Culture trumps institutions

Some libertarians throw all their effort into winning elections. Generally they don’t, except for a few low-level offices. They’re under an illusion which isn’t very libertarian: that the people who hold office affect the course of society. Actually, we have the government which most people want, and if that somehow changed short of a military coup, the majority would find a way to restore the equilibrium. If Ron Paul or Gary Johnson somehow became president and started vetoing spending and budget bills, Congress would find an excuse to impeach them.

The government changes when the culture does. Following September 11, 2001, there was an abrupt change in our culture, as latent fears jumped to the fore and people became more willing than ever to give up essential liberty to purchase the illusion of temporary safety. At first Democrats complained about the violations of due process and new intrusions into our lives, but then Obama was elected and continued pursuing the same course, and most Democrats obediently stopped complaining.

If the 21st century’s authoritarian trend is going to be reversed, it has to be through a change in the culture, not in the politicians. Speakers, writers, philosophers, artists, and anyone else who can exercise influence through ideas can contribute to this. What it will take for them to succeed is hard to say, but if they throw their efforts into election campaigns they’re certainly wasting their efforts.

The deadliest single thing in our culture today is the entitlement mentality. It leads not only to parasitism but to systematic hostility. People want things at other people’s expense, and they’re happy to throw away freedom for freebies. Every handout comes from somebody, and the people who are giving and those being taken from are necessarily opponents. Trade and voluntary help result in good will, but forced transfers make the recipients and the unwilling donors into enemies.

In this milieu, it’s hard to make the case for freedom. By opposing the politics of entitlement, we become part of the recipients’ enemy class. To make things worse, governments play shell games to make people think they’re in the recipient class even when they’re net losers. Everybody clamors to keep the goodies coming, and they’ll all unite in defense of the continued flow out of each other’s pockets. When Biden says that the choice is between Wall Street in shackles and the middle class in shackles, people believe him and there are chains enough for everyone.

Trying to change everyone’s minds is an exercise in futility and frustration. There’s no path to freedom with a high likelihood of success. This doesn’t mean that we should shut up, but it means we often have to be satisfied with getting ideas heard without any success beyond that. The value in doing this is in keeping one’s personal integrity and not giving in to a destructive worldview. Beyond that, it’s important to value whatever small victories are possible and not give up eventual hope for the larger ones.

4 Responses to “Culture trumps institutions”

  1. Eyal Mozes Says:

    I agree with much of your view here, but I still think this coming election is much more significant than you claim. I would make two points:

    First, I agree with you that the people who hold office can’t significantly improve the course of society; but in some cases they can significantly worsen it. Obamacare is an important example; if it remains law, and its worst provisions go into effect at the beginning of 2014, it could completely destroy our health-care system over the next few years. While we’re fighting for long-term cultural change, it is important to still live in a society in which people have access to decent medical care; and if we succeed in the future in improving our culture, to the point that free-marker health-care reforms become politically acceptable, it is important to still have a functioning health-care system to which such reforms could be applied. There’s a genuine danger that a re-election of Obama will allow Obamacare to take all this away. If Romney/Ryan get elected, there’s a good chance they’ll rescue our health-care system from this danger.

    Second, election results don’t cause significant improvements in the course of society; but sometimes they can be a good way to measure the state of the culture, and therefore the chances of significant future improvements. I think Romney’s choice of Ryan as running mate, and the Democrats’ reactions to this choice, have now made this true of the coming election. It’s becoming clear that the campaigns are both going to focus on economic issues. Ryan, with all his faults, has shown himself willing to challenge the entitlement mentality. And he is the one man who, more than any other, helped turn the GOP away from the fiscal recklessness of the Bush years. Romney’s choice of Ryan is probably the only act of courage he’s ever performed in his life. And it’s looking like Democrats are reacting to Romney’s choice of Ryan by making appeal to the entitlement mentality the basis of their entire campaign strategy. This is turning into the central difference between the two pairs of candidates, and the center of the campaign.

    If the campaign continues this way, and Obama gets re-elected, that will prove that the entitlement mentality is completely entrenched in US culture. In contrast, if the election campaign continues in this way and Romney/Ryan are elected, this will prove that the entitlement mentality is not as widespread in our culture as you (and I) have feared. This won’t have much direct practical effect, outside of rescuing our health-care system; but it will be a demonstration that our culture is improving, and that therefore there is real hope for the future.

    • Gary McGath Says:

      If Obama wins, it may only prove that people distrust Romney. He introduced compulsory health insurance in Massachusetts; can people believe him when he says he’s going to get rid of it nationally?

      • Bill Roper Says:

        One of the nice things about our Federal system is that states have some option to experiment with things. Having seen how the Massachusetts experiment worked, it seems fairly reasonable for Romney to look at the results and go, “Well now, that didn’t work the way I thought it would.”

  2. twwells Says:

    I almost never hear anyone pose the obvious question: “How can any rational person believe that X?” X might be that the country can survive dog-eat-dog entitlements, or that it can continue to regulate itself into oblivion, or that a fertilized egg is equivalent to a human being, or that the drug war can have anything but a bad outcome, or ….

    The plain fact is that no rational person *can* believe those things. If you follow this down, you can have only one conclusion: This is a nation of mental defectives. Not because of organic problems but because people have adopted a method of thinking that precludes rationality.

    Culture merely reflects that. And no amount of politicing can fix an essentially irrational populace.

    So, we shall continue to see the same old same old, until the day when evading reality is no longer possible. And then, abruptly, that will be the end of all we imagine to be normal.

    Culture may trump institutions. But pandemic irrationality trumps both.

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