Why Culture Matters

What is Culture?

As individuals, people experience consciousness (identity, intelligence, soul, conscience), develop character (will, agency, behavioral patterns, habits), and demonstrate preferences of style (taste). Biological traits and tendencies both enable and limit perceptions and abilities, but all people have the ability (and unavoidable responsibility) to shape their character and develop to their potential.

By natural extension, groups of people also experience a sort of shared consciousness (shared identity, values, perceptions, language, epistemological orientation), develop a shared character (ethics, norms/rules, priorities, organizations, obligations, expectations, group dynamics, reputation), and express shared style preferences (aesthetics, dress and grooming, design, cuisine, music, humor, communication patterns, leisure activities, rhythm of life). Culture is an umbrella term for the shared identity, values, perceptions, perspectives, knowledge, beliefs, organizations, practices, and preferences of a group.

Culture is Fundamental

Culture is about much more than just style. Style is a very visible part of culture, but it is also comparably superficial and inconsequential. Style differences rarely cause significant conflict (except, perhaps between significantly shallow people). On the other hand, differences in things like ethics, rules, and behavioral patterns are at the heart of very serious conflicts, indeed. In fact, many conflicts that on the surface appear to be motivated by ethnic identity, political ideology, or religious affiliation are fundamentally cultural.

But understanding culture is not just about conflict; it’s also about the progress of civilizations and quality of life for people everywhere. Key adjustments in culture can have profound effects on group dynamics and future generations.

Cultural Advancement and Decline

The word “culture” comes from the latin cultura referring to the care, development, and protection required to develop something, as in “cultivation” and “agriculture”. The weeds and rocks have to go and the soil has to be prepared in order for precious seeds to be carefully planted and become a beautiful garden that bears fruit and is worth preserving.

In other words, a culture must be both conservative and progressive in order to develop. That is, its members must conserve positive elements while also abandoning negative ones and adopting additional positive ones. All cultures should embrace the best practices of other cultures while conserving and promoting their own.

Here are some examples of elements of high-performing cultures that have proven their value and are worth adopting: coherent philosophy, individual self-determination, reciprocity ethics and natural law, clear and noble grand narrative, private property norms, freedom of association, monogamy, incest avoidance, courtesy, hygiene, industriousness, low time preference, precise and high-minded language, appreciation of / participation in / contribution to sophisticated pursuits.

Cultural decline is marked by the abandonment of such elements and their replacement with corrupt and perverse ones.

Open This Content

Reflections from Spain

I just got back from a five-week visit to Spain.  The first four weeks, I was teaching labor economics at Universidad Francisco Marroquín while my sons took Spanish-language classes on Islamism, Self-Government, and the Philosophy of Hayek.  Then we rented a van and saw Cordoba, Seville, Gibraltar, Fuengirola, Granada, and Cuenca.  During my stay, I also spoke to the Instituto von Mises in Barcelona, Effective Altruism Madrid, the Rafael del Pino Foundation, and the Juan de Mariana Institute.  I had ample time to share ideas with UFM Madrid Director Gonzalo Melián, UFM professor Eduardo Fernández, Juan Pina and Roxana Niculu of the Fundación para el Avance de la Libertad, and my Facebook friend Scott McLain.  Using my sons as interpreters, I also conversed with about 25 Uber drivers.  Hardly a scientific sample, but here are my reflections on the experience.

1. Overall, Spain was richer and more functional than I expected.  The grocery stores are very well-stocked; the worst grocery store I saw in Spain offered higher quality, more variety, and lower prices than the best grocery store I saw in Denmark, Sweden, or Norway.  Restaurants are cheap, even in the tourist areas.  Almost all workers I encountered did their jobs with a friendly and professional attitude.  There is near-zero violent crime, though many locals warned us about pickpockets.

2. The biggest surprise was the low level of English knowledge of the population.  Even in tourist areas, most people spoke virtually no English.  Without my sons, I would have been reduced to pantomiming (or Google translate) many times a day.  Movie theaters were nevertheless full of undubbed Hollywood movies, and signs in (broken) English were omnipresent.

