Sunday, December 17, 2006

Blogging Will be Light

I will be on vacation with my family until after Jan. 2, and so blogging will be light at best. Merry Christmas, Happy Hannukah, and Happy New Year to all.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

What Drives History?

In a newspaper column from 1998 (entitled “Just Suppose,” and only available by paying for it in the Washington Post archives), the columnist George F. Will wondered about the following historical contingency:

Suppose the car had hit the pedestrian slightly harder. What car? The one on Fifth Avenue the evening of Dec. 13, 1931, when an English politician on a lecture tour momentarily forgot the American rules of the road and looked the wrong way when stepping into the street. Winston Churchill could have died. Then, perhaps in 1940 or 1941, a prime minister less resolute and inspiriting than Churchill might have chosen to come to terms with Germany before Hitler attacked the Soviet Union. Imagine the hegemony of a National Socialist Germany stretching across the Eurasian landmass from the Atlantic to the Pacific.

There are basically two classes of theories about why history happens the way it does. The first is deterministic – it emphasizes sweeping historical trends that carry individuals along with them. In the limit, this framework makes history inevitable. The most famous example is probably Marx, who believed that all societies progressed from pre-capitalist and capitalist and socialist and communist, driven purely by the dynamics of the market and resistance to it. Needless to say, that one didn't work out, but there are many theories of this type. Globalization is supposed to not just inevitably promote prosperity (which economic theory alone would predict), but bring with it a host of historical forces, including better governance and more ethnic harmony. Some people claim that increasing scarcity of natural resources, particularly oil, will drive higher levels of nation-state conflict. And so on. In all of these theories, there is no role for the individual per se. He is simply a passive, mechanistic component of larger historical forces all about him.

In the other theory, which Mr. Will favors, history is made by great individuals. Britain does not win the second world war without Churchill, whose absence also leads the Nazis to triumph over the Soviets and thus to completely change world history. If Stonewall Jackson is not killed in action, the Confederacy wins at Gettysburg and is able ultimately to sue for peace. Perhaps slavery is preserved, not just in the US but in Brazil, which at the time was the other major jurisdiction in the New World where slavery was legal and which could have joined forces with an independent South.

If you’ve ever seen a depiction of Pascal's triangle, you are inclined to favor the deterministic theory rather than the individualistic one. When used to demonstrate permutations, the triangle consists of a series of rows containing cells. Each cell is a specific event – a coin flip that ends up heads or tails, for example. Every event in each row is connected to two cells above it and two below it, with the line joining each cell to its two predecessors and successors representing the movement from one stage of time to the next. Each cell in the bottom row represents a particular sequence of events. For example, if you flip a coin twice, the cells in the last row represent "two heads," "one head and one tail," and "two tails." In the last row, the probability that you will end up at a particular cell in the middle is much higher than that for than in the cells at the ends. This is because the last row is distributed binomially, and the cells in the middle are the ones closest to the middle of that distribution.

And so if Stonewall Jackson had lived on, would the overwhelming industrial and population superiority of the North have ultimately failed to prevail? Would there have been no leader in Britain willing to fight the Nazis to the last had Churchill not survived? This is essentially the Will assertion. I am generally skeptical of it, but Russia is currently providing us with an interesting test case. From the deterministic point of view, Russia should be a nation in serious decline. Its population is collapsing and the life expectancy of young men was falling until very recently. (It is currently lower than in Bangladesh.) Its demographic difficulties mean that non-Russian populations are moving in and essentially remaking Russia around the Russians – with people from the Caucasus surging into the Russian heartland and Chinese pouring over the border to do business in, and ultimately to reclaim Siberia (which many Chinese believe was lost to Russia when Russia was strong and China was weak, and which they mean to take back).

