In Defense of Norms and Institutions

The unprecedented leak of a full-draft majority opinion in the Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health abortion case, and the reaction to the likelihood that Roe v. Wade will be overturned, should cause us to think hard about how we use institutions to accomplish our goals. 

Over centuries, America has developed and adapted an array of organizations and practices that enable our unusual nation to succeed. It is not blind luck that this extraordinarily diverse, continental republic conceived in liberty has thrived: Our magnificent combination of principles including democracy, decentralization, separation of powers, the rule of law, liberty, and civil society is only possible because we have legislatures, the 10th Amendment, courts, boards of elections, the First Amendment, tradition, and voluntary associations that bring these to life. And these can function only when we respect the beliefs and behaviors that sustain them. But over the last eight years, I’ve witnessed wildly divergent perspectives on the value of these institutions and their norms.

In that time, I’ve lived a double life. My primary work has been in the world of researching and writing about policy, political, and social issues. But I’ve also been involved in inside-the-government public service, having been appointed and confirmed to seats on three state-level boards. Though the content of these two professional worlds has been similar—grappling with issues of authority, community, resources, equality, freedom, opportunity—the practice has not. One of the biggest differences is the apocalyptic thinking and support for norm-breaking that has all but overtaken the commentariat.

In my public service roles, I’ve been surrounded by people with high self-efficacy and agency. They appreciate that we face challenges, often serious ones, but they believe these can be solved. They don’t see the end of the world around every corner. They understand that the institution they serve is tasked with solving a set of problems, so they work through that institution to get things done.

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