Bryan Caplan  

A Hardy Weed: How Traditionalists Underestimate Western Civ

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Last month, I debated Stephen Balch from Texas Tech's Institute for the Study of Western Civilization.  As I perused their website, I realized that despite our differences on immigration, we had a lot of common ground.  This jumped out at me:
Western civilization has remade the world. Most of the West's inhabitants live lives of which their ancestors could only dream: doubly long, rich in diet, teeming with comforts and diversions, and, most of all, endowed with the gift of liberty--not just for a privileged few, but for the many.
During our exchange, however, Balch rarely discussed the wonders of Western civilization.  Instead, he emphasized its fragility.  Preserving Western civilization is a constant struggle even without immigrants, he said.  Every twenty years we breed a new generation of barbarians called children.  To preserve our society, we have to teach each wave of juvenile barbarians to appreciate the Western civilization that makes everything possible.  Admitting non-Western immigrants places even more stress on our limited civilizing resources.

My question: Does it really make sense to praise Western civilization to the skies, then lament its fundamental fragility?  Imagine someone told you, "The Tesla is the best car in history.  But explodes unless you wash it three times a day."  The obvious response is, "A car that requires that much maintenance to avoid disaster sounds like a crummy car, all things considered."  This is especially true because even dysfunctional cultures normally maintain themselves with ease.  Self-perpetuation is what cultures do.

The enemy of Western civilization could leap on Balch's angst.  "Western civilization's biggest fans admit it has an eggshell skull.  This morbid fragility demands a negative evaluation, even if everything else pro-Western thinkers claim is true."

Fortunately, the fragility thesis is flat wrong.  There is absolutely no reason to think that Western civilization is more fragile than Asian civilization, Islamic civilization, or any other prominent rivals.  At minimum, Western civilization can and does perpetuate itself the standard way: sheer conformity and status quo bias

But saying that Western civilization is no more fragile than other cultures is a gross understatement.  The truth is that Western civilization is taking over the globe.  In virtually any fair fight, it steadily triumphs.  Why?  Because, as fans of Western civ ought to know, Western civ is better.  Given a choice, young people choose Western consumerism, gender norms, and entertainment.  Anti-Western governments from Beijing to Tehran know this this to be true: Without draconian censorship and social regulation, "Westoxification" will win. 

A big part of the West's strength, I hasten to add, is its openness to awesomeness.  When it encounters competing cultures, it gleefully identifies competitors' best traits - then adopts them as its own.  By the time Western culture commands the globe, it will have appropriated the best features of Asian and Islamic culture.  Even its nominal detractors will be Westernized in all but name.  Picture how contemporary Christian fundamentalists' consumerism and gender roles would have horrified Luther or Calvin.  Western civ is a good winner.  It doesn't demand total surrender.  It doesn't make fans of competing cultures formally recant their errors.  It just tempts them in a hundred different ways until they tacitly convert.

Traditionalists' laments for Western civilization deeply puzzle me.  Yes, it's easy to dwell on setbacks.  In a world of seven billion people, you can't expect Western culture to win everywhere everyday.  But do traditionalists seriously believe that freshman Western civ classes are the wall standing between us and barbarism?  Have they really failed to notice the fact that Western civilization flourishes all over the globe, even when hostile governments fight it tooth and nail?  It is time for the friends of Western civilization to learn a lesson from its enemies: Western civ is a hardy weed.  Given half a chance, it survives, spreads, and conquers.  Peacefully.

COMMENTS (36 to date)
Tom West writes:

An unequivocally excellent essay.

Every election cycle I try to point out that our nation (Canada or the USA) has survived electing the "wrong" side any number of times, and if each election really was a choice between our side or destruction, our nation would never have survived to the present day. There's just no denying we're robust.

(Or as a immigrant friend memorably put it - "Of course people don't care about politics. How many thousand Canadians will die if the other side gets in? You should rejoice that people don't have to care!")

dangerman writes:

I'm not sure this is defense of "Western Civilization" is complete without at least a little bit of defining what we mean by that term.

Is Western Civilization "winning" when governments are eagerly marching forward to socialize new industries (health care)?