And yet its president, Vladimir Putin, appears to be playing a weak hand extremely well. He is a master of realpolitik, having gotten his nation into what used to be the G-7 and having made Western Europe more and more dependent on his natural-gas exports, all the while putting the screws to his domestic opponents in a way that Europe ordinarily finds unacceptable. He has been able to (mercilessly) reconquer the Chechnya that Boris Yeltsin lost, and appears to be checking the attempts of NATO to set up alliances in the Russian backyard.

If political leaders and other great men drive history, than Russia has a bright future. But if larger trends do, it most decidedly does not. Mark Steyn is building a robust career on the notion that demographics are going to completely remake Europe, as rapidly propagating Muslims shut out old and dying indigenous Europeans. Russia will provide an interesting test case of whether a great man – not in a moral sense, but in the sense of being exceptional – can do anything about that.

Is the Diversity Obsession Good for the Left?

I don't link to The Nation much, but I came across (hat tip: NRO) a review of a new book there, The Trouble With Diversity: How We Learned to Love Identity and Ignore Inequality by Walter Benn Michaels. Mr. Michaels argues that the left has been diverted into obsession with Race, Class, and Gender (or Sex, if you prefer, and I do), and has therefore failed to focus on social and income inequality directly.

The review is a strange one, beginning as it does with the reviewer (Robert S. Boynton, yet another professor, this time of journalism) describing the futility encountered when he tries to decode the tribal identity of the applicants to his graduate-school program. (Upon reading the review, one is reminded of the extent to which entire academic disciplines – sociology, cultural anthropology, social psychology, and especially and most absurdly literary criticism – have themselves been transformed into vehicles for ivory tower political criticism of the U.S. and the West. But leave that aside.) He knows that race is increasingly meaningless in the circle of elite applicants with whom he associates, but then goes in to say it's important everywhere else in society, so we must pay it great heed in political activism and in public policy.

But Prof. Boynton misses what makes the obsession with tribe so costly to society. People can define their identities in a variety of ways. We might think of identity choice as a financial portfolio. One can "invest" a lot or a little in various identity assets – one's ethnic or religious identity, profession, role as a parent, status as an alumnus of a particular school, etc. The decision is similar to that of picking stocks and bonds, and is done on the basis of expected return, emotionally and financially. Some forms of identity are so emotionally lucrative that they will generally loom large – few people will emphasize their role as a Nebraska fan nearly as much as their role as a father. (Although the growth in parents who abandon their children in the last forty years suggests even this most basic identity asset has lost value over time.)

But race is far from an immutable identity source. How much people choose to emphasize it depends on how lucrative they expect it to be, and how important other people tell them it is, directly (say, family members or friends) or in the culture. And if there are social groups built around the idea of tribal conflict – legal defense funds for particular ethnic groups, e.g. – they positively depend on maintaining the perceived payoff to individual investment in tribal identity. In the runup to the 2000 census, there was great deal of controversy over whether or not to include a mixed-race category on the census form. The primary objections came from representatives of minority groups who feared that their political influence would be diluted, because fewer people would check their boxes. (Ultimately people were allowed to check more than one box.)

The emphasis on the tribal-identity portion of the portfolio is a problem for two reasons. First, people can discard most other identity aspects easily, and many of them lend themselves to peaceful market trading rather than zero-sum political rent-seeking. Someone who thinks of himself as an accountant who happens to be "Asian" rather than an "Asian" who happens to be an accountant finds that most of the returns to being an accountant come from trading in the market rather than lobbying the government and filing lawsuits. Scarce resources are thus diverted from politics to the market, which is all to the good. That such identities are not genetically transmissible – most children of accountants do not grow up to be accountants themselves – means that there is no overpowering incentive to engage in political occupational-based activism for the sake of one's own offspring. For tribe, in contrast, this incentive is much larger. A "black" person who emphasizes his "blackness" and is convinced that blacks don't get a fair shake in America will divert a lot more time to angry politics not just for his own sake but his children's too.

