Culture and Other Related Issues

Aristocratic systems create a culture based upon the wealth and leisured lives of a powerful elite; market systems produce their own version of this, a culture which has reverence for hard work, but also for consumption, luxury, and the ability to avoid “menial labor.” Even to this day in the usA and the uK, there are lingering patriarchal and aristocratic subcultures with great power, including “old boys clubs” and networks or “secret societies,” such as skull and Bones,4 the Masons, and so on. These kinds of elite groups based on lineage and privilege tend to foster an ingroup superiority complex and a nasty anti-social culture. An example of this culture can be seen in the current (as of 2015) initiation ceremony used by the Bullingdon Club, of which Prime Minister David Cameron was once a member (the existence of this ceremony has been confirmed by other sources):

New members of David Cameron’s old Bullingdon Club have to burn a ?50 note in front of a beggar as part of an “initiation ceremony”, it has been claimed.

A friend of one of the exclusive club’s super-wealthy members revealed the sick prank to an Oxford student newspaper.

...The Bullingdon revelations came as figures showed a rise in those sleeping rough.5

Clubs for the super-rich and privileged like Bullingdon, whose former members include UK Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne and London Mayor Boris Johnson, promote anti-poor sentiments within conservative circles and strengthen the cultural and economic divide between the wealthy, privileged, and lucky and those unfortunate enough to be in the opposite circumstances.

Culture has a large impact on how this is resolved, on individual and social plan-coordination, both in affecting the work ethic and abilities of individuals and on private voluntary help for those who cannot work. This cultural and practical work is often done through the family unit, but can also be transmitted through larger social units or through the public sector. Traditions and rituals like burning a ?50 note in front on beggar, and the overall effect of institutions such as Tory old boys clubs, are only the tip of the metaphorical iceberg; their continued existence is more a symptom today of a continuing problem, rather than its cause.

Similarly, there is a movement in America away from Civil Rights legislation and toward, for example, allowing businesses to ban customers on the basis of sexual orientation or other differences. One might argue that it is a “backlash” against cultural changes and “political correctness,” which may be more popular in some parts of the country than others but is legally imposed nationally. Although proponents in each case say that it is only their belief in states’ rights, private property rights or freedom of religion that drive them, whenever movements such as this catch on, both culture and institutions become more divisive and the people more biased, as the two feed into each other. Whether in each case it is the institutions that change first or the culture (and perhaps it is never one or the other), they tend to bolster the other; only in rare cases do they trigger a reaction in the opposite direction. This is well known in the UK, where the public is shocked to hear such laws are even considered; they are also bewildered to hear the argument that business owners should consider themselves to have property rights in their businesses the same way that one has over their home, because they see businesses as public-facing. This is another case where the individualism of the market-centered society eclipses the needs of society in America, or the needs of society eclipse the rights of the individual in the UK, depending upon your perspective.

Austrians, especially anarcho-capitalist Austrians, make the case that ceding moral authority to the state is dangerous: morality should be its own social order not a function of state. Indeed, there is great danger to accepting the state’s vision of morality—in such cases, if slavery or rape is made legal the people could believe it to be morally acceptable and the society crumble into monstrous savagery. Of course, many states did make slavery legal, and when the US Constitution encoded bigotry into federal law it perhaps gave it some moral support, certainly it allowed existing bigotry to thrive without any punishment. Later, the state re-encoded bigotry in the Jim Crow laws enforcing racial segregation in the Southern USA, but again the (im)moral cultural order preceded and co-existed with the state’s (im)moral legal institutions. They intertwined and fed into each other, reinforcing bias; even if it is better that the state not be a moral leader, it has for centuries or perhaps for as long as states have existed, there may be no changing that, and hence instead the people should guide it with public conversation and constant vigilance in keeping it a transparent, open, and inclusive democracy.

If a free and democratic state is moral leader and the public conversation is open and the people engaged, always questioning social policy, the laws, and the moral leadership, this moral leadership can be involved in the evolution of the society’s moral enlightenment, as arguably it has done over the past few centuries in advanced, democratic market societies. The British public see moral authority as a role for the state, and the oversight of it an essential duty of the people; the ongoing public conversation about morality and legality is an essential part of that society. Moral authority, despite the objections of individualists and libertarians, is also instilled in the American state. Thus, the American people would do well to accept that and engage with it in a more reasonable way. Instead there are “culture wars” and angry debates over whether the state should be involved at all in morality.6

As pointed out in Hasnas’s “Myth of the Rule of Law,” interpretation of law and contracts is based upon the social order: the culture, public conversation, traits, and moral agreements of society, the non-political “social contract.” Consider not just Rousseau but Adam Smith and Weber: Austrians often refer to this concept under the heading of “informal” rules, a parallel to the “formal rules” under which all are treated equally, i.e., the rule of law. Hayek describes the importance and effect of social order:

[Alone] "Freedom of contract" is in fact no solution because in a complex society like ours no contract can explicitly provide against all contingencies and because jurisdiction and legislation evolve standard types of contracts for many purposes which not only tend to become exclusively practicable and intelligible but which determine the interpretation of, and are used to fill the lacunae in, all contracts which can actually be made. (Hayek 1948: 115; emphasis added)

Whether we like it or not, culture affects, in addition to the interpretation, the creation and evolution of laws. It affects the intentional and unintentional differential treatment of individuals during lawmaking and enforcement, not only biased discriminatory treatment but positive preferences for friends and family as well as class and race, including nepotism, “old boys clubs,” elitism, and when it’s about “who you know,” and through subconscious preference for those like oneself, etc. This is often seen as a flaw in an otherwise good system based on rule of law. What if, instead, this was seen as natural and in need of its own analysis? Hasnas is probably correct: rule of law is a mirage and a utopian dream. The effect of the social order upon the institutional one (and thus no one-size-fits-all legal system) might be an opportunity, something which we have yet to take full advantage of, and which might even provide a whole set of promising avenues for social change. This is something which we should not embrace blindly—that would be extremely dangerous—but something which a long and slow evolution may begin to uncover, which social learning will eventually reveal. On the simple and safe end of the spectrum we have e.g., using online social networks to advance causes, movements, new and unknown political parties, etc.7

For now, we at least must recognize that there are non-economic reasons people make choices. People do not make decisions for economic reasons alone, and these choices, which as a whole are the emergent social order we call “culture,” necessarily affect the economic process as well as the democratic process.

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