Bryan Caplan  

A Stillborn Civilization Bet

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When I solicited bets on Western civilization, my former co-blogger Garett Jones zeroed in on economic freedom.
I'm more familiar with the Fraser scale than the Heritage scale, so Garett converted:
Frankly, I found Garett's proposed bet strange on its face.  Economic freedom has much to do with Western civilization, but they're quite distinct.  I proposed we instead bet on global per-capita GDP, global absolute poverty rates, global life expectancy, or global violence rates.  Since Garett was firm on the metric, I suggested we bet on global average economic freedom scores.  (I'd also happily bet on economic freedom for any major region of the world).  He didn't want to take that bet either.

Since I had no strong views on how much OECD members' economic freedom scores fluctuate, I decided to review the past 42 years of data for all OECD members.  On the Fraser scale, about 5 countries changed more than 1 full point during this period.  The trend was toward more economic freedom, but the 1970s - when the Fraser scales began - probably had the lowest peacetime economic freedom in the 20th century.  While I don't expect economic freedom to fall in coming decades, aging (combined with our lavish old-age programs) pushes in that direction. 

The upshot is that I think I'm fairly likely to lose Garett's proposed bet, so I'm refusing it.

As far as I can tell, Garett sees this a major concession on my part.  I don't.  To the best of my knowledge, I've never claimed that rich countries' economic freedom is unlikely to modestly fall.  As long as mankind's per-capita GDP, absolute poverty, violence, and lifespan continue to noticeably improve, I say Western civilization is thriving

I'm tempted to say that Garett's refusal to bet on any of these is a major concession to me, but that's not fair either.  To the best of my knowledge, Garett never claimed that mankind's per-capita GDP, absolute poverty, violence, and lifespan won't continue to noticeably improve.  The real lesson is that our disagreement here is minor.  By ordinary standards, Garett is almost as optimistic as I am.

P.S. Garett and I will be debating some of these issues at Northwood College this November.  Stay tuned for details.

P.P.S. I'll review other proposed civilization bets later this week.




COMMENTS (17 to date)
Colombo writes:

Due to the internet revolution, education seem to be adapting fast. Will Colleges and Universities in ten years time still operate as they operate now?

If both basic education and superior education were to change its ways, would that count as a radical change in Western Civilization?

What about a bail-out of the dying universities? That would be culturally coherent.

Grant Gould writes:

I would actually take this as a _victory_ for betting.

It seems as though you and Dr. Jones were working from different definitions of Western Civ -- not surprising when it's such a vague term. The bet elucidated that part of your disagreement was not over the likely course of the future but over the definition of the term under discussion. That is exactly the sort of confusion that could have persisted through quite a long argument absent an attempt to pin the matter down for a betting prospectus.

So you have obtained one of the major benefits of betting without putting a dollar on the line. Victory!

Seth Green writes:

It looks like Garett wants you to be arguing that economic development is a sufficient condition for economic freedom. Perhaps the distinction between what you *are* arguing and what he wishes you were could be made clearer to him.

Nathan W writes:

With all the fearmongering about the supposed collapse of Western civilization due to accepting refugees (I view it more as a corroboration of our generally humanitarian values, although some prefer to argue that we should reject refugees and instead force peace upon their countries of origin) ... I think it is altogether important to be asking questions like "what is Western civilization?".

While we have a shared history which is broadly Christian, many of these Christian values have been incorporated into entirely secular (non-religious) practices and laws. "Economic freedom" as a Western value is relatively new as well, having been introduced "only" in the last couple hundred years. Muddying the waters is that "right" and "left" wing definitions of "economic freedom" are very much at a loggerhead. "Right wing economic freedom" is like unfettered markets, whereas "left wing economic freedom" is more concerned with the ability of the lower classes to actually access those theoretically available goods, which is only possible when inequality is not "too high".

What is "Western civilization"?

If it is fundamentally under siege from demographic invasion, as some white purists (generally racists) would put it, then we had probably better be clear on what it is that is worth defending. I couldn't care less about protecting skin colour, but equality in front of the law and strong measures to promote equality of opportunity seem like some pretty fundamentally Western notions that have spread far and are worth holding dear. "Economic freedom" ... well, what does that mean again?