Second, tribal identification lends itself intrinsically more to conflict, perhaps for biological reasons. There are many examples of societies where different tribes more or less get along – the U.S. and Canada now, the old Roman Empire – but there are many where the merest perturbation causes the society to completely collapse on tribal lines, with Iraq the most vivid recent example. Even when tribal differences seem trivial to the outsider, societies may place huge emphasis on them. Serbs and Croats speak the same language and are almost all Christian (the Serbs Orthodox, the Croats Catholic), but slaughtered each other mercilessly in the Balkan wars of the 1990s. To the outsider there is no obvious difference between a Japanese citizen of Japanese ancestry and a Japanese permanent resident of Korean ancestry, but the difference is huge in both Japanese society and law.

So anything that dampens tribal affiliation is likely to be good for society. The left made a Faustian bargain when it became obsessed with diversity and multiculturalism – it paid less attention to its historical concerns, and put itself in a position of seeming to condescendingly accuse most ordinary people of being closet racists for not wanting to sign on to the diversity agenda. Its class-warfare agenda has suffered as a result. Prof. Michaels’ book is part of a small but growing number from the left (I would be interested to know how many of them are written by women or non-"whites") that attempt to undo this. The positive effects this will have on the class-warfare agenda are unfortunate, but certainly a price worth paying.


Tuesday, December 12, 2006

The Pinochet Paradox

Augusto Pinochet is dead. Perhaps precisely because of his rule, so too is the prospect of further militarist rule in his country. Lionized by some, demonized by others, the truth about his legacy lies somewhere in the middle.

There can be no honest evaluation of the Pinochet era without some understanding of how things were when he came to power. His predecessor, the democratically but not majority-elected Salvador Allende, was in the process of turning his country into an economic Dresden and a totalitarian dungeon. By the time of the coup in 1973, the Chilean Supreme Court and one house of the Chilean parliament had essentially asked the military to take over, because Allende was in the process of implementing a food-rationing system that could be used against his political opponents and of taking over the educational system, in other words of the minds of children. A good summary of the economic chaos and embryonic dictatorship that preceded the coup can be found at a page called The Allende Myth, which is currently unavailable at its original source but which lives on in Google cache.

The gist of this history is that the general probably saved his country from catastrophe. The counterfactual to pose is what Chile would have been like had he not taken over. At best, it would have been a corruption-plagued, periodically macroeconomically chaotic Latin state like Argentina or Bolivia. At worst, it would have been Cuba. We know that Pinochet killed roughly 3000 of his citizens and tortured thousands of others, but we also know, thanks to the invaluable resource of Robert Rummel's page on democide, that Castro directly killed about 75,000 people, and roughly another 50,000 perished as boat people who didn't make it. (As I have said before, that Cuba is the sort of society where people would risk their children's lives in order to flee is about as damning a moral statement, as can be imagined. Pinochet himself never imposed exit restrictions. The freedom to leave is one of the most important of all. When it is revoked, grim times loom.) Democides and other totalitarian communist societies were far worse. And if this had prompted other communist takeovers elsewhere in South America, the death toll could have been far higher.

And that the economic policies followed under Pinochet made Chileans so much wealthier means that they are now far freer than they could have been under any socialist conception of the word. Freedom has to mean the ability to direct your own life, and that Chile is now a society with the enforcement of property rights, with much greater wealth, and with the rule of law means that its residents are in control of their own destiny far more than those of their neighbors whose governments claim to do so much to protect the "rights" of the poor by impoverishing the entire country. Indeed, much of the press coverage of the demonstrations, both pro-and anti-Pinochet, that have occurred since his death have focused on whether or not the country can be "united" now that he is gone. No one bothers to point out that the ways in which they are disunited now are entirely peaceful – funneled through check-and-balance politics rather than through angry street protests and appeals to the power of the people. This is a luxury that only rich, well-governed states have. Do not kid yourself; Chile is the only country in South America that works, as the huge numbers of illegal immigrants on the streets of Santiago from the surrounding dysfunctional countries demonstrate vividly. The general had a lot to do with that.