Is Western Civilization "winning" when every culture that adopts it see such dramatic decreases in fertility rates that they soon won't repopulate themselves?

I'm not so sure that "Western Civilization" is "whatever the US and Europe does." And so, I don't think the case is so clear cut.

Sam Haysom writes:

Surely Caplan has been socialized in such a way that he doesn't have to insulate himself off from the world in a bubble? No one is that nerdy right? Surely Caplan should be forced to mix it up with all his fellow citizens and all those non-citizens she is so eager to let come here? What's the worst that can happen right?

Does it make much such to lionize Ayn Rand and free market economics and then whine about a few regulations here and there? If free markets are so great they'll adapt. Heck if freedoms so great surely it can't take a few nicks here and there.

Let's apply this logic to immigration. A pool of highly motivated rational economic actors certainly isn't so inept and dare I say weak as to let the simple fact that they have to stay in their nation of birth get in their way right.

Has perhaps part of the anti-fragility of Western Civilization been the distinction, made until very recently, between importing non-western ideas and non-western people?

Non-western ideas can be contemplated, debated, improved on, integrated, or rejected.

Non-western immigrants can be employed, welcomed, etc. But if they refuse to integrate (or their constitution simply prevents it), what then? Advanced societies like ours will not round up and expel millions. Parts of Sweden, France, and the U.S. are already uninhabitable by their respective majority populations. If you dispute my point please visit the suburbs of Malmö. Should they cede even more?

Billare writes:

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Jameson writes:

Although I agree with the conclusion of the post, the first part is just shockingly bad.

My question: Does it really make sense to praise Western civilization to the skies, then lament its fundamental fragility? Imagine someone told you, "The Tesla is the best car in history. But explodes unless you wash it three times a day." The obvious response is, "A car that requires that much maintenance to avoid disaster sounds like a crummy car, all things considered." This is especially true because even dysfunctional cultures normally maintain themselves with ease. Self-perpetuation is what cultures do.

Really? There are at least three glaring errors here. First of all, no, you're just wrong about the car. If I had a choice between a car that got 1000 miles to the gallon but I had to wash three times a day and a car that only gets 10, I think I'd go with 1000 mpg. And there are lots of other better examples. Surely people don't buy jewelry so they can go scraping in the mud wearing them. You're giving your opponents so much ammo with this.

Second, how about this for an explanation of different cultures: bad cultures are easy to propagate, good ones not so much? And there's gotta be at least some support for this. After all, isn't rampant consumerism the worst of Western civ, in the eyes of both intellectuals and religious leaders? Which points to a third problem that has already been mentioned: what the heck do you even mean by Western civ?

Personally, I do think of Western civ as a "hardy weed," but dang, you just made a pretty bad argument for it.

Kristian Niemietz writes:

No it's not, Bryan. Western civilisation is more fragile than other civilisations because of its counterintuitiveness. Unlike other cultures, it goes against our instincts. Our instincts favour a tribal, might-is-right, my-clan-right-or-wrong society. Contemporary Afghanistan is much more in line with human nature than the contemporary USA. Respecting the rule of law, independent courts, the sanctity of property rights and freedom of contract, accepting political freedom for those we disagree with and have the power to oppress - all of that goes against our nature. Appreciating it has to be learned, and maintaining it takes effort. But it's worth it.

You're wrong on the second point, too. It's like saying 'look, even staunch anti-capitalists enjoy the fruits of capitalism, hence capitalism is winning'. Anti-Westerners may enjoy some of the fruits of Western civilisation, but that doesn't mean anything as long as they don't understand the connection between Western outcomes and the values that make those outcomes possible.

Osama Bin Laden also used Western technology copiously, but that didn't stop him from advancing social structures which could never have brought forth anything like that.

Becky Hargrove writes:

I must admit that at times I fear Western civilization is fragile. But I worry so because it is not yet able to perpetuate complete use of knowledge sufficiently among its populations. What's more I still hold great hope that eventually, Western civilization will be able to do so, and once it does, it will no longer need to fear for its own survival.

handle writes:

Maybe there are other hardy weeds, invasive and noxious.

