British and American economic success and growth flow from those nations’ knack for creating “social capital,” especially the capacity to assimilate immigrants into the nation’s cultural fabric.
Since the end of the Cold War, there has not been any serious argument among countries aspiring to be modern over what might be called the macro-structure of basic political and economic institutions. There are, of course, few serious contenders to liberal democracy as a form of government, and with the collapse of socialism, no real alternatives to market-based economics. There are, of course, differences in policies and nuances of institutional design within this larger framework, but the degree of choice among formal macro institutions available to serious countries is far more limited than it was a generation or two ago.
What we understand less well is the cultural basis for successful liberal democracy and market economies. Two examples illustrate this simply. During the nineteenth century, almost all the countries of Latin America received their independence from Spain or Portugal and built formal democratic institutions, often slavishly modeled on the U.S. Constitution. Yet not one single country in Latin America experienced either continuous democratic government or long-term economic growth from independence to the present day, in the way that their North American neighbors, the United States and Canada, were able to do. This suggests that the key to North America’s success was less the formal institutions it inherited than the English culture that predominated here.
We can take another example closer to our time, the fate of the post-communist transitional countries. What is striking, ten years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, is the extraordinary degree of variance in transition outcomes, ranging from surprisingly successful in the cases of Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic, and the Baltic States, to disastrous in the cases of Belarus, Ukraine, and the Muslim states of central Asia. This variance cannot be explained in terms of the transitional states’ adoption of formal institutions, since virtually all of them legislated Western-style constitutions and legal systems. Nor did economic success proceed from the kinds of factors of production that economists generally believe to be critical for growth, such as natural resources, human capital, and the like. To the contrary, transition outcomes have been directly related to culture, with post-communist states doing well roughly in inverse proportion to their cultural distance from London: Catholic Poland and Hungary did better than Orthodox Romania and Russia, which in turn did better than Muslim Uzbekistan and Kirghizstan.
It is a cliché to say that Britain’s great gift to the world was its invention of democratic institutions, with Westminster playing an historic role as the “mother of Parliaments.” Important as these formal institutions are, I believe that Britain’s greater gift was its culture, without which its institutions would have been empty shells devoid of life, much like the beautiful constitutions of Latin America. Therefore, when we talk about the future of the English-speaking peoples, it is fitting to think about what that cultural legacy was and how it will play out in the globalized world of the future.
Defining that culture, however, and explaining the ways in which it interacted with formal institutions to produce the political and economic successes of modernity, is a very difficult task. Among other problems is the fact that British culture did not leave a single, unified legacy. David Hackett Fischer’s book Albion’s Seed (1991) demonstrates that there were actually four separate migrations from Britain to the United States: the Puritan migration to New England, which originated from a very few counties in East Anglia; the migration to Virginia, which came from the south of England; the Quakers’ migration to the Delaware Valley, which originated from the North Midlands and Wales; and the migration to Appalachia from the northern border regions of England, Scotland, and Northern Ireland.
The regional differences that persist to this day in the United States are derived ultimately from the culture of the particular counties from which these immigrants came. Of these four subcultures, those of the East and South of England, represented by New England and Virginia, respectively, initially vied with each other for predominance as the culture of the American elite. This struggle lasted until the Civil War, when the hierarchical culture of the South was roundly defeated by force of arms, and the more egalitarian culture of John and Henry Adams, Harriett Beecher Stowe, and others emerged as the one that would define the American character through the early twentieth century. This Puritan tradition survives today in many forms, including feminists angrily writing rules against sexual harassment, the Monica Lewinsky scandal, and the intense moralism—pro and con—that has accompanied all American military interventions abroad.
It is easy for contemporary Europeans to sneer at these traits of national character, but they should not do so, because the Puritan tradition was in fact a foundation for the success of democratic institutions in America. This culture provided a rich stock of what has come to be called social capital. Social capital, like other forms of capital, is an asset that can produce wealth, only in this case it proceeds from the ability of people to cooperate with one another in groups and organizations on the basis of shared norms or values. In an economy, social capital reduces what economists call transaction costs, lubricates the flow of information, and facilitates the building of organizations and institutions. In politics, social capital is the basis of what Alexis de Tocqueville labeled the American “art of association,” the propensity of Americans to form voluntary associations of all sorts that serve as a school of public-spiritedness.
Building Social Capital
Britain has always had a relatively abundant stock of social capital, particularly when compared to the Latin Catholic countries of the Mediterranean world. Paradoxically, the source of this social capital was, I believe, English individualism. I say paradoxically because individualism, with its tendency to defy authority and its proclivity for privacy, is often the enemy of community and therefore of social capital. But individualism was in fact crucial to the building of social capital in English culture because it permitted the growth of trust relationships outside the family.