And yet it was substantially accidental. Milton Friedman once noted in a lecture that in the early days after the coup Pinochet tried to rule in the traditional manner of a military officer – by giving orders to economic actors on the assumption that they would obey. Within a few months inflation had risen to even higher levels than those it had reached under Allende. Given that many Chilean economists with experience in government sympathized with Allende and/or objected to the coup, he had to reach out to the University of Chicago-trained economists who populated Chilean universities. They imposed radical reform, and after fits and starts made Chile into by far the wealthiest country in Latin America. Thus, Pinochet was at the time interested mostly in preventing a totalitarian takeover (no small thing, that) rather than implementing militantly free-market policies per se.

But ultimately he knew success when he saw it, and these policies paid off. And when he left office, he recognized the natural tendencies toward statism that might undo the miracle. The Chilean constitution initially had provisions that made major changes in economic policy difficult, although they have become easier since.

In addition to giving Chileans the means to own their own lives, perhaps his most noble act was to lose an election that he expected to win, and then to obey the verdict. He held a plebiscite in 1988 on whether he should stay in power, but Chileans voted no. He could have stayed on in a way that other dictators have, but, after engineering legal changes that would protect the military from human-rights prosecutions, leave he did. This perhaps was his greatest gift, in that it set the precedent that no leader is indispensable.

And yet, and yet... Ultimately, the general is a deeply flawed figure, far from heroic. While Chile under his rule never approached the sort of totalitarian control that exists even today in Cuba (and is under construction in Venezuela), his seizure of power was characterized by the sort of sadism that the most bitter sorts of social conflict promote (what we are seeing in Iraq now, for example). So much torture, so much cruelty, so unnecessary. And in later years it emerged that he was personally corrupt, having stolen roughly $20 million while in office. (But the country he bequeathed is notable in Latin America for its absence of corruption.) And a man motivated by patriotism should arguably be willing to face the music of the rule of law once order is restored. That the Chilean government pursued him in violation of the agreement that led him to step down was a breach of faith, but so too was his attempt to escape responsibility for what he had done when he left office. Having significantly restored the rule of law to his country, he would have done best by it to have accepted whatever consequences the new Chile decided to mete out to him.

Monday, December 11, 2006

Darfur and Reality

In the little town where I live there was a meeting on Saturday. It was a group of honestly concerned people talking amongst themselves about what to do about the carnage in Darfur. It may seem odd that a small number of people in a faraway place could think that they could help promote moral transformation on the other side of the world, but they did indeed have a plan. The plan was to coordinate letter-writing campaigns, perhaps demonstrations, and other sorts of "people power" activities to persuade the legislatures of the democratic world and the United Nations to do the obviously right thing.

Alas, reality bites. There is a reason that the bloodshed in a profoundly forlorn part of the world has gone on despite the fact that the US Department of State has declared it "genocide," and that the global progressive community has made the alleviation if not the outright elimination of violence there a top priority. That reason is that national interests are far more powerful than any manifestation of democratic outrage could be.

Even if the activists could persuade their legislatures to "do something" about Darfur were, what would they do? Get the UN to authorize some sort of military savior mission? Sadly, China and Russia have vetoes there, and both nations have a long-standing hostility to using the UN to intervene in the affairs of other nations. They do this not out of any high-minded principles but because they fear that one day the UN could interfere in their own countries. (The only reason the Korean War was authorized by the Security Council was that the Soviets boycotted the meeting, a mistake they quickly learned from.) In addition, China now buys quite a bit of oil from Sudan, and thus has a tremendous stake in keeping the government there unthreatened and stable. Making a big to-do about human rights and genocide is not consistent with their national interest, and so if necessary they will wield their veto to prevent the UN doing anything about it.