Having spent the last hour or so reading comments on the European refugee situation at foxnews.com, it seems like quite a lot of people are being led to believe "Western civilization" is in its death throes if we don't act now (in many cases, it seems like these folks are hankering to start a global war, but hey, it's foxnews.com so what do you expect?). I think the case is far overstated, and moreover is driven by a racially driven penchant for war by some parts of the American population, BUT, demographics are real.

What is "Western civilization"? By that, I mean, which parts are non-negotiable? The diversity of answers that come to the table would reveal a few things. One, that we are perhaps not as uniform as we might think, and two, many people will reveal their innermost biases in the act of declaring which aspects of "Western civilization" are not negotiable.

I propose a) equality in front of the law and b) strong measures to promote equality of opportunity (call it a different take on "economic freedom", if you will).

Robert Veal writes:

@Nathan W
By most definitions I'm probably one of those 'racists' you speak of. I think Western Civilisation is in big trouble. Some of my reasons are as follows:
- All human traits are heritable, similarity between siblings, parents/children and other shared ancestry groups is almost entirely genetic in origin rather than environmental
- IQ is pretty important for a whole host of reasons and different groups overlap a lot in their distributions but differ in their means to a very significant extent.
- Adult IQ has an overwhelmingly genetic basis.
- Equality before the law and of opportunity are as you say brilliant ideas and ideals
- Economic freedom
- The single demographic which, without external pressure, consistently promotes, protects and crucially voted for them is white European descended people. Particularly men, women vote for redistribution, intervention etc. more than men do.
- Social capital goes down as 'diversity' increases, Putnam did a pretty comprehensive study on this.

Basically Mexico is Mexico because it's full of Mexicans.
Africa is Africa because it's full of Africans.
Europe is Europe because it is mostly still full of Europeans.
Western Civilisation depends on the ancestors of the people who built western civilisation, and there are more of those per-capita in European populations than any other.

Jameson writes:
"As long as mankind's per-capita GDP, absolute poverty, violence, and lifespan continue to noticeably improve, I say Western civilization is thriving."

That is a really stupid statement. Western civilization, if it has any meaning, cannot be synonymous with material progress and the diminution of poverty.

Basically, this is a really stupid argument. "Western civilization" is vague, and there is no numerical index to measure whether it's living or dying.

Caplan of all people cannot make any claims about Western civ, since he probably wouldn't claim Christianity as one of its central components. And yet, historically that is simply a fact.

So as much as I love Caplan's ideas on a lot of things, he clearly is not someone you want to consult for a broad understanding of history or culture.

roystgnr writes:

Are we sure this qualifies as "optimism"? Improvement in GDP is what matters, with freedom irrelevant? Would a Brave New World be something to look forward to, so long as Centrifugal Bumble-Puppy courts were cheaper than ever? Even a boot stamping on a human face forever would be fine, so long as it was a more expensive boot than mankind could hitherto afford?

Miguel Madeira writes:

In my opinion, the "civil liberties" of the Freedom House was a better metric.

Grant Gould writes:

Jameson --

Christianity is also present in a heck of a lot of places that aren't "Western Civilization", unless most of Africa is Western.

Try religious freedom and/or legality of atheism as your measure.

Massimo writes:

You could destroy Western Civilization and just rename whatever replaces it as Western Civilization and declare victory.

Lifespan increases and productivity increases are more measures of science and technology than western civilization.

Even if Western Europe is destroyed and sent to the dark ages, science and technology will still move forward elsewhere on the globe. I am presuming that is Caplan's measure of success.

"Hardy Weed" is a great name for a mass immigration resistance group.

Hazel Meade writes:

As others have noted in this and the previous thread, it's really hard to bet on the future of "Western civilization" if you haven't defined what that is. I think both your and Garret Jones's definitions to be lacking. You can't just define Western civilization as "good stuff, happy kittens and puppies", or even something as broad as "economic freedom". You have to outline a set of values that are uniquely "Western".