If you want to grow an organic garden, and avoid the use of unhealthy and suppressive chemicals, you find that undesirable seeds are everywhere, and you must tend the garden and regularity pick weeds. The industrial farmer with his intensive chemical agriculture operation may say, "That's a lot of extra work, what a crappy garden! I just use simple draconian measures to keep down all my troublemakers."

But having a garden that needs tending doesn't make it a crappy garden.

And how hardy is it? Charles Murray's coming apart says not so hardy. If you define Western civ as some moving target that is equivalent to whatever people and governments happen to be doing now, then you are evading the problem.

GC writes:

"sheer conformity and status quo bias. "

Really? Looking at the European or American social background over the last 50 years (nothing, in term of civilization development)looks like there much conformity and status quo? Where? Social structure? Sexual mores? Work environment? Religion's role in society? relations between genders? In fact, number of recognized genders?

Any adult (which, incidentally, meant a 18 yo boy, not an undefined 25 to 35 age) of 1964, male or female, if magically and instantly transported to 2014 would look at any western country today as an utterly alien place.

David R. Henderson writes:

@Bryan Caplan,
Excellent post. Yet another home run.
@Tom West,
Finally, fellow Canuck, we agree on something. :-) Seriously, though, I did think, as a young man leaving Canada for “the States” in 1972, that Canada was going down the drain with single-payer, anti-Americanism, high taxes, and a few others. It didn’t. That makes your, and Bryan’s, point.

Current writes:

I think Kristian Niemietz's argument above is very good, I'm not that worried about the future of Western civilization.

What people have to understand is that societies reproduce by their members reproducing. England has English institutions because it's people are English, and taught English values. Mexico has Mexican institutions because it's people are Mexican. If the people are replaced then the values and institutions will change with them. If the people are gradually changed it may have no effect.

On the other hand I don't worry about the fragility of Western Civilization against huge immigration. It's robust because intelligent people won't let huge immigration happen, Bryan will lose his fight.

Jeff writes:

I think western civilization is, in fact, a tad more fragile than other cultures, for a very good reason. Part of what helps perpetuate culture is the kind of in-group, ethno-religious loyalty and tribalism that Bryan and others regularly denounce. And after two hideous World Wars which tribalism played an undeniable role in fomenting, it is not hard to see why.

But it seems to me that things have now perhaps gone too far the other way, with a faction of unfortunately very high status, fashionable people who make their living denouncing western civilization for its past transgressions against...well, you name it. Women, Africans, gays, Native Americans, Jews, etc. The complaints seem to multiply daily. Having critics and a kind of cultural conscience is a healthy thing, but when you combine these folks views on free trade, capitalism, "social justice," etc., it becomes clear that these folks are more than mere critics or dissenters, they are a distinct subculture of their own within Western Civilization.

This is essentially the same criticism others have made above: Western Civ is not a monolith. It's got a bunch of subgroups and subcultures, some of which are pretty awesome, some of which are...less than awesome, to put it politely. What's troubling and what makes people think of western culture as fragile is, I think, the seeming proliferation of the less than awesomes of late. Charles Murray's Fishtown, as someone mentioned above, is perhaps the most prominent but hardly the only example of this.

johnleemk writes:
What people have to understand is that societies reproduce by their members reproducing. England has English institutions because it's people are English, and taught English values.
So does America today have unAmerican/unEnglish institutions because most of its people are of German and/or Irish descent?

This is not a strawman, BTW -- German immigrants ruining American/English institutions is exactly what Benjamin Franklin was afraid of.

R Richard Schweitzer writes:
"Western civ is a hardy weed. Given half a chance, it survives, spreads, and conquers. Peacefully."

No ! It is not. The analogy fails.

A civilization is a resulting condition.

Civilizations are composites or aggregations of social orders. Social orders are composites or aggregations of cultures. Cultures are formed from the motivations of individuals in social groupings.