So politically correct multilateralism is out. What's left? Unilateral military action by the West? Some people (New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof, for example) who are often skeptical of the American military actions they see are in favor, but most of the Darfur activists are not. The presumptive immorality of American military action trumps any concrete positive consequences from liberating Darfur. Even those, like Kristof, who advocate muscular action to stop the terror there appear to have little grasp of how such a thing would be militarily practical in the middle of the Sahara Desert, far removed from any American military bases.

Economic sanctions? Ah, reality again. Sudan is now a major exporter of oil, the lifeblood of global commerce. Sudan would hardly suffer at all from sanctions because of their newfound oil riches (the US imposes significant sanctions on Sudan now and the Sudanese hardly notice), and if sanctions with real bite were imposed they would expose the nations backing them to retaliation in the form of being shut out of Sudanese drilling.

In this case there is something almost quaint about the standard progressive twin certainties that morality comes from the popular will and that the popular will among right-thinking people can be mobilized to solve the world’s problems. This is why the UN delusion is so popular on the left; the UN is after all an organization that counts votes among representatives of the world’s various governments (thuggish though they may be), and is thus in their view the closest thing we have too global democracy. So of course political activism, without the necessity of taking old-fashioned national interest and realpolitik into account, should be sufficient to make sure that never again really means never again. If only the lessons of history would stop interrupting so rudely.

The group in my town is having another meeting next week. They will keep meeting, they say, until Darfur is peaceful.

Thursday, December 07, 2006

Can Laughing at Each Other Help?

The International Herald Tribune has the story of a new Canadian Broadcasting Series called “Little Mosque on the Prairie.” It is the tale of a fully integrated Canadian Muslim who takes over as imam of a mosque in a smallish city on the Canadian plains. Traditionalist Canadian Muslims apparently interact with younger, more assimilated ones, as well as with the broader society, and hilarity ensues. (Although as some wags have pointed out, if it is on the CBC, comedy will be the one thing missing from this situation comedy.)

This is a potentially promising development in the tensions between Muslim and non-Muslim in predominantly non-Muslim countries. I argued just a few posts ago that the hallmark of the tribally secure society is that everyone is comfortable laughing at their own and everyone else's tribal stereotypes. Ethnic humor, in other words, is (in a non-spiteful way) widely accepted. That a Chris Rock can build a solid career out of making fun of blacks and whites, or that Jewish comedians can lampoon Jewish insecurities and non-Jews can find it hilarious rather than a hallmark of their own latent anti-Semitism, is a good sign.

I wrote an essay awhile back called Choosing Sides. In it I argued that ethnoreligious extremists would target not just the other group but those in their own community who tried to reach across the divide. I also contended that once this process starts it is easy for people to more and more cleave into their groups, and the proportion of the population devoted to intertribal harmony shrinks. The Samarra mosque attack clearly accelerated Sunni/Shiite polarization in Iraq, and there have been several news accounts in recent days of pokes in the eyes delivered by one group to the other in the U.S. - showboating imams misbehaving in an airport (perhaps looking to gin up a discrimination lawsuit) on the one hand, a Texan deciding to hold pig races on his land to prevent a proposed mosque from being built next door on the other.

But an optimist might suppose that perhaps we can all laugh our way through this. The series creator, Zarqa Nawaz, apparently an observant but fully assimilated Canadian Muslim, has scripted one scene in which Muslim women taking swimming lessons find that today's instructor is a man, which poses obvious problems. But it turns out he's a gay man, so they have to explore whether that makes any difference. That a key tenet of Canadian (and much of Western) society, comfort with uncloseted gay people, is part of a series focusing on Muslims, is probably a good sign. My ultimate proposed test of whether “Little Mosque” helps people get along more than not is that Muslims and non-Muslims are laughed at in equal measure, and that nothing sacred is profaned. If so, Ms Nawaz has done her society a useful service.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Integration Now, Integration Tomorrow, Integration Forever!

