10Politics is downstream from culture.
This has become a popular turn of phrase in conservative and libertarian circles. And, by all means, there’s certainly a lot of truth to it. But, I think it misses an incredibly important point. It’s a mistake to treat culture itself as an entirely exogenous variable. Culture doesn’t happen in a vacuum. Culture itself is shaped and altered by policy, and consequently politics. That is to say, if politics is downstream from culture, it’s also a tributary into the culture.
But, how do politics shape culture, you might ask. Well, you first have to consider the nature of what is culture. Culture is the manifestation of the social beliefs, values, conventions and tastes shared by a group of people. But, all of those things happen in the context of the success they produce for those who practice them. A great many, if not all, cultural traits arise because they work. They provide a practical advantage in the conditions in which they are adopted. In fact, they very well may become elements of the culture precisely because they provide such advantages. Success breeds imitation and imitation breeds institutionalization. To the point that the initial advantage may well be beside the point. But those conditions are hugely affected by the politics prevalent in the society in which they are adopted.
As just one example, you see longstanding reputations for a poor work ethic for certain cultures. Why would that be? I’m not saying that it’s not just the random interplay of luck or providence with certainty. But, you find a remarkable correlation of those cultures regarded as having poor work ethics and those cultures with high levels of official predation. For the libertarian, this relationship should be obvious. If the consequence of your busting your behind is just going to be that the guy with the club bashes you over the head and takes your stuff, busting your butt is a suckers’ game. It’s not surprising, then, that you don’t see work elevated to a particularly high status in those societies.
All of which brings us to a point of contention between libertarians and social conservatives. “What sort of licentious den of iniquity would a libertarian society look like,” social conservatives ask, “without laws to uphold standards of decency and public morality”. And if their solution is an abysmal one, their concerns aren’t necessarily unreasonable. I think it is fair to say that, at least in some ways, we’ve become a coarser, less responsible (if more “genuine”, whatever the hell that means) society over the last few generations.
I think the point they miss is not that politics is downstream from culture, but the fact that politics is a tributary into culture. A libertarian society would create a particular form of culture. And in many regards, that culture would be remarkably conservative in its values, habits and behaviors. In many regards, libertopia would look much more like Mayberry than like Mad Max.
This notion might seem counter-intuitive at first glance. How can a society that provides less, or even no, enforcement of traditional values have more popular adherence to traditional values? Because traditional values, for the most part, work. Not universally. Not perfectly flawlessly. And developments might make them less useful over time. But, as a general rule, adhering to them makes for a better life. You’re more likely to be successful, happy, and fulfilled if you work hard, don’t philander, stay in school, exercise sobriety or at least moderation, and have an active spiritual life.
And, in a libertarian society, you’re much more responsible for ensuring your own success than you are under the status quo. Absent the mandated, state-sponsored, safety net, the consequences of vice are more likely to fall on those engaged in that vice. Not only does that affect incentives, that change in incentives can change the culture. If a behavior makes you less successful, that behavior becomes less popular and that change in popularity itself makes that behavior less acceptable.
The cost of vice, though, regularly indulged in, isn’t trivial. You don’t have a lot of prospects in the world if you regularly show up to work hung over or coming down from a cocaine bender. Single motherhood, absent outside help, is a major life challenge to the single mother as much as the child. And being a “player” is a bad reputation because it’s more likely to leave his female romantic prospects in that situation. A liar or a cheat is something that you don’t want to be because your audience has significant incentive not to trust you. In a libertarian society, simple reality provides strong incentives to avoid vice.
But those incentives are not in play under the status quo. The safety net provides a floor on the consequences of vice. You don’t have to believe the cliché of the welfare mother pumping out babies to increase her welfare check to understand that that check does reduce her downside to having sex with a guy who isn’t going to support her. And, on the margins, that matters. You don’t have to be a teetotaler panicking about the dangers of demon rum to recognize that some people will indulge in the nightlife more aggressively if getting fired means they’ve lost their only source of income.
Now, living with the consequences of your vices might seem a brutal, even vicious means of punishment. Harsher, perhaps, than the legal penalties imposed by the social conservatives. However, the removal of the state-sponsored safety net doesn’t mean the abandonment of any safety net. It’s not the case that, before 1932, every minor transgression in human behavior meant certain ruin. People relied on civil society for their safety net. They turned to their churches, the local lodge of their fraternal organizations, their unions and private charities for help when they’d fallen on hard times.
But, unlike the government, these institutions had an ability to draw distinctions, to discriminate. They could demand the person asking for their help change his behavior and refuse him assistance if he didn’t change. But, the government can’t do that. And I’m not sure I’d want it to be able to. Not only is there a real matter of equal protection to consider, but the concentrated political demands of those demanding assistance despite their vices provide a much more powerful constituency than the diffuse expectations of those expected to pay for it.
Unfortunately, the space of civil society has fallen dramatically. In his 1995 essay Bowling Alone, Robert Putnam discussed the decline in American “social capital” and civil society in the post-World War II era. One of the examples he cites is the decline in bowling league participation even as the number of bowlers has increased (hence the title of his essay). However, this was not always the case. Consider this quote from Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America,
“In the United States, as soon as several inhabitants have taken an opinion or an idea they wish to promote in society, they seek each other out and unite together once they have made contact. From that moment, they are no longer isolated but have become a power seen from afar whose activities serve as an example and whose words are heeded”
The America that de Tocqueville was describing was the America of the 1830’s. It was an America where the government played, at most, a negligible role in the life of the country of the life of most citizens. And what he found astonished him. This was in contrast to his experience in the more heavily ruled and governed Europe, where such institutions were much sparser. Huge swaths of the American civil society that remain with us to this day were formed in this era preceding the rise of the government leviathan, the SPCA, the Red Cross, the Salvation Army, various local hospitals, various colleges.
Putnam examines and largely dismisses the notion that this phenomenon might be a result of women entering the workforce. Instead, he suggests, the more likely cause is the rise of television. What he misses is the explosion in the size and scope of government at all levels:
Government grows at the expense of civil society. There’s a crowding out effect. And that reduced role for civil society translates to a diminished respect for traditional values. It’s not shocking, to me at least, that the Baby Boom generation, the first to grow up with this expanded role of government as normal, was the first that turned away from both civil society and traditional values.
“But,” a hypothetical social conservative might counter, “even if limited government will give us much the same thing, surely the right top men could institute policies that would get us there faster.” But, that’s doubtful. As I note before, vice will inevitably have a greater constituency than its absence. Vice, after all, is fun, at least while you’re doing it. And trying to tamp out others’ fun makes you, well, kind of a killjoy. So, when you leave these decisions to the government, there’s going to be an inevitable drift toward vice. That is unless there is an ongoing expenditure of energy on new moral crusades, which people tire of eventually, anyway, the inevitable trend is toward vice.
So, in a world where politics is downstream from culture and where culture is downstream from politics, the sensible stand for social conservatives is actually libertarianism. While it may not give them their ideal world, it is a world far closer to it than they can hope to achieve through ever-expanding government.