I think a better measure would be a combination of indexes of political and economic liberty, social norms and culture. Something that combines freedom of speech, economic freedoms, as well as women's lib, and western dress. If the kids are dancing to rock music in nightclubs that should factor into the "westernization" index. But increasing GDP ? That's sort of begging the question isn't it? Just because GDP goes up doesn't *necessarily* mean it has anything to do with Western civilization.

Mark Bahner writes:
Are we sure this qualifies as "optimism"? Improvement in GDP is what matters, with freedom irrelevant?

Freedom tends to increase with wealth. It's difficult to be interested in freedom when one is very hungry:

Maslow's Hierarchy of needs

mico writes:

Your choice of absolute standard of living measures rather than relative measures or institutional measures suggests that western civ was alive and well in the post-war USSR too. your standards of victory are so low that a bet you would be willing to take would have almost no relation to the question it purports to address.

Mark V Anderson writes:

Massimo --

Lifespan increases and productivity increases are more measures of science and technology than western civilization.

This is definitely not true. The whole world has access to science and technology but there are enormous differences in economic well being. And those places that have improved the most in their economic circumstances are almost always those that have the most economic freedom. Science and tech may provide a base standard of living, but it is politics that make the biggest difference.

I agree with several commenters that Bryan should have included freedom as well as economic measures when he talks about what is important to Western Civ. But truthfully, freedom and prosperity have historically always risen and fallen together, so he wasn't that far off.

roystgnr writes:

Freedom does seem to correlate with wealth/prosperity. On the other hand, we measured this correlation in an age where the inputs of wealth necessarily included highly skilled human workers and the outputs of wealth couldn't be used to purchase mass surveillance systems or lethal robots, so Your Kids' Mileage May Vary.

Nathan Smith writes:

re: "Jameson --

"Christianity is also present in a heck of a lot of places that aren't "Western Civilization", unless most of Africa is Western.

"Try religious freedom and/or legality of atheism as your measure."

Legality of atheism won't work, of course. Medieval and early modern Europe were Western, yet atheism was often illegal, whereas some Eastern religions, such as Buddhism, Taoism, and Confucianism, seem to be atheist or at least not definitely theist, and there certainly hasn't been persecution of non-believers in one supreme being. If anything, the West is distinctive as one of the two parts of the world (the other is Islam) where atheism has definitely been illegal for substantial historical periods.

I think the defining feature of Western Civilization is Catholic Christianity, along with its Protestant offshoots, and its secularized post-Enlightenment variants, which downplay or disavow theology but still adhere to Christian values like moral universalism, freedom, progress, rule of law, scientific inquiry, etc. Africa isn't "Western civilization" only because a couple of generations of pervasive Western Christianity aren't enough to make a place Western. It takes centuries for Westernness to be established after Western Christianity arrives, and it takes centuries for it to wear off after Western Christianity wanes (e.g., in western Europe).

Western civilization is a kind of pallid substitute for western Christianity, that's why those who have lost their western Christianity are especially eager to preserve their Western civilization.

Non-Western Christianities, such as the Orthodox Christianity of Greece and Russia, don't quite imprint Westernness, but the cultural distance isn't that great. What's crucial is how strong Christianity has been and how long it has been shaping the culture.

Mark Bahner writes:
Freedom does seem to correlate with wealth/prosperity. On the other hand, we measured this correlation in an age where the inputs of wealth necessarily included highly skilled human workers and the outputs of wealth couldn't be used to purchase mass surveillance systems or lethal robots, so Your Kids' Mileage May Vary.

Yes, but wealth allows one to purchase technologies to block or destroy mass surveillance, and defensive robots to fight the lethal robots.

Suppose everyone in the country was a millionaire. The government sets up cameras to perform mass surveillance. Everybody buys 20 drones that crash into the cameras to destroy them...or just spray paint onto their lenses. The government doesn't know whose drones were used...and even if they did, prosecution would be enormously expensive. Any replacement cameras would just get destroyed.

But if everyone is struggling to feed themselves, they're not going to spend thousands or tens of thousands of dollars to buy camera-destroying drones.

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