Yesterday the Supreme Court of the United States entertained arguments in two cases over whether it is permissible to use race as a significant factor in choosing, for diversity reasons, which public-school students get into particular highly desirable schools and which don't. The argument of the school districts involved in the case is that diversity is a compelling interest, and that it is therefore permissible to take account of race, something otherwise not permitted by the Constitution, to achieve it. Now whether diversity is such a compelling interest is very debatable and hangs on the flimsiest of legal threads. And there is a good argument to be made that the moral position is for the state to ignore race at all times - no schools that are legally required to be segregated, no schools that are legally required to achieve a certain level of integration. But a far more compelling question is whether full nationwide integration is even achievable.

Over thirty years ago an economist named Thomas Schelling demonstrated through computer modeling that the tiniest degree of preference for living around people of one's own ethnicity (a desire, for example, by whites that nonwhites not exceed fifty percent of their neighborhood) translates quickly, in a dynamic system, from a starting point of random allocation of ethnic groups among the available housing into substantial self-segregation. Very tiny preferences forone's own type means that once someone of a different type opens up a neighborhood, others of that latter type quickly move there, and the original inhabitants become less and less desirous of living there and thus eventually move themselves. This means that government efforts to achieve residential integration are generally futile. (Schelling did not consider the possibility that some people may have an active taste for neighbor diversity. Some such people, probably more and more as time goes by, obviously exist, and they congregate in a highly diverse neighborhoods. Such is the benefit of property rights in allowing people to achieve their goals.)

The United States government has been trying for years to use legislation and the federal courts to achieve the "proper" racial balance in the nation's schools. And yet still, as Jonathan Kozol's entire righteously angry corpus has shown, it has conspicuously failed, in that many American schools are still segregated more than fifty years after Brown v. Board of Education.

And so at some point, we will accept that attempts to engineer particular diversity or integration outcomes are doomed to fail. As an aside, they are also philosophically repugnant, because they require that government officials turn other people's children into the raw material for experiments in social engineering. The most revolting spectacle of the anger over busing in the 1970s (and you would think we would learn from the failure of that experiment not to try it again in a different guise) was the sending of children into faraway schools amid armed police escorts.

Parents love their own children more than other people, including bureaucrats, do, and will always resist (and have the moral right to resist) attempts by bureaucrats to make their children's education subject to someone else's bureaucratic whims.

Of course, a diverse society requires that people get along, and a modern one requires that they be adequately educated. And so if there is to be significant residential self-segregation (and the historical record suggests there will be), the citizenry has an obligation via the government that represents it to make sure that all schools provide an equal opportunity for each student to achieve his potential. And so while whether the government should be actually producing education (as opposed to, for example, merely funding it by the provision of private vouchers) is more than an open question, whatever it decides it should provide those services equally to everyone’s children, perhaps by equalizing funding per student. But that is all we can hope for. Any attempt to solve America's ethnic-tension problems by turning its school system in to a Petri dish onto which various possibly toxic policy chemicals are introduced is a fool's errand, and immoral to both the children and their parents to boot.

Monday, December 04, 2006

A Faux Pas as Pas de Deux

Reuters has a story about the incoming CEO of the newly merged combination of Lucent and Alcatel, Patricia Russo. The story is not about business tactics or the likely impact on the companies. The story is about the announced lack of interest of Ms Russo, an American, in learning French, despite the fact that she will be living in Paris.

Ms. Russo argues that since English is the language of international business, and it's a little (according to the article) already the language of Alcatel anyway, there is no practical need for her to learn French. This is an eminently American sort of response – emphasizing the practical and not worrying so much about the symbolic. Still, let us stipulate that there is a certain rudeness in moving to a foreign land for an extended period and having no interest in learning the language. Out of courtesy, she ought to learn the language. As a matter of maximizing shareholder value, does she need to?

Alas, probably not. As I have written elsewhere, the benefits of a common standard in language are at least as high as the benefits of a common standard in, for example, measurement. Having all business be done in one language is at least as useful as knowing that a meter or aa second is measured the same everywhere. And the dynamics of globalization – of science, of commerce, of news, of popular culture – are such that that common standard will be English. But what is most striking in the article is the quote below from a French management-recruiting executive:
"Foreign executives who suceed in France are those who show they can adapt to the culture," said Catherine Euvrard, head of French headhunting firm Euvrard Consultants.

