Bryan Caplan  

Let's Bet on the West

The Grisly Public Choice Behin... Bryson on Eugenics...
I say Western civilization is a hardy weed.  Contrary to most of its avowed friends, Western civilization keeps gaining market share - grotesque atavisms notwithstanding.
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.
Doesn't the news tell us differently, day after day?  Sure, because the news trumpets the worst things that happened yesterday on a planet with seven billion people.  Heeding the daily news slowly melts even the strongest statistical mind.

Still, the fact that the media inevitably paints a bleak picture doesn't prove that the picture isn't bleak.  The best way to face such questions, to repeat myself repeatedly, is betting.  Refine vague questions into testable propositions, publicly agree to odds and a time frame, then see what happens.

Consistent with my hardy weed position, I'm happy to bet that Western civilization will advance globally by any reasonable measure.  But I'm hazy on what metrics plausibly count as "reasonable."  Bleg: Name some reasonable measures of global Westernization.  I'll ponder your suggestions, then propose betting terms open to anyone on Earth willing to prepay me.

HT: Inspired by the great Garett Jones.

COMMENTS (25 to date)
Richard writes:

The hardest, fairest measures I can think of are low birth rates plus increasing wealth. Might want to use polity scores too. Then again, Japan has all these things, and many don't see it as "Westernized."

Maxim writes:

Because "western civilization" is so broad, I wonder if the least bad way to do this would be to track Pew's polls of people in other countries and "do you have a favorable view of... [The US, France, etc.]" That certainly seems to be the most literal way to do it, though I suppose the drawback is when western civilization acts contrary to the *ideal* of western civilization, such as but launching a war or something. Which are we trying to measure here, western civ as it actually exists or as our ideal vision of it?

If the ideal vision, you may want to measure with some basket of values (like Western movie sales + sales of The Wealth of Nations + non-religiosity in surveys, or something like that...

ChacoKevy writes:

How about tracking the S&P vs Hang Seng in ability to generate revenue in neutral global markets?

Dangerman writes:

I don't think defining "reasonable" is the hard part of this bet... I think defining "Western" civilization is the difficult part.

What about metrics that used to commonly be associated with "Western Civilization" like: (1) percentage of the population that identifies as Christian; (2) the pervasiveness of monogamy as the fundamental social structure underlying family formation; or (3) stable to above-replacement fertility rates.

I predict that over any given moderate timeline (2-10 years) at least two out of three of the above metric will decline, and so "Western Civilization" is NOT in fact winning.

Will pre-pay $100.

Andrew S writes:

I'd go for measures that emphasize individual liberty to quantify western civilization (especially versus places like Beijing or Tehran). Measures I would use:

1) Percentage of articles published in a country's major newspapers (or online news sites) critical of its government.

2) Number of officially banned books

3) Percent of country in jail for victimless crimes (drugs, politics, speech, etc.)

4) Correlation between probability of being in jail and personal wealth prior to being charged

5) Number of an enumerated list of individual rights that are not prohibited or restricted by law (practice religion x, travel within country, dance in street, ...)

mico writes:

Observant Islamic population of the globe will grow faster than the non-islamic population of western countries.

Most western countries will have both immigrant chauvinist and native nationalist parties polling over 20% of the vote consistently within 30 years, except Asian countries whose populations will collapse.

The current western culture set doesn't even manage population replacement so in the absence of genocidal treatment of others (again not western in the sense you mean) the question is when not if it dies.

Eric Rall writes:

1. Percentage of population proficient in English as a first or second language. Proxy for Anglo-American cultural influence and for the value placed on business, educational, and cultural contact with the West. Might also be worthwhile to include French and German proficiency, if you don't want to just use Americanization as a proxy for Westernization.

2. McDonald's franchises relative to the population. McDonald's is widely seen as a symbol of Westernization in general and Americanization in particular, so franchises flourishing signals both cultural acceptance of Westernization and institutional access to western businesses.

3. International revenue for Hollywood movies. Same logic as #2, with emphasis on cultural acceptance.

4. Percentage of Western-educated people in powerful or influential roles (political office-holders, CEOs, college professors, etc). Potentially problematic, since a decline could indicate an improvement in the perceived quality of domestic educational institutions rather than a decline in value placed on a Western education.

Grant Gould writes:

These are suggestions, not offers to bet, as I doubt our views diverge enough to find odds between them.

* Fraction of earth's population who are legally permitted to blaspheme every god, prophet, avatar, and messiah
* Number of countries in which a double-digit fraction of the population has seen one of the highest-grossing American films of the past ten years (note: Measure must include estimate of people watching via piracy!)
* Fraction of the world population that believes that fraud and embezzlement are more serious crimes than divorce or homosexuality
* Fraction of the world population where the expected (severity times likelihood) punishment for tax evasion exceeds the expected punishment for complaining about tax rates

Daublin writes:

Hmm, it has changed a lot in the last few decades, though.

