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walter williams

Britain’s 2011 aircraft-carrier debacle may seem to have little in common with a 1940s Philadelphia ghetto and a modern French electricity company, but looks can be deceiving.

Two new carriers, contracted at $6.5 billion in 2008, may cost $16.5 billion when completed by the end of this decade and cash-strapped Britons are furious. Beneath all the military techno-babble about adding allegedly essential and undoubtedly costly new components hides a culture among brass-hats and contractors that they can get away with it. Behind that culture lurks, well, culture, which is affected by economics but which also drives economics itself.

Flashback to the Richard Allen Housing Project in the North Philly ghetto, where young Walter Williams (now a distinguished professor of economics at George Mason University and national columnist) grew up in the 1930s-1940s alongside of his neighbour, Dr. Bill Cosby, and presumably soon thereafter his cousin, the basketball immortal Julius Irving. If all of this achievement had something to do with the ghetto water-supply it would be bottled and on sale by now, but Dr. Williams recalls that his step-father simply told him to work hard, “show up early and stay late.”

Fast-forward to France, when a decade ago I crossed the Channel to an English friend’s summer house in Boulogne where we found the electricity cut off. Kindly Parisian neighbours on holiday brought candles and advice and the next morning, full of dread, we drove 20 miles to the electricity company which was state-owned, un-privatised — and French no less, so we feared the worst. Yet, in 15 minutes delightful young people solved the problem, processed the credit card and phoned Jean-Jacques, the lineman who had the power switched on before we got home. “Au revoir!” they chirped merrily, waving as we left. In pre-privatisation Britain it could have taken geologic time, and even post-privatisation we’d have faced the listless and condescending slatterns and dullards for whom British customer service is justifiably renowned.

What elevated Dr. Williams and his neighbours to greatness is what made the French bureaucrats act with such surprising elan and joie de vivre, namely a culture of commitment.

Dr. Williams’ newest book, Race and Economics: How Much Can Be Blamed on Discrimination?, promises to be as controversial, entertaining and insightful as everything else that he writes. My copy awaits my holiday from Kabul, and he apparently mixes his own experiences with unassailable data on how minimum-wage laws, the Davis-Bacon Act, trade unionism and the welfare state have sapped black Americans of competitive achievements that they enjoyed compared to whites 70 years ago and more. No stranger to bigotry himself, the intrepid Dr. Williams was nearly court-martialled out of the US Amy for opposing racism there, but he argues that economic barriers and disincentives can be the more harmful. Only the brave, fool-hardy and incurably ideological dare to disagree.

While not even a modern Leftist would tell Adam Smith and Walter Williams that economic incentives do not matter considerably, and while the same spend-thrift state ethos that discourages black American achievement hamstrings British defence procurement, something else is afoot here. Namely, why do the market-oriented economic reforms of the Anglo-Sphere so often fail to bring levels of initiative and service visible in state-owned entities in, say, France or Singapore where state-owned Changi Airport may be the best in the world?

It is unlikely to be Christianity for few Singaporeans are Christian and few French people are even remotely devout anymore. They may be coasting along on their religious (and for Singapore, post-colonial) antecedents, but in the mighty Asian city-state the civic cult of Confucianism seems the more likely influence, and French electricity bureaucrats enjoy no more inherited religious values than do their Anglophonic counterparts. The lesson seems to be that economic incentives are not enough and that religion is insufficient: deeply Christian Africa is not known for customer service, as charming as their people are behind the counter.

Nor, one suspects, is diligence a function of community: semi-rural France seems no more socially integrated than its English equivalent, and Singapore is a metropolis just shy of 5 million people, as populous as Atlanta but far more ethnically diverse.

It is not the desire to escape poverty: the French bureaucrats do not go home at night to an urban ghetto.

The answer may lay in Philadelphia where Dr. Williams’ parents taught him to promote his own career indirectly by serving others directly. The opposing perspective is ‘me first,’ usually without any required self-discipline or self-improvement with which to defend it. Call it decadence.

If one travels, one sees the enormous diligence and thirst for self-improvement that define multitudes across the so-called developing world, juxtaposed against the self-satisfaction and lassitude that seems increasingly commonplace in the West. Granted that endemically bad governance and ancient enmities deter people in poorer countries and that the French private or public sectors are no consumer heaven. But there are Western micro-cultures that shatter the market-oriented ideologies.

Granted, too, that America still excels at customer-service generally, but the trajectories seem clear. The American students filling the engineering and medical faculties tend to be named Wong or Chaudhary or Mohammad, whereas the devotees of Women’s Literature and Media Studies are called Smith or Schmidt, LeClerc or Giovanni. In America and abroad, the ambitious and enterprising come from vastly different, usually non-Western, cultures that have little else in common beyond those two virtues and an inspiring shortage of decadence.

When American conservatives insist that the prescription for national renewal is revivifying religion, or reading more about the Founding Fathers, or getting involved with their neighbours, or in boosting enterprise and rolling back the state, one wonders if this is nice but quite insufficient. When they trumpet American exceptionalism, why are today’s most engaged and diligent people from somewhere else? Something elusive is missing, but one hopes that it survives in American enclaves including an ugly housing project in Philadelphia.

Ultimately, it may be that the rest of us just had it all too easy for too long and our time has passed, victims of our forefathers’ economic success. That may explain the end of Rome better than Christianity, slavery, empire or the other leading theories: “Throw another dormouse on the grill, Septimus, and let someone else worry about washing the dishes.”

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4 replies to this post
  1. Stephen, I always enjoy reading your submissions, and this one was no exception. The eccentricities and diverse origins of sub-cultures are certainly difficult to pin, and many of the strengths of a particular culture are also its weaknesses–which is part of the fascination found in traveling and experiencing other cultures. You never leave quite unchanged from an interaction with another way of thinking rooted in fundamentally different causes than your own. Moreover, your indictment of our culture being the victim of its own economic success seems to me very accurate.

