of Austin suggests that viable alternatives to “traditional” higher education can also spur reform of existing organizations. Charter schools in primary education play a similar role.

Reform best applies to those institutions with “worms in the apple” but where more than a little of the original mission and luster remain. These institutions may have simply lost their way for some period or faltered under uniquely misguided leadership. Reform also may apply to those institutions that cannot be easily rejected or replaced as they are natural monopolies. These include the U.S. military, some universities (particularly public universities; with reforms at the University of Florida showing the way), and many large corporations.

It’s tempting to throw away our debased institutions given the ignominy with which they have covered themselves. But they can play an essential role as shock absorbers within a healthy civil society. Without them, our choice is between autocratic, unchecked central government and anarchy. Maintaining legitimate, functional institutions is the only viable option for a free society.

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Richard J. Shinder

Richard J. Shinder

Richard J. Shinder is the founder and managing partner of Theatine Partners, a financial consultancy.