Quigley, rather than Toynbee, makes the more apt analysis. Civilizations, once so formed, fragment, their elements may disperse, move, mix, blend with other encountered cultures and reform as did the Classic (encountering the Germanic cultures) into the Western. The analogy of the organic should be to the elements, to the members of the social groupings and their motivations, to the formation of cultures by ideologies and physical conditions, to the forces forming the aggregations, and to all the "conflicts" for nutrients, space, even survival.

As a course of study, "Western Civ" might bear comparison to the organic. The leaves may be stripped and examined. It may become a Bonsai; its limbic structures subject to pruning or disregard. But the civilization itself remains open to its proper study as a resultant condition and thus to study of the sources of changes in that condition.

hanmeng writes:

Bastiat's state is an even hardier weed. ("...that great fiction by which everyone tries to live at the expense of everyone else".)

Shane L writes:

Look back a century or two in Europe and we see that the vast majority of people were living in illiberal, deeply religious autocracies, working in agriculture. Many spoke local dialects that are now extinct.

The cultures we call "Western" are partly, I guess, more accurately called "modern" because they are as alien to traditional Europe as they are to traditional Asia or Africa. It is strange to see modern Western self-declared conservatives complain about women wearing hijabs when Catholic women covered their heads in Mass until quite recently, and Victorians thought the sight of a woman's ankle scandalous! My ancestors in Ireland were presumably devout, rural farm labourers, embedded in folk superstition and religion, speaking Irish in their local dialect and eating whatever they grew. Probably denied political rights due to their Catholicism and later their poverty (and for the women, their sex), they would have endured famines and desperate material poverty we would expect today in parts of sub-Saharan Africa. "Western" values of liberalism, universal rights, secularism, individualism and perhaps hedonism were alien to the traditional culture of my predecessors.

Hence one could argue that the first victims of modern Western culture were the traditional cultures of Europe.

Is this modern "Western" culture attractive? Surely yes: sexual freedom, personal fulfillment, consumerism and liberty are deeply attractive. While some people will react against the strangeness of this alien modern culture by seeking discipline in fundamentalist religion or political extremism, surely we are much more likely to see Asians, Africans and others to follow our ancestors in switching from disciplined religiosity to perhaps more indulgent consumerism. The most attractive aspects of this modern culture might not include the democracy and political liberalism, though: we will have to watch China to see if it can enjoy some modern liberties without extending them all.

Shane L writes:

Incidentally Randy Thornhill and others have begun to argue that the reduced threat of infectious disease in the 20th century helped provoke our modern culture of social liberalism. The idea is that regions with a high risk of infectious disease produce closed, conservative, exclusionary cultures that tend to reduce personal interaction with outsiders. As the threat of such disease declines - as it has for a huge proportion of the world's population in the last two centuries - cultures become more open to outsiders and to sexual liberalism. Some details here:

Bostonian writes:

To what extent does Western Civilization depend on the preponderance of of Western aka white people in a society? I've read that white fertility in most of Europe is well below replacement level, and even in the U.S. it is slightly below. Whites are decreasing as a fraction of the American population, while the Hispanic fraction is increasing. Is the latter group as capable of maintaining Western Civilization? Can they produce the same number of scientists, writers, classical musicians per capita as they group they are replacing? At present they are not.

In Europe, will the Muslim population be able to and desirous of maintaining Western Civilization?

Current writes:


To begin with I don't think that "most of its people are of German and/or Irish descent?" is accurate. Self-reported ethnicity isn't accurate, especially among people who look the same. Most Americans have ancestry from several European countries, such as England, Ireland and Germany. Selection of one of those in a survey isn't accurate, it's more to do with which ancestral groups people have pride in. As wikipedia points out: "An important example to note is that in 1980 23.75 million Americans claimed English ancestry and 25.85 claimed English ancestry together with one or more other. This represents 49.6 million people. The table below shows that in 1990 when only single and primary responses were allowed this fell to 32 million and in 2000 to 24 million." It's unlikely that this change marks a real reduction in the number of people with English ancestry.

To a degree the early inhabitants of a country have an out-sized influence. If after them immigration is in drib-and-drabs then each wave must conform to the existing norms.

Also, I don't think that England and Germany had cultures that were so different at the time when immigration from Germany occurred. That was something Franklin was wrong about.

