The Volokh Conspiracy

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Institutions and Platforms

The wisdom of "Sir, this is a Wendy's"


A few days ago the CEO of Expensify, an expense reporting company, sent out a blast email endorsing Joe Biden. The email went, not just to the CEO's friends and contacts, and not just to Expensify's employees, but to all of Expensify's customers, and to all of their employees—that is, to anyone who submits expense reports.

Some of those people might have been surprised at political spam from their expense reporting company. (But for Citizens United, would this be a felony?) And a few customers have dropped Expensify since, protesting the misuse of their email lists. But whatever happens to Expensify, the episode reminded me of a passage by Yuval Levin, on treating institutions as platforms:

We now think of institutions less as formative and more as performative, less as molds of our character and behavior, and more as platforms for us to stand on and be seen. And so for one arena to another in American life, we see people using institutions as stages, as a way to raise their profile or build their brand. And those kinds of institutions become much harder to trust.

Institutions get weaker as their purposes expand. Once every #brand has had to pick a side on Kashmir or the filioque clause, no one can tell them apart. Whatever makes Expensify distinct, whatever unique contribution it offers—saving time and money! making employees' lives easier!—seems pale and wan next to the great causes of the day.

But the great advantage of limited-purpose institutions is that they let us achieve their limited purposes while still disagreeing on other things. Everyone gets this instinctively when it comes to "Sir, this is a Wendy's." Sometimes mundane things like lunch take precedence over great moral conflicts: not because the conflicts are unimportant, but because we shouldn't hold up the drive-thru line until the great conflicts are resolved. It's precisely when the issues are important—and divisive—that we need limited-purpose institutions most.

Glenn Cohen asks whether this view assumes too much about the justice of existing institutions, or of their power and role. I don't think it does. Wendy's is hardly free of moral obligations (being a vegetarian, that'd be hard for me to say!). But some conversations are for the drive-thru cashier, others for the CEO, others for the shareholder meeting, and others for the state legislature.

People in our society disagree a lot. When we respect each other as moral agents, that puts certain limits on how we respond to that disagreement. Even in a socialist society— maybe even an integralist one, though I can't really say—there might be institutions that just fix cars, rather than engaging (per the famous SNL skit) in a Pep Boys Conversation About Gender™. The point isn't to eliminate criticism and debate, but to channel it properly.

If all the answers are known, if We Are All Already Agreed, if reluctance to press one's view on others is just lack of commitment or weakness of will—then maybe these distinctions between institutions are silly or false, and repurposing them to advance the great causes of moral reform is obviously right. (After all, what is there on the other side of the ledger?) But in our world, a world with deep and abiding disagreements among people of good will, that strikes me as a way of losing sight of the very real value our institutions have.