Institutionalism Without Conviction

In my day job I recently worked with a company that produces saline solution for use with flush syringes. Flush syringes (as I learned) are used to clear IV lines utilized in surgeries and other medical procedures in order to reduce the risk of infection. This function reminded me of backflow valves, which prevent piped fluids from flowing in the wrong direction and risking cross-contamination.

Such industrial processes bring to mind the notion of reverse contamination in the ideological sphere. Put metaphorically, consider an idea or policy—acting in the manner of a medical treatment—coming into contact with an infection or condition it is designed to eliminate, cure, or improve. In this case, the “infection” not only prevails, but proceeds to harm the agent administering the medicine. This phenomenon occurs with increasing frequency in both international and domestic affairs.

The rise of China on the world stage is perhaps the starkest example. Beginning with the success of Deng Xiaoping’s market-opening policies in the 1980s, China ultimately developed an advanced market economy and, concurrent with its economic rise, acceded to the World Trade Organization (WTO) in 2001. It had considerable Western support in joining the WTO and other multilateral organizations, as advanced Western economies—led by the United States—believed China inevitably would follow the same road taken by South Korea, Taiwan, and other authoritarian states whereby the application of free market principles and heightened commercial discourse would ultimately give rise to expanded individual liberties and the strengthening of democratic institutions and civic culture. 

These recent, successful case studies of populous nations adhering to a rules-based international order and successfully achieving a rising standard of living for their people, allowing democratic norms to take root, provided a clear guide for the international community’s approach to an emerging China. How has that worked out?

Not only is China unwinding various policies which have underpinned its economic success—witness its recent actions to online tutoring firms, companies seeking to list abroad, and the like—it is actively undermining multilateral institutions and the very idea of an objective rules-based framework for international collective action and dispute resolution. China’s behavior in respect of the World Health Organization’s (WHO) attempts to understand and investigate the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic is only the most egregious of myriad attempts to bend such organizations to its will.

Arguably as damaging as China’s direct assault on objective norms in the international sphere are the second-order effects of its self-dealing and bad faith. China’s willful and sustained violation of trade and environmental treaty obligations stoked a populist backlash in the United States under President Trump, resulting in our withdrawal from the Paris Climate Accords and rejection of the proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement, among other actions. Some of these policies continue under the current administration. China’s net impact to date on the world order has become clear—the weakening of multilateral institutions, a cashiering of diplomatic norms, and the return of mercantilism, thuggery, and unilateralism as foreign policy lodestars.

This recent experience with China finds its domestic analog with the emergence of “woke” capitalism. The speech codes, intolerance of offending ideas, creation of “safe spaces,” and general climate of anti-rationalism prevalent on college campuses a decade ago were typically met by older generations then with a shrug, along with pithy “just wait until they’re in the real world”-style disdainful commentary. 

Well, what does that “real world” look like today?

It’s an open secret that at the New York Times, millennial reporters set the cultural agenda and tone of the Grey Lady’s content curation and messaging, not the “grown-ups” among the editorial staff. Netflix finds itself in similar straits in the wake of Dave Chapelle’s latest comedy special, “The Closer.” Patagonia, Nike, Coca-Cola, Delta Airlines—the “woker than thou” arms race among corporations on the hot-button policy issues and events of the day illustrates a headlong rush to avoid corporate “wrong-think.” Commerce is neither softened nor degraded campus radicalism; to the contrary, it has been consumed by it.

In the case of both China and woke capitalism, classically liberal values failed upon contact with the patient—or pathogen—when they were expected to prevail, as they had typically done previously. What happened?

A hypothesis: these values are mediated by institutions which have forgotten the premises and principles upon which they are based, or no longer believe in them. Moreover, this institutionalism without conviction has become a belief system unto itself. 

This finds its most visible expression in what is frequently called “globalism,” a philosophy which has hijacked globalization and the institutional framework that advanced the benefits of market-based principles within a fundamentally nationalist schema. These institutions are now largely deployed to ends which are at best neutral to the proposition of free markets, industrial competition, individual liberty and a limited regulatory and administrative state.

The promotion of the liberal values pantheon at home and abroad assumed a degree of societal vigor and institutional integrity which hasn’t been seriously questioned in the unipolar era which ensued from the fall of the Soviet Union 30 years ago. Institutional rot of the type noted here is akin to a compromised immune system, which is only revealed upon contact with a deadly virus. 

Or, alternatively, it is like a termite-infested mansion when faced with gale-force winds. A structure still visually true to the architect’s design, but hollowed out and absent structural integrity. 

A mantra in addiction circles is that admitting the problem is the first step. Does the physician have the resolve and will to heal thyself?


About Richard J. Shinder

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

Photo: iStock/Getty Images

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