Westerners *used* to be monogamous as a norm, but nowadays it seems rather the opposite.

Westerners used to work, but you can't really say that any more if you include Germany, France, and Greece. It's still true if you include the U.S.

The idea of using video and music is a good one, but that shows more that the U.S. is a cultural nexus right now, with everyone gravitating toward it. That doesn't directly show the spread of *cultural norms*, especially since Hollywood in particular doesn't seem very representative of what the larger country believes in.

I guess I don't have any strong predictions about these big questions, but I am pessimistic based on experience everywhere in the world other than the U.S. Modern Europe, and to a greater extent Russia of half a century ago, seem to very easily adopt policies and cultural norms that are very damaging to the populace. Nothing seems to dislodge these problems short of complete implosion, and even then it took decades for the U.S.S.R. to unravel. My best hope is to instill a distrust of utopian messages from national governments, and I consider it circular to say that "Libertarianism is fringe" and therefore that I shouldn't try.

Worse, the disintegration of the U.S.S.R. seems to have something to do with the U.S. existing and being to some extent a constant reminder of how much better things could be. If the U.S. follows the same policies and cultural changes as are happening in France or Germany, then who is going to be the leading example in the future?

Sam writes:

@Eric, I agree with you that (4) is problematic. Also (3) should probably be normalized as Hollywood revenue / global film industry revenue, or perhaps (Hollywood - Hollywood domestic) / (global - Hollywood domestic).

For your (1) and (2) and my modified version of (3), I am quite skeptical that any of these measures have increased even close to monotonically for the past, say, 100 years. The trend in this plot is just too important.

JK Brown writes:

I suppose you could use modernity, i.e., the separation of the economic, social, political and religious/ideological spheres and the rise of the individual vice family, clan or tribe, as a proxy for Western Civilization.

Or, perhaps, some metric of the adoption of the ancient liberties of the Saxons that survived in the English-speaking peoples. That is, the individual liberties, representative government, secure private property, the rule of law (equality before the law for all).

Individual liberties might be constrained to right to speech, assembly, perhaps press, desire for due process. Many around the world mistakenly believe that the right to bear arms isn't necessary, which perhaps is true as long as the political/religious spheres honor the other desired rights, but is indispensable if they decide not to honor those rights.

We see a mixture of the two in those like the young people in Iran, who've never known any Iran but the Islamic State, still asserting their right to free speech (dancing) which demonstrates an emphasis on the individual and their social life not governed by the religious sphere. Of course, the political and religious spheres in Iran disagree with arrests and at a minimum control of the economic future of those caught dancing on video.

Hazel Meade writes:

I think that "Westernization" is really just one name for a much broader phenomenon. Possibly a misnomer altogether.

One reason I believe this is that I grew up in Canada where there was often in my childhood a similar fear of "Americanization", combined with, for instance Canadian content laws on broadcast TV and radio, and similar criticisms of "American" culture with similar themes to those applied to "Western" culture in non-Western parts of the world.

What do these things have in common? A rejection of supposedly "consumerist" anf "individualist" tendencies and a defense of local or regional traditional culture against what seems to be a homogenizing wave of modern/western/American norms.

However, I think the reality is that the new norms aren't really particularly Western or American at all. Rather these are norms that are engendered by a modern industrialized economy with a high level of education, information access, and international exposure. The traditional or local norms that the critics attempt to defend can't be sustained except in a closed society, partly on their merits, and partly because success in a world with a large degree of cross-cultural interaction demands cultural adaptation, including adoption of some of those "Western", consumerist, individualist values that are so often criticized.

Swami writes:

This post revolves around "what is western?"

My contribution to the discussion is that "western" is the emergent institutions and values which emerged from the thousand plus year competition between states and proto states. It is the enlightenment, the scientific method, open access political orders (North), modern capitalism, consequentialism, and all the myriad technologies created by the interplay of these institutions and mindsets.

It is important to add that the emergent western-ness was the result of an evolutionary selection process. Winning institutions survived and spread (representative democracy and capitalism) and were built upon while losing ideas and institutions (most recently Marxism), were thrown in the scrap heap of history.

To quote MacFarlane's summary of Yukichi Fukuzawa's insights on the west....

"Many opinions and many institutions should flourish in healthy competition; this is the essence and secret of western civilization."

The healthy competition is the foundation and it creates institutions which compete constructively and lead to technologies and mindsets associated with the west. And the ideas don't have to (and often haven't) come from the west.

