10 July 2017

What Made - and Still Makes - Western Civilization Great

The battle between social conservatives and progressives

In last week’s speech in Poland, Trump warned about a threat to Western Civilization. He mentioned “history” six times and spoke of          “the bonds of history, culture, and memory,” and “the bonds of culture, faith, and tradition.” Speaking for the right, Trump is proudly pointing to the West as having a superior tradition worth fighting for.
Douglas Murray, author of The Strange Death of Europe: Immigration, Identity, Islam, argues that the Left in Europe is essentially embarrassed to argue that their culture is really better than any other and authorities have actually looked away number of atrocities, including honor killings (families killing their own sisters and daughters because of their shame at who they’ve married) because it might seem racist to prosecute these as crimes.
So we have the Right arguing for tradition and the Left arguing for cultural relativism. The one would head backwards and the other would stand around awkwardly, apologizing for seeming to suggest that their ways are any better than that of any other people.
What seems to be missing is the appreciation for history without treating historical institutions as sacred or a culture as synonymous with race or nationalism (which it is not).
The West was seemingly the first to do something that set it apart and set it on the road to progress. This is worth defending.

How we think about institutions defines our communities. Three ways to characterize the great institutions of the West like church, state, and bank are:

      Sacred objects that must be preserved: this the attitude of the social conservative
2.      Obsolete objects that must be eradicated: this the attitude of the radical
3.      Simply tools that everyone should have access to: this is the attitude of the progressive

The debate in the West today is between social conservatives and progressives. The radicals who in past generations argued to outlaw religion (as the French Revolutionaries and Soviets did), financial markets (as communists throughout the world did last century) and even the nation-state (as anarchists have) are largely ignored in today’s political debates. Institutions separate us from the other primates and the real argument is not over whether we should have them but how we should treat them.
The most defining revolutions of the West were led by progressives and transformed these institutions:

1.      Church - the battle between Protestants and Catholics that gave us freedom of religion between about 1300 and 1700
2.      Nation-state – the battle between royalists and revolutionaries that gave us democracy between about 1700 and 1900
3.      Bank - the democratization of financial markets that gave us the American dream between about 1900 and 2000

Each revolution turned a dominant institution ruled by elites into a tool used by the average person. These were not one-time events. For instance, democracy was a revolution but it took centuries more to extend it from white, property owning Protestant men to even 18-year-old minority women. Early forms of religious freedom just gave you a choice between Catholic, Calvinist and Lutheran, not the thousands of denominations and religions (including atheism) available today. Like economic progress, this social progress isn’t something that happens one year and then stops; it is on-going and progress is as dependent on social change as it is on technological change.
Social conservatives are more likely to wonder about the intentions of founding fathers. If you see institutions as tools, though, the idea of protecting them from change is about as odd as insisting that Rudolf Diesel or Henry Ford never intended for us to drive cars with cup holders or GPS. Even if true it’s irrelevant to those of us alive now.
It’s difficult to understand how visceral is the reaction to Trump without understanding how differently social conservatives and progressives think about our major institutions.

First amendment:
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

As it turns out, freedom of religion, free speech, a free press and political activism are all intertwined. Our founding fathers had genius enough to see that and packaged them into the same amendment. All have to do with freedom of thought but started with freedom of religion.
In 1302, Pope Boniface issued a bull that asserted his lordship over all of Christendom. By 1648 the Treaty of Westphalia essentially took away the pope’s power to dictate religion to a ruler and the ruler’s power to dictate religion to the people. The battle for freedom of religion played out between roughly 1300 and 1700 and gave us terrible atrocities like the Spanish Inquisition and the Thirty Years War that killed about ten percent of Europe’s population before reaching a resolution.
Had freedom of religion merely brought peace, that would have been enough. There is more, though. Once you’re free to choose your beliefs, you might just choose to base those beliefs on scientific evidence rather than religious revelation. As it turns out, freedom of religion allows scientific thinking to flourish.
In the early 1600s, the Church put Galileo under house arrest; by the late 1600s, England made Newton the Master of the Mint. Freedom of religion enabled the rise of science.
Progressives see in Trump’s travel ban targeted at Muslims not just a challenge to freedom of religion, which is reason enough to be upset. They see it as an attack on freedom of thought. Trump “knows” that Islam is the wrong religion and that climate change is not real and that he’s being attacked by “fake news.” Social conservatives see Trump as protecting their true and sacred religion; progressives see him as attacking freedom of thought.