"If they don't, they risk being marginalised and will never penetrate the country's closely knit business circles."

This is, I think, almost exactly wrong. Not because you need to know French to penetrate “the country's closely knit business circles” (I have no view on that one way or the other), but the unexamined assumption by Ms Euvrard that the key to business success for the new company will require them to penetrate these circles to begin with. If the merged company is to achieve anything, it must break the old French model that defines competitiveness as gigantic national champions lumbering along under the leaden guiding hand of dirigisme. The future of Lucent/Alcatel will be made or lost in a world that is not confined to the inward-looking Old Continent, but in a world full of hard-charging Indians, Chinese, Singaporeans, Americans, Emiratis and others. A world where the commerce minister of India can say just before the arrival of President Chirac for a state visit that "[w]e find the Europeans fighting for a 35-hour week, and we in India are fighting for a 35-hour day." That is the kind of world that prompted this merger – a world powered by English, and by a far brasher way of doing business.

Uncommented upon by the Reuters writer is that the American Ms. Russo will be the only female head of a leading French company, that women are far more liberated in business in the US than in Europe, and that these two facts are probably related. That is the world she brings. Ms Russo's admittedly impolite announcement is an acknowledgment of this, and the symbolism – of a hard-charging outsider trying to shake up a cloistered, hobbled Europe – is unmistakable.

Friday, December 01, 2006

Why Care about the Culture?

I was very struck by a long and thoughtful comment by an anonymous poster in response to a recent post on whether the movie Borat is funny or not. The poster took me to task for missing the film's revolting taste and perhaps outright obscenity:

'Borat' crosses the line between borderline humor and outright vomitous material. The fact that this film was a hit reflects just how low our entertainment standards have fallen.

My post focused almost exclusively on whether or not the movie was racist. But the commenter draws attention to a completely different problem – its grossness. For someone like me, of libertarian inclinations, this presents a difficulty. Those of us in that camp are naturally predisposed to defer to individual choice, even in matters of personal vice and cultural preferences. Sometimes the concern is that an outcry over such matters paves the road for state suppression of them, which is far worse. But in fairness, part of it among some libertarians is disdain for the schoolmarmishness of the mob. And so de gustibus non est disputandum.

I have a lot of sympathy for the poster, who is I think right to chastise me for focusing only on the trendier concern of racism rather than the older but equally profound question of taste. But given the logic above, why should someone who morally prioritizes individual freedom be concerned about lowbrow MTV videos, trashy movies, the deterioration of the family, and the other signs of what the traditionalist conservative would see as cultural decay that are all around us? I think a good argument can be made that we ought to be worried about it, apart from simple matters of taste -- i.e., that some material is in fact "vomitous."

Many opponents of globalization, criticize it for what they call the "race to the bottom" – the belief that competition among national governments for corporate factories will cause them to repeal protections for labor, so that wages and working conditions fall to the levels of the poorest societies. This is a belief that is utterly and completely refuted by even the most elementary glance at the data, but I think that "race to the bottom" is useful in thinking about why we might be concerned about the deterioration of the culture.

Think about cultural constraints – what is good taste and what isn't – as a series of retaining walls, designed to protect us from the consequences of what we see in our art. Behind the innermost wall is a toxic pool from which the rest of us wish to be protected. Whenever one wall is breached, perhaps because a groundbreakingly naughty artist has shocked the proper people, the water behind it naturally floods all the land until the next wall farther out. But now, the artist who wants to shock finds that the old barrier is gone. He must then breach the next wall, pushing the water out even further. The things an artist must do to shock become ever more shocking, forcing the culture ever further down. Whereas in the globalization case corporations must compete for scarce workers, and so ultimately competition promotes a race to the top rather than to the bottom, in the cultural case the margin of competition is how "transgressive" the artwork is – how much it can shock and cut against existing sensibilities. (In certain artistic circles, to call a work "transgressive" is to give it the highest praise available.)

