Institutions, like the London Underground, exist so that complex processes can become automatic.Credit…Andy Rain/EPA, via Shutterstock
I have no idea how I got to my office this morning. I mean, I do know: I walked to the tube station near my house, got on a train, transferred a few stops later to another one, got off near my office and then walked in, making the briefest of stops at a coffee shop to pick up a breakfast sandwich on the way.
But that list of steps describes the limit of my knowledge. I have no idea who opened the tube station, or what it takes to keep it functioning. (Or, for that matter, why one of its turnstiles was stuck half open, bleeping a plaintive alarm about its situation to no one in particular.) I do not know how to drive a train, and certainly not how to maintain one. And I’m sure the people of London are very grateful that I have never had to consider how to dig a subway tunnel or lay a rail line.
And yet if those things had not happened in the correct order, as designed by experts and carried out by professionals, the city would shut down. This week that shutdown nearly happened, in fact, because of a transport strike that was called off at the last moment.
This is the magical thing about institutions: They exist so that complex processes can become automatic, so that large groups of people can collaborate without having to create new systems for doing so, and so people like me can rely on expertise without possessing that expertise even a tiny bit.
But because institutions often operate in the background, unnoticed, it can be difficult to pinpoint the moment when they start to break down. And, frustratingly for me, it’s even more difficult to write about incremental decline without sounding stultifyingly boring.
This has been on my mind because 2024 is set to be the biggest election year in world history, with approximately half the population set to go to the polls. The contests are undoubtedly significant: from Taiwan, which will choose a new president on Saturday, to the results of the United States’ election in November, which will have enormous consequences for the entire international order.
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