Monday, January 17, 2011

Is big government taking us towards a brave new world?

In my last post I discussed Aldous Huxley’s ‘Brave New World’ and ended up asking whether culture and public policies in pursuit of happiness are moving systematically in directions that dehumanize people. I suggested that the next step could be to consider what dehumanizing involves and hinted that it could have to do with taking away liberty i.e. individual responsibility for making choices and bearing the consequences actions. If you accept, as I do, that the nature of adult human beings is such that their flourishing must be a self-directed process (discussed in an early post on whether freedom is necessary for human flourishing) then I think you should also accept that restrictions on liberty are dehumanizing.

I must admit, however, that I would find it hard to argue that governments are dehumanizing me when they impose restrictions on my liberty to do things that I don’t want to do or compel me to do things that I would do in any case. Nevertheless, that kind of paternalism is not benign – it is disrespectful and encourages people to become dependent on government for guidance about how they should live their lives.

Rather than pursuing that line of reasoning, what I want to do in this post is to consider in general terms where cultural change is taking us. I think the best place to begin is with the work of Ronald Inglehart on changes in cultural values that have occurred with economic growth. (At this point readers who are familiar with Inglehart’s research may wonder how it is relevant to the topic of the post. Please be patient!)

Inglehart has documented that a substantial shift from survival values to self expression values has generally occurred in countries with rising per capita incomes. This has entailed, among other things, less deference for external authority, rising demands for participation in political decision making, more emphasis on gender equality, more tolerance of diversity and more emphasis on imagination and tolerance as values to teach a child and less emphasis on the virtue of hard work. This shift in cultural values has been followed through successive age cohorts over the period from 1970 to 2006, with the younger generation apparently continuing to establish values during their formative years that place greater emphasis on self expression (‘Changing values among western publics from 1970 to 2006’, 2008).

Inglehart (with Wayne Baker) has also examined shifts in another dimension of values – the change from traditional values to what he refers to as ‘secular-rational values’. Traditional values, which are most prevalent in pre-industrial societies, place a strong emphasis on religion and national pride, and have relatively low levels of tolerance for divorce, homosexuality and abortion. However, the relationship between economic growth and secularization is more complex than that between economic growth and self expression values. Secularization seems to apply mainly to the shift to an industrial society, which was completed some time ago in most advanced industrial countries. The authors suggest that the fact that the broad cultural and religious heritage of a society leaves an imprint on values that endures despite modernization (‘Modernization, cultural change and the persistence of traditional values’, 2000).

Researchers have used the two dimensions of cultural change outlined above to prepare the cultural map of the world shown below.
Source: Ronald Inglehart and Christian Welzel, Modernization, Cultural Change and Democracy. New York, Cambridge University Press, 2005: p. 64 based on the World Values Surveys, see .

The point that strikes me in this chart – apart from the apparent importance of cultural and religious heritage in explaining values – is that the countries with relatively high secular-rational values in Protestant and Catholic Europe tend to be countries with big governments. I don’t know whether these countries have secular-rational values because they have big governments, whether they have big governments because they have secular-rational values, or whether cultural heritage explains both big governments and secular-rational values. It is possible that causation runs in all those directions and that ideological factors (e.g. the influence of Marxism in continental Europe) are also important.

What does it mean if people in high-income countries with big governments tend to have secular-rational values? Is this evidence of movement towards a brave new world? I don’t know, but it seems like a good idea to look more closely at the data from the world values surveys to see what it shows about differences in values of people in OECD countries with relatively big and relatively small governments.

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