    That said, I think perhaps you miss the point of American revivalism (the cultural-political kind) near the end of your post. First of all, the disease and the cure are not always directly correlated. The previous elements of your stories emphasize the varying, disparate sources of cultural animation, whether it be "shortage of decadence," Confucianism, or other obscure sources (the unknown fount of the French joie de vivre). Surely economic dearth can be directly correlated to a drive to improve one's economic situation; however, that drive is not necessarily tied to the corollary cultural elements needed to make that economy succeed. Clearly other influences are also responsible–as you correctly noted. In other words, the fact that the disease is complacency as a result of "decadence" does not preclude a prescription in the form of religion, renewed appreciation of our historical roots, or a return to individual liberty and responsibility.

    There are, moreover, differing venues of cultural renewal. One of those is the element of responsibility felt by the French service agents, per your story. Another may be heightened awareness of public responsibility in the form of civic participation. Just as economics and culture inform one another, as you note, so also may politics and culture inform one another. And, whatever your particular thoughts on the movement, nothing has done more to raise the level and depth of civic participation in the last few decades than a return to our "founding principles" as seen through the eyes of our Founding Fathers. That has certainly been the most potent antidote to the cultural poison seen in your parting repartie via Septimus and the dormouse.

    Religion can also imbue a culture with reanimating fire–as was the case after both the First and Second Great Awakenings (again, regardless of your particular theological perspective on the veracity of the claims made). Certainly you must also agree that a system that encourages sloth and dependency may be at once the result of decadence and the cause of its propagation. By that of course I am referring to the push to "roll back the state" and encourage again individual liberty and responsibility.

  2. In America, the three influences of religion, historical-philosophical principles, and a strong sense of individual responsibility have combined to create a historically vibrant culture. A far-from-perfect culture, but good and vibrant nonetheless. Perhaps a foreign catalyst is needed to activate these again? Perhaps that catalyst will be found in the immigration that dominates a subtle but growing national ethos right now. In fact, perhaps that same element has historically driven Americans to excel and to maintain a level of cultural renewal and activity over the centuries.

    While many immigrants do not share a common cultural ancestry with the bulk of the United States, many do. And of those who don't, many come here seeking to attach themselves to their new homeland and its way of life for the direct reason that it is different than their previous life. That is certainly the case for many immigrants that I have had the pleasure to meet. (That is especially true of the Vietnamese immigrants in Texas.) America has always maintained some ambivalence in its self-definition. Are we a nation of place and heritage or a nation of ideas–or both? I think we have a heritage in our ideas, but that is a subject for a different place and time. But, because of that ambivalence, America achieved a singular ability to adopt peoples from outside the Anglo core of our early settlers. Though diminished, I think the same can be said today of the country.

    Our academic and entrepreneurial drive was always–and still is–continually bolstered by an influx of new energy and ideas from other countries and places. In the past the divisions were not so wide, but that didn't stop the clashes from being sharp between the established and the new. In fact, I would venture to say that, however apparently wide the divergence, the migrant Mexican or even the entrepreneurial Indian have more in common with the American idea than the native socialist or those who openly despise our national heritage. Shared loves will stand stronger than disparate hatreds. Many of those same entrepreneurs with names foreign to Western ears are taking up the mantle of service and propelling themselves forward by pushing others forward, just as Walter Williams' father admonished him. As an example, the current internet revival known as "content-based marketing" (creating a profitable business by providing others with the information they need–usually for free) is propelled by a combination of familiar (Halligan) and unfamiliar (Dharmesh) names working together.

    Admittedly, I start from an economic and political vantage point when viewing culture in this way, and less of a religious or familial point, but these are elements of culture just the same. At this point, however, I venture into waters too deep for my present thoughts or abilities. The religious contexts within which cultures mingle fascinates me but I haven't had enough time to explore them yet. Perhaps your experience in London and Kabul would be of more use in that regard (most of my travel has been limited to Christian or post-Christian countries).

    In closing, I think we agree on the diagnosis: Americans tend to forget that "there are far worse things in life than being poor," as one Texas pastor often reminds us. But in drawing a remedy, let's not discount historically proven sources of American strength and vitality.

  3. Dear Ryan, thank you for your kind words and for your valuable insights. I think that you are quite right, and just as there are many roads to ruin there are many pathways leading home. Dr Kirk used to tell us that history records many revivals, turning back from the brink, and America has enjoyed several. I also share your conviction that oftentimes the best Americans are her immigrants. I meet many even here in Kabul, recently an eloquent agriculturalist moved to the US from the Horn of Africa, and an Iranian-American with whom I share an office in our Afghan ministry. I am always touched by not only their patriotism and love, but also by their informed understanding of what makes/made America tick: often stronger than among native-born Americans. I suppose that some pitch up on her shores because they have nowhere better to go, but the ones that I meet are self-selected not necessarily for their skills but by their non-material values, and they are very determined that America is where they want to be. So they fit in when they arrive. We see this in the US immigrant Muslim community, almost totally devoid of the radicalism more common among their kinsmen in Europe, and in Colin Powell's parents who left the Caribbean for England, took a look around and headed to New York where their young son learnt Yiddish while pressing trousers after school (storybook material, that is)!

    No, despite my natural pessimism only a fool would write-off America yet, and the tough times ahead may be just the medicine required: when the credit card stops working, religion and enterprise and America's brilliant design will be there waiting still. It may be America's immigrants who lead her home again, and how piquant that would be!

  4. Thanks Steve. Reminds me of this …. “Religion brought prosperity and the daughter devoured the mother”. (Or something close to that!) Cotten Mather

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