3. I wasn’t surprised by the high level of immigration, but I was shocked by its distribution.  While there are many migrants from Spanish America, no single country has sent more than 15% of Spain’s migrantsThe biggest source country, to my surprise, is Romania; my wife chatted with fellow Romanians on a near-daily basis.  I was puzzled until a Romanian Uber driver told me that a Romanian can attain near-fluent Spanish in 3-4 months.  Morocco comes in at #2, but Muslims are less visible in Madrid than in any other European capital I’ve visited.

4. 75% of our Uber drivers were immigrants, so we heard many tales of the immigrant experience.  Romanians aside, we had drivers from Venezuela, Peru, Ecuador, Colombia, and Pakistan.  Even the Pakistanis seemed highly assimilated and almost overjoyed to reside in Spain.  By the way, Uber in Spain works even better than in the U.S.  The median wait time was 3 minutes, and the prices were about one-third less than in the U.S.

5. Refugees from Chavismo were prominent and vocal.  One Venezuelan Uber driver was vocally pro-Trump.  You might credit Trump’s opposition to Maduro, but the driver said she liked him because “He doesn’t talk like a regular politician.”  I wanted to ask, “Couldn’t you say the same about Chavez and Maduro?!” but I was in listening mode.

6. I’ve long been dumbfounded by Spain’s high unemployment rate, which peaked at around 27% during the Great Recession and currently stands at about 15%.  Could labor market regulation really be so much worse in Spain than in France or Italy?  My chats with local economists – and observation of the labor market – confirmed my skepticism.  According to these sources, a lot of officially “unemployed” workers are lying to collect unemployment insurance while they work in the black market.  Immigrants reported little trouble finding work, though they did gravitate toward “New Economy” jobs like Uber driving.  I still think that Spanish unemployment is a tragic problem, especially for the young.  Yet properly measured, finding a job in Spain is plausibly easier than finding a job in France or Italy.  (This obviously raises the question, “To what extent is unemployment in France and Italy inflated in the same way?”  If you know of good sources, please share in the comments).

7. If I didn’t know the history of the Spanish Civil War, I never would have guessed that Spain ever had a militant labor movement.  Tipping was even rarer than in France, but sincere devotion to customer service seems higher than in the U.S.  Perhaps my sons charmed them with their high-brow Spanish, but I doubt that explains more than a small share of what I saw.  A rental car worker apologized for charging me for returning my car with a 95% full tank, adding, “Sorry, but my boss will yell at me if I don’t.”

8. Catalan independence is a weighty issue for both Barcelona and Madrid libertarians.  Madrid libertarians say that an independent Catalonia would be very socialist; Barcelona libertarians say the opposite.  I found the madrileños slightly more compelling here, but thought both groups were wasting time on this distraction.  Libertarians around the world should downplay identity and focus on the policy trinity of deregulating immigration, employment, and housing.  (Plus austerity, of course).

9. UFM Madrid Director Gonzalo Melián was originally an architect.  We discussed Spanish housing regulation at length, and I walked away thinking that Spain is strangling construction about as severely as the U.S. does.

10. Spanish housing regulation is especially crazy, however, because the country is unbelievably empty.  You can see vast unused lands even ten miles from Madrid.  The train trip to Barcelona passes through hundreds of miles of desert.  Yes, the U.S. has even lower population density, but Spain is empty even in regions where many millions of people would plausibly like to live.

11. The quickest way to explain Spain to an American: Spain is the California of Europe.  I grew up in Los Angeles, and often found myself looking around and thinking, “This could easily be California.”  The parallel is most obvious for geography – the deserts, the mountains, the coasts.  But it’s also true architecturally; the typical building in Madrid looks like it was built in California in 1975.  And at least in summer, the climates of Spain and California match closely.  Spain’s left-wing politics would also resonate with Californians, but Spain doesn’t seem so leftist by European standards.  Indeed, Spaniards often told me that their parents remain staunch Franco supporters.

12. My biggest epiphany: Spain has more to gain from immigration than virtually any other country on Earth.  There are almost 500 million native Spanish speakers on Earth – and only 47 million people in Spain.  (Never mind all those non-Spanish speakers who can acquire fluency in less than a year!)  Nearly all of these Spanish speakers live in countries that are markedly poorer and more dangerous than Spain, so vast numbers would love to migrate.  And due to the low linguistic and cultural barriers, the migrants are ready to hit the ground running.  You can already see migration-fueled growth all over Spain, but that’s only a small fraction of Spain’s potential.