The modern world could not have emerged without breaking the bonds of what Max Weber called the “sib,” or family. A couple of generations ago, it was widely believed that the individualistic nuclear family was a byproduct of industrialization, and that prior to the eighteenth century everyone lived in large, extended kin groups. The research of Peter Laslett, John Hajnal, and other so-called “new family historians,” however, has established that this chronology is wrong and that the nuclear family emerged in England and in other parts of northern Europe a good three or four centuries before the Industrial Revolution. Already at the end of the Middle Ages, people in England were making contractual arrangements with third parties to help care for their aged parents, and couples were making decisions on who and when to marry, independent of their parents’ wishes.
Hence, the argument has been made that the individualistic nuclear family was not so much a byproduct of industrialization as a precondition for it. It was only by breaking down the power of large, corporatist kin groups that individuals could break free of their families and buy and sell to each other in the impersonal way demanded by modern capitalism. One can see the importance of individualism in the family when one looks at a country like Pakistan, where the economy and polity remain dominated by a small circle of quasi-feudal clans.
The type of individualism based on the nuclear family built social capital by widening society’s radius of trustso that the circle of people with whom one could undertake cooperative economic or political ventures was no longer restricted to the family or a circle of close personal friends. English individualism broadened social trust in another critical way, by weakening the ascriptive ties that individuals felt toward their social class and, in later generations, toward their own ethnic group. To put it differently, English culture was very quickly opened up to people other than the upper-class English who first defined it. This openness was evident during the Industrial Revolution in the willingness of English aristocrats to allow their younger sons and daughters to marry members of the middle class, and in the twentieth century in the Empire’s willingness to grant British passports to its subjects regardless of ethnic identity.
Openness, of course, is a relative term. Britain looks far more hierarchical and stratified than America, but compared to other European countries—Germany is a particularly egregious example—Britain has always been more willing to share its culture with all those who were willing to abide by its rules.
The enlargement of the radius of trust depended on another factor as well, one that played itself out fully only in the United States. That factor was Protestantism, specifically the sectarian Protestantism that the early Puritans brought over from the East of England. Puritanism broke the “fetters of the sib” by enjoining moral behavior not just toward fellow believers but all human beings, on a universal basis.
These two aspects of English culture—individualism and a citizen’s relative independence from blood and soil—form only a part of the complex cultural inheritance of modern Britain. But together these two characteristics made the English culture one of the few around the world that was capable of being universalized, opened to people of different ethnic and religious origins than its original bearers. It thus formed an important complement to the similarly universalistic formal institutions of parliamentary government that were being exported to the rest of the world at the same time.
It is clear, however, that the very characteristics of this inherited British culture that have made it a good source of social capital can also be its undoing. Consider individualism, for example. The same logic that drives individuals to question the unjust authority of tyrannical governments, obscurantist traditions, or inherited stratification often leads to a questioning of those forms of obligation that are more voluntarily entered into, such as marriages, workplaces, and citizenship. Tocqueville well understood that the same individualism that inspired people to struggle against fate and to make the most of themselves could also evoke an inward-looking self-regard that was indifferent to anything beyond the small circle of the family.
Openness has similar drawbacks. In the contemporary United States, diversity is often seen not as something to be tolerated but as something to be celebrated, as an end in itself. Any liberal society must tolerate diversity, of course, and diversity can be an important strength by producing innovation, adaptation, a flow of ideas and information, and a certain richness of life. But unlimited diversity undermines social capital. If people cease to share the same language, can no longer interpret each other’s gestures and expressions, or find themselves repulsed by each other’s behavior, it will be harder for them to work together.
It seems to me that in the United States over the past thirty or forty years, and in other English-speaking societies as well, there has indeed been an erosion of social capital. This erosion was manifest in phenomena such as rising crime rates, family breakdown, decreasing levels of social trust, and a miniaturization of moral community. Virtually all English-speaking countries saw a massive increase in crime rates between the 1960s and the 1990s. These crime rates have come down quite substantially in the United States and other countries during the 1990s, but the speed and magnitude of increases that took place over the past generation is remarkable.