Lastly, I think there have been negative consequences from the Irish in some cases. What about the many corrupt municipalities run by the Irish in the past? That said I live in Ireland, there is more corruption, but there are upsides too.

Foseti writes:

This would be an interesting argument from someone advocating some slight level of immigration. It's a super odd argument from someone advocating full open borders.

By survey estimates, something like between 500 million and 1 billion people would immigrate to the US.

No civilization could survive the full replacement (plus another 50%!!) of it's population with people from another civilization (or lack thereof).

What makes a civilization in Professor Caplan's mind if not the population? The land? I'd love to know

Wes writes:

I was sympathetic to your argument for immigration... now I'm not so sure.

For me and many others, unhinged consumerism is a cancer upon Western culture (and it needs to be removed), not a positive feature of it.

Sam writes:

There's a basic physics argument that civilizations of any ilk represent lower states of entropy, which nature abhors. The natural human state was nomadic subsistence for thousands of years. Now that is a resilient system. So I agree with Bryan that there's a inertia in any social system, but a complex interconnected one is much easier to tear down than it is to reconstruct. Can't fault a guy for worrying about whether we have enough redundancies.

Dan Hill writes:

While it might be hard to justify support for a position of totally open borders (I'm strongly libertarian and not at all nationalistic, but I can't quite get there), our immigration policy could move a very long way from where it is, even conceding the typical arguments made by those who argue our current immigration policy is just dandy and all we need to do is secure the borders.

The question I always ask when told we can't integrate large numbers of people who are poor / non-english speaking / are not from a Judeo-Christian culture / hold non-western values is this: why do we restrict immigration from UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand?

I have British friends who have been in US for over 20 years on a series of business visas. First, there is no path for them to permanent residency or citizenship other than a lottery or waiting another 20 or 30 years. Even worse, their oldest son who was 3 months old when they came here, and has been in the US legally his entire life, was forced to leave the country - and his family! - when he graduated with his engineering degree. This is our current immigration law. Deeply inhumane and just plain stupid. None of it can be justified by the typical arguments put forward against more immigration.

brendan writes:

"Given a choice, young people choose Western consumerism, gender norms, and entertainment."

iPads for girls, sure. Education, tolerance, moderation, respect for law - virtue - not so much.

Are American blacks in general practicing Western Civ? If not, do we know how to fix that? If not, what evidence exists that a representative (non-elite selected) sample of Africans would?

Are 4th generation Hispanic Americans as virtuous, as judged by Western Civ standards, as 2nd generation Chinese Americans?

Why do country of origin IQ test scores predict immigrant assimability so well?

These are the arguments you never honestly address.

Massimo writes:

Elites in Beijing and Tehran fought against western influence passionately and generally lost.

Elites in Detroit and Johannesburg fought to preserve wildly successful western, safe, innovative, productive societies and generally lost.

This essay is all feel good and ra-ra for people that already agree with Caplan, and won't convince a single person who disagrees otherwise.

Western civilization's survival will probably be dependent on people like Caplan not getting their way.

freethinker writes:

Many of my fellow Indians living in the western nations refuse to acknowledge that western culture is the most superior one today and that is why they want citizenship in western nations, while hypocritically supporting fanatical Hindu groups back home who insanely oppose western culture. I think having too many immigrants from inferior cultures who want to hold on to their roots will eventually weaken western values

shrikanthk writes:

The very fact that so many people on this thread are carping and dissecting every other line in Caplan's piece is an ode to Western culture. Make no mistake that most of these criticisms are posted by "western" readers (both in terms of their current location and ethnicity)

That's what makes Western culture great. The culture of self criticism and self doubt. As Naipaul once famously put it, the "philosophical diffidence" of Western civilization will triumph over the "philosophical hyteria" of the East

Freethinker : I am a fellow Indian myself (living in India though). I don't think India can be classified as a part of the Asian / Oriental world. As with the west, hindu culture has enormous capacity for self-criticism. (though people who dislike self criticism tend to be more vocal)

I don't think Western culture will have a hard time conquering India, China. The hard part is the Islamic world. That's the final frontier.

freethinker writes:

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European writes:

Bryan Caplan's pro-business and cultural Marxist idea that Western nations should open their borders to masses of immigrants and thereby create a universal race-mixed humanity is motivated mainly by one goal: dispossession of Whites or European peoples.

