Monday, June 16, 2008

Culture: Part 4

    The original hypothesis of this series was that cultures which embrace altruism, the belief that man's highest moral value should be self-sacrifice, have as adherents stunted, resentful individuals who are always waiting for someone to demand sacrifice of them. The slogan of such a society might be, "Today you will be my sacrificial animal, but at some point in the future—as much as I hate the thought—I must be yours." Cooperation and innovation are minimized. Societies which possess such cultures are development resistant and will experience very slow growth, and even then, only through contact with more rapidly growing, more dynamic, less altruistic cultures. Political stability is dubious. Corruption is rampant. In short, the expectation of self-sacrifice and the maximization of an individual's potential are antithetical.

    The United States has become increasingly altruistic over time. Altruism's political concomitant is paternalistic government. This has grown exponentially in the past century with no end in sight. It is the position of the Federal Recluse that to the extent that a country's culture embraces altruism, and to the extent to which its political system incorporates paternalism, that country will fail economically and politically. In previous entries, the Federal Recluse has considered the impact of the expansion of the franchise as well as of urbanization on the growth of altruism in the United States. Now it is time to consider a third variable: immigration.

    It must be understood that race plays no part in this discussion. Anyone can be altruistic, just as anyone can be selfish. Altruists come in all colors. Race is biological. Altruism is philosophical. That said, let us proceed.

    In the early days of this Republic, the culture of the United States almost exclusively embodied a healthy selfishness. Individuals were concerned with their own wellbeing and that of their families and friends. But it was clearly understood that each individual was responsible for his own welfare. No one was forced to accept the role of sacrificial animal for the sake of anyone else, with the horrendous exception of slaves. The political system reflected this. Government was small and very inexpensive. Individual liberty, so long as you were not a slave, was the order of the day. Thomas Jefferson once justifiably bragged that, under his administration, a citizen could live without ever seeing an agent of the general government. Within one long lifetime after the end of Mr. Jefferson's administration, all of that was to change. By the time of Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal, the United States was ready for a massive dose of altruism and its political partner, paternalistic government. Immigration played a large role in this transition.

    In Europe, Karl Marx's writings were increasingly influential with time. By the 1880's, immigrants to this country, primarily from Russia and southern Europe, who already possessed a predominantly altruistic culture, now had political justification for their beliefs. If anyone doubts the paternalistic tendencies of these people, consider the fact that in Russia, the Czar was frequently referred to in common parlance as "father". Millions upon millions of them came to the United States from 1880 to 1924, when immigration was virtually ended. Their effect was to dilute the individualism of the Founding Era and to make paternalism politically viable for the first time in U.S. history. Slowly pour vinegar into a pitcher of pure water, and at some point what you will have in the pitcher resembles vinegar more than water. This cultural dilution set the stage for the New Deal and all of the growth in government that was to follow.

    Since the overhaul of the immigration system in 1965, immigrants to the United States have come from other sources, primarily Asia and Latin America. Legal and illegal immigration to the United States is now coming largely from Mexico. Mexico does possess, and always has possessed, a very altruistic culture with a highly paternalistic political system. Catholicism is intrinsically altruistic. How large a factor religion is, is questionable. But it is certainly a factor.

From the time of the Spanish Conquest, Mexico's political system has been paternalistic in the extreme. Individual Mexicans have always been expected to sacrifice their personal interests for one recipient of that sacrifice or another. Whether it was the King, or the pope, or the Viceroy, or the encomendero, or the hacendado, or, since the 1910 Revolution, for an amorphous entity best called the State, Mexicans have never been able to live their lives for their own sakes. They have been convinced that such sacrifice is right and just. It is part of Mexican culture.

Today, the dilution of what remains of the individualistic political culture is largely a product of Mexican immigration. Their sheer numbers dictate this conclusion. What anthropologists refer to as enculturation, and what political scientists refer to as political socialization, could theoretically save individualism in this country. Here, newcomers adopt the culture of the United States and, hopefully, individualism in the process. The question is how much of this is taking place? Massive Mexican immigration is still too new a phenomenon to permit us to draw firm conclusions. But the evidence the Federal Recluse has seen in his twenty years on the border is not hopeful.

This region of the United States is what some writers have referred to as an enclave. Other enclaves exist throughout the United States. And they are growing larger. It has become overwhelmingly populated by Mexicans who have brought with them their culture. There is little impetus for enculturation or socialization because their population is constantly being reinforced by newcomers from across the border. And they are growing larger. For example, it is entirely possible to live one's whole life in this region without ever learning a word of English. And language is a powerful transmitter of culture. When the Federal Recluse first moved to this area, his first job was as an instructor of English as a second language. One of his students was a woman in her sixties who had been born and had lived her entire life in this country. On the first day of class, the Federal Recluse was amazed to discover that she was not aware of the fact that the word "no" in English means the same as the word "no" in Spanish. Anyone who had had any exposure to English whatsoever would know this simple fact. It was a shocking indication that something was very wrong here, at least if the goal is to preserve mainstream U.S. culture, with its characteristic emphasis on individualism.

In this way, the post-1965 wave of immigration differs dramatically from earlier waves. Those earlier immigrants came from countries thousands of miles away. Their populations were not reinforced by constant streams of newcomers. Sooner or later, they had to socialize. Certainly their children did, in part because in those days before political correctness, they were forced to learn English in school through total immersion. That is no longer the case in this era of multiculturalism and bilingual education.

And so altruism, and its corollary paternalistic government, struggles for supremacy with individualism, and its corollary limited government. In the opinion of the Federal Recluse, the cultural bucket now consists of half vinegar, half water. Recent electoral results would seem to confirm this. It has reached the point in the United States where any discussion of true individual liberty and limited government is no longer considered acceptable political discourse. No serious candidate in U.S. national politics takes such positions publicly. Altruism may well have achieved critical mass. There may be no turning back. Individualism, and the concept of limited government, may become totally overwhelmed. Unlike the immigrants of previous generations who sought to escape tyranny, there is now no country in the world to which individualists can flee to escape the status of sacrificial animal. The Federal Recluse is not sanguine concerning the future of the United States of America.

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