Something similar happened to the family in this same period, where the rate of children born to unmarried mothers climbed to approximately a third of all children born, the ratio of divorced to married people quadrupled in twenty-five years, and fertility rates fell to far below replacement levels. As I noted earlier, certain kinds of family structures can be an impediment to modern economic life, and there is no straightforward correlation between social capital and any particular family form. But there is overwhelming evidence that the breakdown of nuclear families since 1960 has had deleterious consequences for child welfare and was one of the leading sources of poverty, crime, and other social pathologies.
With regard to social trust and civil society, author Robert Putnam in Bowling Alone (2000), argued at length that civic engagement declined in the United States during this period. Although he may be wrong in saying that Americans are less socially connected than a generation or two ago, it is incontrovertible that there has been a major shift in the quality of those relationships. The radius of trust of a typical American has decreased, and the kinds of relationships we have today tend to be shallower, more transient, and less morally satisfying than previously. There is, in short, a deficit of community.
Together, these statistics suggest that there is a self-undermining character to the individualism of our culture. Individualism has a corrosive effect on all forms of authority, not just tyrannical or obscurantist ones, undermining democratic and voluntary institutions whose strictures on individual choice had long been regarded as acceptable and even admirable tradeoffs. These changes have not been imposed on these societies by malign forces from the outside, but have developed out of the basic logic of the individualistic, open cultures of these societies.
Coping with Diversity
The question then becomes, if there has been a deterioration in social capital over the past generation in the English-speaking world, what can be done about it? One obvious answer, which many conservatives would tend to favor, is simply to go back. That is, if the culture of the English-speaking peoples is being undermined because it is losing its religious roots, or if it is being excessively diluted by an influx of people from other cultural backgrounds, one can simply seek to use public policy to restore the original conditions under which the culture flourished. One can try to promote a revival of religious belief, or at least make the public square less hostile to religion, something that religious conservatives have been trying to do for the past couple of decades. Or one could endeavor to reduce cultural diversity through restrictions on immigration and through policies designed to assimilate people from other cultures into the dominant, English-speaking one.
There are, however, a number of reasons for thinking that these strategies will fail. In the case of religion, greater tolerance for religious belief is, of course, to be welcomed. There is a kind of militant anticlericalism, represented by groups like the American Civil Liberties Union and People for the American Way, that essentially regards all forms of religious expression as superstition or prejudice and would drive even the mildest forms out of public life. (This kind of anticlericalism is particularly curious because the people who espouse it are often the same ones who defend the unfettered right of cultural expression on the part of non-Christian or non-Western peoples.) But beyond working for greater tolerance of traditional forms of religious expression, it is hard to see what public policy can do to promote a return to religion. Most of the English-speaking countries have become so religiously diverse that any return to specifically Christian roots is extremely unlikely. Religion survives and thrives, moreover, precisely because it is not state-sponsored. The injection of religion into politics is a sure way of limiting its actual social impact.
The second way of going back—not by placing restrictions on immigration but by using the public school system to promote a higher degree of cultural assimilation—is much more promising. Immigration is, of course, a fact of life in the English-speaking countries and will continue to be so. Throughout the developed world, fertility rates have fallen so far below replacement levels in the past generation that countries like Italy, Spain, Germany, and Japan stand to lose well over 1 percent of their native-born population per year into the indefinite future, with a 30 percent drop over each generation. The English-speaking countries have maintained higher (though still subreplacement) fertility rates, but this is largely because of the substantially higher fertility of their immigrant populations. No one really understands the economics of population decline, since it is largely unprecedented except in times of war or disease, but it is unlikely that any country will be able to resist the economic pressures for more open immigration in the coming decades.
Therefore, a well-conceived assimilation policy will become a necessity, as a means of coping with cultural diversity. And it is here that the English-speaking nations have a particular advantage over many of their developed-country peers, for it is precisely those universalistic elements of English culture that make that culture both attractive to outsiders and plausible as a cultural aspiration.
A policy of assimilation must begin with language, because language is the most basic element of culture. There can be no future for the English-speaking peoples if they cease to speak English, which is why initiatives like Proposition 227 in California and Proposition 203 in Arizona, both of which banned bilingualism, are a good thing. Beyond that, it is important to resist the pressures toward multiculturalism in the school systems. Modern liberalism enjoins cultural tolerance, but such tolerance cannot survive under conditions of excessive cultural diversity.
Finally, inhabitants of the English-speaking lands should be proud of their culture. It is, after all, the culture of modernity, the culture that has made possible the contemporary economic world and the liberties that flow from free institutions. No one should feel embarrassed about establishing public policies that seek to enjoin a certain degree of cultural uniformity in the English-speaking lands, because shared values are the basis for communication, cooperation, and, ultimately, a common social life.