In a famous episode, Elvis Presley was shown only from the waist up on the Ed Sullivan show, because network censors were concerned about the effects of showing his swiveling hips, already then a notorious part of his act. Those censors are mocked now as a quaint relic of a bygone era, as rock 'n roll has conquered the world. But Elvis's hips became the New York Dolls, which became Snoop Dogg, which became the Sex Pistols urinating on the audience and Norwegian rainforest-protection advocates having public sex on stage. And so too the music itself went from Beethoven to Broadway to Sinatra to the Beatles to to tally-up-the-bitches-and-hos hip-hop spngs. So too in literature, so too in film, and so too more or less in every artistic form. And in each generation, there is a lamentation for the cleaner culture of that generation's youth – the parents of the baby boomers thought that the Beatles were loud, long-haired and revolting, and the boomers themselves loved the Beatles and thought that punk rock and rap were appalling.

But why should we care? Because the cultural breakwaters are there for a reason, often a reason discovered only over centuries of painful learning. Each generation of children takes its cues about what's permissible and what's rebellious from what they see in the culture around them. And so perhaps it is no surprise that as the culture has deteriorated, so too implied restraints on individual behavior have fallen by the wayside as well. Family structure throughout the West (with the conspicuous exception of Japan, if you consider that a Western country) is falling apart, and not without consequence. Children raised in single-parent families do far worse on a variety of social indicators across a variety of societies – they end up in jail more, they end up on the dole more, they end up being single parents themselves more. Once the cultural restraints are off, individuals, often too young to know better, run off the rails completely. Theodore Dalrymple provides a trivial but revealing episode that reveals the connection between what the entertainers say and what the culture does:

Watching a British comedy from the mid-1950s recently, I grasped the speed and completeness of that change. In the film was a scene in which the outraged working-class father of a pregnant teenage daughter demanded that the middle-class boy who had made love to her must now marry her. The present-day audience giggled helplessly at this absurdly old-fashioned demand, which only 45 years previously would still have seemed perfectly normal, indeed unarguable. Such naïveté is not for us in our superior, enlightened state, however, and we prove our sophistication by finding it ridiculous.

But who, one might ask, had the deeper and subtler moral understanding of human relations: the audience of the mid-1950s or that of today? To the 1950s audience it would have been unnecessary to point out that, once a child had been conceived, the father owed a duty not only to the child, but to the mother; that his own wishes in the matter were not paramount, let alone all-important, and that he was not simply an individual but a member of a society whose expectations he had to meet if he were to retain its respect; and that a sense of moral obligation toward a woman was not inimical to a satisfying relationship with her but a precondition of it. To the present-day audience, by contrast, the only considerations in such a situation would be the individual inclinations of the parties involved, floating free of all moral or social constraints. In the modern view, unbridled personal freedom is the only good to be pursued; any obstacle to it is a problem to be overcome.

(Although it makes references mostly to British culture, people interested in more reading on the topic of cultural decay would do well to read this other essay by Dalrymple.)

While diagnosing the problem is easy, discovering what to do about it is harder. Since the cultural race to the bottom feeds on official disapproval, it is hard to see what's the government could do about it. Indeed, Charles Murray, in his short and very readable libertarian manifesto, argues that only a fully free society can restore virtue. In a society without a welfare system but with full property rights, the drug user and the irresponsible young man who knocks up girls left and right minds that he has a hard time getting a job or an apartment, because employers and landlords are free to hire and rent as they please. And the consequences of socially costly behavior are borne mostly by the person engaging in it. But that kind of society is a long way away, if we’re ever likely to see it again. In the meantime, the only weapon those like my anonymous correspondent who wish to defend the culture have left is shame. They should speak out loud, and speak out proud.