His understanding of the West is strictly economic and in the end fails to distinguish what makes a modern culture such as Japan different from European-created nations. Once can't separate European ethnicity from the West.

He uses silly cliches devoid of historical content to justify his open borders ideas (which entail enticing talented individuals from poor countries -- in order to benefit humanity?): "A big part of the West's strength, I hasten to add, is its openness to awesomeness."

The West borrowed certain techniques from other civilizations but until recently even the settler nations of America, Canada, and Australia were quite homogeneous in their European ethnicity. Canada, for example, was 96% percent White as late as 1971. European nations have been quite stable ethnically over centuries. The decision to open their borders to African and Asian immigration can't be attributed to the past "openness" of the West. America, Australia, Canada had "white only" immigration policies until recently. Other ethnic groups don't assimilate to European culture as we can observe in the case of Blacks and Natives to this day in the US. Only in small numbers can they assimilate; and Asians too are not assimilating, except to a deracinated, purely business-oriented and cultural Marxist West without soul and traditions.

He writes: "Anti-Western governments from Beijing to Tehran know this this to be true: Without draconian censorship and social regulation, "Westoxification" will win."

Right, try questioning immigration and diversity and integration in the US and Europe, and let's see how open our current culture is; no one in our universities, schools, and government will be hired who is known to question the dogma of open borders or who dares to favor European ethnic identity.

ThomasH writes:

I don't see any contradiction in thinking that Western Civilization is great and highly resilient and thinking that there is a a rate of immigration that -- depending on circumstances at the time and the characteristics of the people immigrating -- could be worse for people already living in the destination country than a lower rate.

Tom West writes:

universal race-mixed humanity is motivated mainly by one goal: dispossession of Whites or European peoples.

How on Earth can you claim to know his motivations?

His secret writings? Face-to-face conversations? Mind reading?

I think we can all argue the points here without inventing fanciful (bordering on paranoid) reasons as to why people take the positions they do.

Massimo writes:

"Bryan Caplan's [...] is motivated mainly by one goal: dispossession of Whites or European peoples."

From my interpretation of Caplan, that is definitely not a goal, but it's a tolerable side effect. His driving motivation is to restore individual meritocracy. Currently, low merit individuals in a good country often experience better lives than high merit individuals in a bad country. He's correct and that's a great reason for open-style immigration. But there are better counter points that Caplan hears but evades. I would like to write them up in another venue that isn't so ephemeral as a blog comment section.

European writes:

Caplan's motivation can be deduced from the obvious end result of his "radical open borders" position. As it is, already in the US, Australia, Canada, and a number of European countries, the trends are pointing toward a future in which the native founders of these nations will be reduced to a minority.

To advocate, as he does that, "anyone willing to pay for transportation should be to live here legally", bespeaks of someone who has complete disregard for the millennial ethnic identities of Europeans and would like to see them swamped by hordes of other ethnic groups.

[Spelling corrected, with commenter's permission.--Econlib Ed.]

Massimo writes:

I agree with much of what you are saying. Caplan is aggressively proposing radical change that will eliminate white majority nations and geographic and political entities from the Earth. Caplan is aware of this. I disagree that this is a an actual goal to Caplan and not just a side effect. Caplan claims to push for more open-style immigration in favor of individual meritocracies and I don't see a reason to doubt that.

I would raise the family analogy. So many open borders advocates treat their biological children better than the children of strangers. Why shouldn't stranger children have the chance to live in their privileged households with the same rules? Caplan has answered this before in that humans are wired to love their families more. However, that seems and inadequate and arbitrary answer and doesn't seem to have consistency with open-style immigration.

KevinH writes:

The fragility argument is only non-sensical when paired with the 'best of all available civs' if you think the fall of of Western style civ is somehow less than the mean civ. If the worry is simply 'regression to the mean' then while the notion still might be wrong, it has more logic than you give it credit for.

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