Editor's note: This is a guest post from Bret Jacobson, a partner at Red Edge, a digital strategy group that does communications work for business trade groups and free-market advocates.
National Journal reports that Americans are losing faith in their greatest institutions. That's excellent news.
Certainly, Americans are finding less help in the organizations that played central roles in life since the early 1900s. And, certainly, Americans have less trust in those organizations after having been failed by them so spectacularly. That lowered trust level should be lauded, for it is simply a recalibration of how much influence over Americans' lives is ceded to someone else.
Some people reasonably argue that society works best when trust in institutions is high. But institutions at their best are only acting as a stopgap solution for imbalanced markets. In limited timeframes they serve the needs of many similarly situated people who cannot well represent themselves or their interests; over the long haul, their utility can fade. Consider:
*Labor unions played the important role of representing the needs of interchangeable, highly replaceable cog-like workers, who are now more specialized, better educated, better trained, and better informed and therefore more able to choose their own career path.
*Public schools are an important part of ensuring a free and fair society by providing a solid start to a broad class of vulnerable people (children), but they are failing to deliver on the promise of quality education - precisely because administrators and teachers operate as a behemoth institution, rather than adapting to teach kids individually, by addressing widely varying learning styles and abilities.
*City Hall should never have been venerated in the first place; it's where politicians and special interests accrue power over the weak or otherwise-productively occupied.
Run through the examples of institutions that National Journal cites for losing Americans' trust: "government, politics, corporations, the media, organized religion, organized labor, banks, businesses." In that list you see other people handling the rules by which we live (sometimes at the point of a gun); the external manipulations of our understanding of the world; the external arbiters of our moral behavior (sometimes at the point of a spear threatening our immortal soul); external parties ruling how we can perform work and for whom we can work and for how much compensation; and self-interested organizations seeking to maximize their own utility.
We should not trust those groups implicitly. We should interact with them cautiously.
Times certainly don't feel easy. There's nothing surprising, or even wrong, about wishing for well-meaning institutions to protect us from messy and unsettling and sometimes unfair creative destruction. But America's 200-year-old social contract has kept governments and institutions from imposing on the individual, leading to good news: the human spirit has never been freer, the mind never keener, the body never healthier, and the heart never more compassionate.
That's all the more reason to release ourselves from the hold of the institutions we cling to in our minds.