November 17, 2019


The Cost of Cultural Free-Riders: Why Culture Matters Most by David C. Rose. (Reviewed by J. Daniel Hammond, 10/20/19, University Bookman)

In short, the thesis is that "free market democracy" requires a culture of trust. Rose argues that free markets and democracy are complementary. Trust is a necessary condition for both. Free markets require trust because the webs of people with whom we trade are mostly strangers. Democracy requires trust because we know few of our fellow citizens, and few of the people responsible for political institutions. The question from which Rose's thesis arises is why some societies are more successful than others, where success means enjoying abundance on two fronts--materials goods and freedom.

The key requirement for abundance of material goods is, as we learn from Adam Smith, extensive cooperation through markets to exploit the gains from division of labor, specialization, and trade. In and across prosperous societies people engage in trade with one another, but for the most part remain strangers. No society could attain prosperity with trade restricted to family and friends. The scope of markets would be too small. Rose considers democracy the key requirement for abundance of freedom, with democracy serving as a check on the power of government. He combines these two economic and political dimensions of societal success in the term "free market democracy." He argues that it is free market democracy, not the intelligence of a people, the level of technology, or access to natural resources, that allows societies to flourish.

Rose identifies the necessary condition for both free markets and democracy as the virtue of trust. Without widespread trust a society can neither sustain the extensive cooperation required for specialization in production and exchange, nor can they sustain institutions that support democratic politics. "Since many of the institutions that support free market economies and democratic government are trust dependent, the key to having a thriving free market democracy is having a high-trust society" (p. 2). Of course, high trust throughout a society requires that members of the society are trustworthy. They must be dependable to abstain from taking advantage of others, even when chances of detection are slim. The virtue of trustworthiness must be embedded in the culture, which Rose refers to as a society's "collective brain." Trustworthiness then can be transmitted from one generation to another through imitation and teaching, i.e., through culture. Societies that flourish are those that have trust-producing and trust-conserving cultures.

The key, of course, is that a shared commitment to moral standards allows one to have a reasonable expectation that the others behavior will be predictable and decent.  That is why protestantism (with a small "p") is the third leg, along with capitalism and democracy, of the Anglospheric model: the End of History.  As Ike put it: "Our government has no sense unless it is founded in a deeply felt religious faith, and I don't care what it is." And it is why there is both a near one to one relationship between trust and the Protestant world and why the decline of churchgoing has had so little effect within that world, where shared morality has been so deeply absorbed into the society that a country can appear secular on the surface but be deeply faithful in fact.

It is also exactly this aspect of our societies that Left and Right recognize must be destroyed if they are to succeed.  Thus, the Left attacks the very notion of morality by suggesting that each individuals choices must be respected--even celebrated--while the Right tries to replace the Christian idea of universal morality with a particularist construct of racial group solidarity. The former is on display in things like the insistence that every sexual proclivity is natural and must be accepted no matter how destructive, while the latter features in risible claims like it not being possible to assimilate immigrants or for Christians/Jews/Muslims to be equal citizens of a state.

Once we realize the value of living in societies that are trust-producing we can see how important it is to keep them trust-conserving and to oppose the Left/Right.

Posted by at November 17, 2019 7:13 AM