13. Won’t these migrants vote to ruin Spain?  I don’t see the slightest hint of this.  Migrants come to work, not to change Spain.  And it’s far from clear that natives’ political views are better than migrants’.  Podemos, the left-wing populist party, doesn’t particularly appeal to immigrant voters.  Vox, the right-wing populist party, seems to want more immigration from Spanish America, though they naturally want to slash Muslim immigration.

14. How can immigration to Spain be such a free lunch?  Simple: Expanding a well-functioning economy is far easier than fixing a poorly-functioning economy. The Romanian economy, for example, has low productivity.  Romanian people, however, produce far more in Spain than at home.  Give them four months to learn the language, and they’re ready to roll.

15. According to my sources, Spain’s immigration laws willfully defy this economic logic.  When illegal migrants register with the government, they immediately become eligible for many government benefits.  Before migrants can legally work, however, they must wait three years.  Unsurprisingly, then, you see many people who look like illegal immigrants working informally on the streets, peddling bottled water, sunglasses, purses, and the like.  I met one family that was sponsoring Venezuelan refugees.  Without their sponsorship, the refugees would basically be held as prisoners in a government camp – or even get deported to Venezuela.  Why not flip these policies, so migrants can work immediately, but wait three years to become eligible for government benefits?  Who really thinks that people have a right to the labor of others, but no right to labor themselves?

16. Our favorite day was actually spent in Gibraltar.  Highly recommended; you simply cannot overrate the apes.  I was astounded to learn that the border with Spain was totally closed until 1982, and only normalized in 1985.  In a rare triumph of the self-interested voter hypothesis, 96% of Gibraltarians voted against Brexit.  Crossing the border is already kind of a pain; pedestrians have to go through (cursory) Spanish and British passport checks both ways, and the car line is supposed to take an hour.  I’d hate to be living in Gibraltar if security gets any tighter.

17. Big question: Why is Spain so much richer now than almost any country in Spanish America?  Before you answer with great confidence, ponder this: According to Angus Maddison’s data on per-capita GDP in 1950, Spain was poorer than Argentina, Chile, Mexico, Peru, Uruguay, and Venezuela, and roughly equal to Colombia, Bolivia, Costa Rica, Cuba, Ecuador, Guatemala, and Panama.  This is 11 years after the end of the Spanish Civil War, and Spain of course stayed out of World War II.

18. Related observation: Once you’ve seen Spain, the idea that underdevelopment and oppression are somehow “intrinsic to Islam” is ridiculous.  The monuments of eight centuries of Muslim civilization in Spain are all around you.  So are basic facts like: Muslim Cordoba was once the largest city in Europe – and plausibly the most tolerant as well.  While bad outcomes are somewhat persistent, dramatic turnarounds are also common.

19. Another example: In less than a century, Spain has gone from being a battleground between reactionary Catholicism and violent atheism to a land of extreme religious apathy.  Non-practicing Catholics now outnumber practicing Catholics 2:1.

20. After I visit a new country, Tyler Cowen always asks me, “Are you long or short?”  In terms of potential, I’m very long on Spain.  The trinity of “deregulate immigration, employment, and housing” is vital in almost every country, but this formula would do more for Spain than nearly any other country.  Wise policy would make Spain the biggest economy in Europe in twenty years flat.  Unfortunately, these policies are highly unlikely to be adopted anytime soon, so my actual forecast is only moderately positive.  At this point, I can picture Tyler aphorizing, “The very fact that a country has massive unrealized potential is a reason to be pessimistic about its future.”  But this goes too far.  All else equal, a higher upper bound is clearly a reason for optimism – and by European standards, the Spanish economy is now doing very well.

21. Overall, my visit has made me more optimistic about Spain.  Much of the measured unemployment is illusory, and immigrants are pouring in to profit from Spain’s combination of high productivity and linguistic accessibility.  Housing policy remains bad.  Since housing regulation is decentralized, however, some regions of Spain will be atypically tolerant of new construction.  Where is the Texas of Spain?  I don’t know, but that’s where the future is.