The next big revolution played out between about 1700 and 1900. At its beginning monarchs had absolute power and by its end those monarchs were either constrained by law or had been removed. The nation-state had become a tool for the average person and not just the elites. Rule of law and a representative government are foundational to democracy and both continue to evolve.
Newton defined laws that could apply universally to any object, from planet to moon to apple. His friend John Locke argued for laws that would apply universally to any person, from aristocrat to merchant to laborer. Laws that governed the natural world and should govern the social world were a focus of the Enlightenment thinkers who inspired democratic revolutions.
When Trump asks the head of the FBI not to investigate his National Security Adviser, this is a challenge to the rule of law, taking us back to the old system of personal privilege. When he leads a task force to investigate voter fraud (that all studies suggest is nonexistent), he is actually moving to make voting more restrictive. (Although he does seem rather sanguine about foreign interference, even if he’s trying to block Americans without photo ID.)
The invention of the car was dramatic but no one with a choice between a Tesla and a Model T would choose to drive the T. Like the car, democracy continues to evolve. If 1776 was the moment Americans “invented” modern democracy it is worth remembering that voting rights continue to expand to include more people over time. It took 200 years before the 18 year olds we sent to war could vote.
The real question is, who should be able to define the policies that define the community they live in? Put differently, is the government a tool for anyone to use or is it reserved for just a few? Progressives and social conservatives have very different answers to this.

The most recent of our great institutions to be made a tool of the masses and not just the elites is the bank (or, more broadly, financial markets that include credit and investment markets). This access has helped people to become more affluent and more able to define their own lifestyle.
The levels of consumption that enable individuals to pursue the American dream would not be possible without modern capital markets. Warren Buffet argues that his upper-middle class neighbors in Nebraska live better than John D. Rockefeller did roughly a century ago. The cars, smart phones, TVs, and polio vaccines the average American now has rely on vast amounts of capital. The billions it takes to produce and purchase this vast array of goods would boggle the mind of any adult living in 1900, even John D. Rockefeller.
Access to financial markets gives the individual access to the American dream and the credit card and 401(k) account might be the simplest symbols of this broadening of access. Keynesian economics is another element of this revolution.
One of Keynes most overlooked insights into capital markets was this: capital markets could reach equilibrium before labor markets did. In other words, it was possible for capitalists to stop investing before a community reached full employment. If capital markets were just tools for elites, communities would have to accept this; if they were to be tools for the masses, communities would have to adopt policies that changed this. Keynes gave us options for this.
Unemployment during the Great Depression hit 25%; during the Great Recession, it peaked at 10%. One big reason for the differences in severity was the application of Keynesian stimulus; Bernanke did all he could to prop up credit markets to encourage investment and consumption. Like church and state before it, the bank has been made a tool for the average person. Interest rates were used to maximize employment, not returns to capital.
Social conservatives don’t like the Federal Reserve or its charter to subject financial markets to larger goals like employment. Again, as with church and state, they feel that what we’ve inherited is sacred and should not be changed. For them, Keynesian is a bad word. The battle between social conservatives and progressives over banking regulations and Federal Reserve policy often seems obscure but there is a reason that bank is the first part of bankrupt. The consequences of getting this policy wrong are severe.

For centuries, progress has followed from letting more people have access to these great institutions, using them as tools for their own benefit. Life got better when our founding fathers extended the use of government from just aristocrats to landed gentry; it got better again when it was extended to women in the early 20th century and to minorities in the late 20th century. There is no evidence that progress now lies in the opposite direction, in restricting rather than broadening access to freedom of religion, democracy, and the American dream. The more that people have been able to use church, state and bank as tools for their own lives, the better the world has become.

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