Peter H writes:

So we want a measure that's concrete, tied to participation in the global community, and hard to game.

How about change in % of GDP that constitutes foreign trade? It's imperfect as a measure of westernization, but not terrible as it tells us about engagement with the world at some level. First derivative of the foreign trade percentage gives us the answer to "getting more or less western" and has a nice zero point, as well as controlling for current patterns - we're just looking for direction of the trend.

So what say you Bryan?

phil writes:

I think total share of world economy held by western countries (US, Canada, EU, Australia) is likely (maybe almost certain) to fall

you could probably find a lot of takers at a certain ratio of that question

I suspect you largely attribute that to a 'Westernization of the rest' effect and wouldn't find that a particularly attractive bet


Though I suspect that's largely the ratio critics have in mind when they worry about the effects of proposals like open borders

Anon writes:

Hmm, is there a nationwide trait that's particularly linked to Westernization? I would say Secularism, but there's significant outliers that throw a wrench in that.

Night clubs per capita maybe?

Doug writes:

Global English proficiency is the best measure. All the other proposals are either too complex to objectively measure, or are to subject to other economic and cultural trends that aren't directly related.

Sam writes:

Why global English proficiency as opposed to some sort of population weighted average of Western European language proficiency relative to non-Western European language proficiency? Roughly 1% of the US population now speaks Chinese, versus roughly 0.25% in 1980. Is that a sign that the US is "de-Westernizing" or "Easternizing"?

Daniel Fountain writes:

I would classify "Westernization" as "expanding individualism". That is to say a respect for the choices of the individual. Modern Western Civilization is, at its heart, a society of live and let live. Obviously there are grotesque exceptions but this is the creed by which the west has taken over in the last 200 years or so.

For legal institutions there is one clear metric by which to gauge: Percent of individuals in jail or fined for a non-externality inducing actions. Also along these lines is the percent of laws dedicated to banning non-externality inducing actions.

For social institutions the biggest innovation western civ has to offer is the education of all groups. So a country could be said to be westernizing if the mean education level of women is closer to the mean education level of men over time. Similarly the lack of racial crimes is a core tenant of modern western civ, so the less racially based crime there is the more the country is westernizing.

For cultural institutions I would just go with % speaking English and market cap growth of English-language media produced in the country. English is the go-to second language for most of the world now due to its ability to gather knowledge from western academic work and academics.

There exist proxies for almost all of these metrics (except maybe the english-language media) so it shouldn't be too hard to create a weighted average that estimates the westernization of these 3 core societal institutions on a country by country basis then view the change for the world as a whole weighted by country population.

RohanV writes:

Defining the "West" is pretty hard. Would you consider India part of the West?

India is non-Christian (for the most part), non-White. But it is strongly influenced by British ideals. It's a democracy. It's law system is reasonable and inherits from the Western tradition. It has a lot of English-speakers.

So long as India stays on course, I think Caplan will win his bet, just from sheer numbers. On the other hand, if India took a sudden turn to a different direction, I think Caplan would lose the bet.

Brad writes:

How about the number of visa applications from China,Russia,and other non-western Nations. Measure where the world's people are moving.

Ted writes:

Institutionalized narcissism, Mr. Caplan. That is to say, a social contract wherein individual prerogative is deemed naturally ascendant over the common welfare.

What we, collectively, have come to think of as "western civilization," is a combination of secular entitlement and moral stricture based on Judeo-Christian religious teachings. The triumph of westernization we are seeing abroad is fundamentally an adoption of the self-aggrandizement inherent in the permissive aspects of our secularism, while the puritanism that moderates our narcissistic tendencies is not widely accepted, non-Christian fundamentalism notwithstanding.

Richard writes:

ISIS is NOT an atavism of Western civilization. I don't know any serious account of the success of the West that credits Islam. The moral foundations of the West are Judeo-Christian, NOT Judeo-Christian-Muslim.

I think Bryan lumped here because he's an atheist, and atheists (especially the intellectual version) often lump all faiths. But that's prejudice, not sociology.

Hazel Meade writes:

I have a hard time seeing how Judeo-Christian moral values led to "Western" cultural attitudes on "consumerism, gender norms, and entertainment", as described in the original quote.

Richard writes:

@Hazel Meade

There's actually a whole literature on that. Dierdre McCloskey is a good place to start. Read "Bourgeois Dignity: Why Economics Can't Explain the Modern World." Also have a look at the chapter on work in Niall Ferguson's "Civilization: The West and the Rest."

The notion that all people are fundamentally equal, regardless of race or sex, with souls that are accountable solely to God (and thus not to king, government, family, nation, etc.) originates with Christianity. Modern human rights are unimaginable without it.

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