Correction: I originally stated that Spain had lower population density than the contiguous U.S., but I was mixing up population per square mile and population per square kilometer.

Open This Content

Photo ID is Obsolete and Unnecessary. Facial Recognition Technology Makes it Dangerous.

In mid-May, San Francisco, California became the first American city to ban use of facial recognition surveillance technology by its police department and other city agencies. That’s a wise and ethical policy, as a July 7 piece at the Washington Post proves.

Citing documents gathered by Georgetown Law researchers, the Post reports that at least two federal agencies, the Federal Bureau of Investigation and Immigration and Customs Enforcement, have — for years — mined state photo ID databases to populate their own facial recognition databases.

To put a finer point on it, those agencies have been conducting warrantless searches, seizing private biometric data on the entire population of the United States, most of whom are neither charged with, nor suspected of committing, a crime.

They’ve conducted these fishing expeditions not just without warrants, but absent even the fig leaf of legislation from Congress or state legislatures to lend supposed legitimacy to the programs.

The Post story, intentionally or not, makes it clear that Congress must follow San Francisco’s example and ban use of facial recognition technology, as well as repeal its national photo ID (“REAL ID”) scheme, and require federal agencies to delete their facial recognition databases. The states should either lead the way or follow suit by doing away with government-issued photo identification altogether.

Photo ID has always been marginally useful at best. Anyone who’s ever worked at a bar or liquor store knows that it’s unreliable on a visual check — and that its uses have been stretched far beyond its supposed purposes.

The most common form of photo ID is the driver’s license. States imposed their licensing schemes on a seemingly justifiable pretext: A driver’s license proves that the driver whose photograph appears on it has taken and passed a test demonstrating safety and proficiency behind the wheel.

There are ways to do that without a photo.  Three that come to mind are a fingerprint, a digitized summary of an iris scan, or a similar summary of a DNA scan.

Yes, those methods are more expensive and impose a slightly higher burden on law enforcement in identifying a driver who’s been pulled over or arrested (and on anyone else who wants to confirm an individual’s identity). But they’re also far more reliable and less easily used in pulling police-state type abuses like those described in the Post story. They can’t be used for easy warrantless searches via distant cameras.

In recent decades, and especially since 9/11, the conversation over personal privacy has revolved around how much of that privacy “must” be sacrificed to make law enforcement’s job easier.

The answer to that question is “none.”

It’s not an American’s job to make law enforcement’s job easier. It’s law enforcement’s job to respect that American’s rights.

Since law enforcement has continuously  proven itself both unwilling and untrustworthy on that count, we need to deprive it of tools that enable that unwillingness and untrustworthiness.

Photo ID is obsolete and unnecessary. Facial recognition technology makes it dangerous. Let’s take those tools away from their abusers.

Open This Content

The Sons of Liberty Flag: How a Group of American Patriots Led the Colonies to Rebellion

The origins of the Sons of Liberty flag go back to 1765, when a secretive group of patriots known as “the Loyal Nine” was formed – the group behind the original Boston Tea Party. The flag was then known as “the Rebellious Stripes” and it was banned by the British king, the highest endorsement the Crown could give.

The Sons of Liberty: “No Taxation Without Representation”

The Sons of Liberty were perhaps the most radical group of American patriots during the pre-Revolutionary period, but the true Sons of Liberty had a relatively short lifespan. They were formed in response to the Stamp Act of 1765 and disbanded when the Act was repealed. Still, the name lived on as a popular brand name for the biggest firebrands of the American Revolution.

Many of the members of the true Sons of Liberty are American legends who need no introduction. Samuel Adams. John Hancock. Patrick Henry. Paul Revere. Even Benedict Arnold counted himself among their number. It’s unclear whether the original Sons of Liberty were a clandestine organization with an official membership or just a rallying point for anyone who opposed the Stamp Act. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter. The unified identity of opposition to the Crown was the organization, whether it was official or not.

