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stephen toope

Are institutions still relevant? Join the debate and offer your ideas at

Stephen J. Toope is director of the Munk School of Global Affairs, University of Toronto.

Imagine backing out of your driveway onto a street with no traffic rules. Or moving into a community, only to be told that there are no public schools for your kids. Or searching for the hospital for your sick parent, only to learn that it has closed.

In our era, the mantra is "disruption." We expect to upgrade our electronic devices every year or two, so anything that's been around for a long time seems static and boring. For many young adults, social connections are organized virtually and participation in formal structures like clubs or political parties is unattractive. Although there is much evidence that these young people hold strong opinions and care as much about the world as previous generations did, engagement patterns show a shift toward private actions such as signing petitions, "liking" advocacy campaigns, boycotting and making online micro-contributions to support causes.

At the same time, trust in institutions, such as Parliament, the civil service, religious bodies, unions, corporations and schools, continues to reach new lows. Hierarchy is seen as inherently bad, and ever-expanding demands for "accountability" mean that distrust in public officials is baked into the system. Fewer and fewer people are voting. The downward trend is most dramatic among those between the ages of 18 and 35.

The decay in support for social institutions began as long ago as the 1960s, when proponents of the counterculture glorified the unorganized, the spontaneous and freedom from the "system." The same impulses animate some of today's social movements, including radical environmentalism and the back-to-the-land movement.

But ironically, today's most powerful strains of distrust in institutions, especially public institutions, are found on the right of the political spectrum. Anti-government libertarians argue that all public authority destroys liberty. Even in mainstream conservative circles, explicit policy seeks to shrink the capacity of the civil service.

Advocates for "smaller government" do not differentiate among the costs of security, military, foreign service, development aid and public services such as education, health and immigrant resettlement. For these advocates, reduction is required across the board. People are no longer called "citizens" but "taxpayers," to encourage them to see the shrinkage of public institutions as in their interest.

Today, forces of technological innovation, with their inevitable promotion of disruption, meld with elements of the political left seeking an end to hierarchy and a right committed to the reduction of publicly provided goods. The product is an increasingly powerful frontal attack on the institutions that have helped build a land of inclusion and relatively distributed opportunity, and sustained a strong social fabric for generations.

Worrying about the decay of our social institutions should not be the sole province of so-called Red Tories, the inheritors of a strain of 19th-century conservatism that yearned for a return to "community," disciplined by fiscal responsibility. Indeed, the potential failure of institutions from Parliament to schools to religious organizations to the RCMP should concern all Canadians, no matter their political orientation.

Institutions matter. One of the markers of advanced industrial societies is their rich network of institutions that support good governance, ensure security, provide needed social services and foster educated work forces. There is a continuing debate in the developing world about whether strong institutions are needed for economic growth or whether they result from the achievement of a certain income level. What is not in dispute is that successful societies thrive with strong institutions and decay without them.

Crowdsourcing may enable a startup tech company to survive another day; it may help a sick child gain access to specialized medical care. It will never replace a stock exchange or build a health system that's available to all.

Google may soon produce a car that can drive itself. But that car can function only if there are socially mandated rules of the road that allow programmers to know on what side of the street the car should run, and what to do at a red light.

Some children may be home-schooled. Others have parents who will choose to spend a high percentage of their disposable income on private schooling. But for a kid whose parents both work and who do not have access to a loose $40,000 a year, that public school down the street is a necessity.

We can't afford to live in a postinstitutional society, for that really means no society. Our way of life demands that we commit to the institutions built by our forebears. Work to reform them, of course. But don't abandon them.

This article is part of a Globe and Mail series on the role of Canadian institutions in partnership with The Walter Gordon Symposium – a two-day public policy conference co-hosted by the University of Toronto's School of Public Policy and Governance and Massey College.

This year's symposium, titled Confronting Complexity: Better Ways Of Addressing Our Toughest Policy Problems, will explore how the media, private sector, governments, and supranational organizations factor into the policymaking process in our increasingly complex and changing society.

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