The motto of the Sons of Liberty was a simple phrase known to virtually every American: “No taxation without representation.” While its origins are largely shrouded in mystery and lacking firm documentation, many experts agree that, to the extent that it was an organization with members, it was founded by none other than famous rabble rouser Samuel Adams.

The Stamp Act of 1765 and the Rise of the Sons

The Stamp Act of 1765 existed for the purpose of bankrolling British troops in the New World. Colonists resisted the Stamp Act not because the taxes themselves were intolerable, but because they believed their rights as British subjects were being violated by taxation without representation.

The first branch was founded in Boston in August 1765, followed by a satellite in New York in November of the same year. December saw communication between groups in Connecticut and New York. In January of 1766, Boston and New York linked up. By March, Providence was in communication with New Hampshire, Newport, and New York. Later that year in March, groups were set up in Maryland, New Jersey, and as far south as Virginia.

Continue reading The Sons of Liberty Flag: How a Group of American Patriots Led the Colonies to Rebellion at Ammo.com.

Open This Content

Life on the Tax Farm

We live in a prison—a massive tax farm—masquerading as a country. We produce so that others may consume. We are given the illusion of influence and of choice. We are told that we matter. We are told we can change things.

It’s all a lie, a fallacy, a grand delusion designed to keep the slaves quiet and contented, believing their servitude to be a choice. It wasn’t always this way. It doesn’t have to be this way now. Don’t you see? But no, keep playing Clash of Clans, keep voting. Both are equally helpful. Wave your flags; hell, if you get really angry, march in a protest with a sign… That will show them.

Then go back to work and keep producing.

You matter. Your opinion is important. Just keep producing.

Enjoy the entertainment. Eat your bread. Keep producing.

You are a credit to your [preferred identity group] and you matter. Keep producing.

Do you have a 4K TV yet? You should get one. Keep producing.

Getting older? That’s nice. You should celebrate. Don’t retire, though. Retirement is for quitters. Keep producing.

Those Walmart greeters seem nice, don’t they? Keep producing.

Oh, you’re dead now? So sad. We’ll put a scoop of your ashes in a jar. Your kids will pay $500 for it. They’ll like that. They’ll keep producing.

You matter. They matter. You all matter. Keep producing.

Open This Content

“Politics Awaits”

Consider this scene from Quentin Tarantino’s WWII epic, Inglourious BasterdsGerman movie star (and war hero) Fredrick Zoller is trying to persuade Joseph Goebbels to switch the venue for his new movie’s premiere.  Zoller’s real motive is to impress his would-be girlfriend, Shosanna, who owns a small theater.

GOEBBELS: How many seats in your auditorium?

SHOSANNA: Three hundred and fifty.

GOEBBELS: That’s almost four hundred less than The Ritz.

FREDRICK:  But dear Goebbels, that’s not such a terrible thing. You said yourself you didn’t want to indulge every two-faced French bourgeois taking up space currying favor. With less seats it makes the event more exclusive. You’re not trying to fill the house, they’re fighting for seats. Besides, to hell with the French. This is a German night, a German event, a German celebration. This night is for you, me, the German military, the high command, their family and friends. The only people who should be allowed in the room, are people who will be moved by the exploits on screen.

GOEBBELS:  I see your public speaking has improved. It appears I’ve created a monster. A strangely persuasive monster. When the war’s over, politics awaits.

[Table chuckles.]

While this is all fiction, it’s profound fiction.  Ponder Goebbels’ last phrase: “Politics awaits.”

Fredrick shows zero understanding of policy.  Indeed, it’s hardly clear that he even understands the optimal way to plan a movie premiere.  So what has Fredrick displayed?  A talent for demagoguery.  He scorns foreigners – “every two-faced French bourgeois taking up space currying favor” and “to hell with the French.”  He panders to nationalist identity: “This is a German night, a German event, a German celebration.”  And Fredrick scorns and panders eloquently enough to bemuse the Minister of Propaganda himself.

When you watch Inglourious Basterds, Goebbels’ reaction to Fredrick’s appeal seems obvious, even banal.  Why?  Because Goebbels is speaking like a generic politician, not a Nazi.  And when he does so, we all nod, because deep down we know the ugly truth that demagoguery rules the world.  We’re just afraid to say it.

Open This Content