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How The West Was Won

I.

Someone recently linked me to Bryan Caplan’s post A Hardy Weed: How Traditionalists Underestimate Western Civ. He argues that “western civilization”‘s supposed defenders don’t give it enough credit. They’re always worrying about it being threatened by Islam or China or Degeneracy or whatever, but in fact western civilization can not only hold its own against these threats but actively outcompetes them:

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.

I worry that Caplan is eliding the important summoner/demon distinction. This is an easy distinction to miss, since demons often kill their summoners and wear their skin. But in this case, he’s become hopelessly confused without it.

I am pretty sure there was, at one point, such a thing as western civilization. I think it involved things like dancing around maypoles and copying Latin manuscripts. At some point Thor might have been involved. That civilization is dead. It summoned an alien entity from beyond the void which devoured its summoner and is proceeding to eat the rest of the world.

An analogy: naturopaths like to use the term “western medicine” to refer to the evidence-based medicine of drugs and surgeries you would get at your local hospital. They contrast this with traditional Chinese medicine and Ayurvedic medicine, which it has somewhat replaced, apparently a symptom of the “westernization” of Chinese and Indian societies.

But “western medicine” is just medicine that works. It happens to be western because the West had a technological head start, and so discovered most of the medicine that works first. But there’s nothing culturally western about it; there’s nothing Christian or Greco-Roman about using penicillin to deal with a bacterial infection. Indeed, “western medicine” replaced the traditional medicine of Europe – Hippocrates’ four humors – before it started threatening the traditional medicines of China or India. So-called “western medicine” is an inhuman perfect construct from beyond the void, summoned by Westerners, which ate traditional Western medicine first and is now proceeding to eat the rest of the world.

“Western culture” is no more related to the geographical west than western medicine. People who complain about western culture taking over their country always manage to bring up Coca-Cola. But in what sense is Coca-Cola culturally western? It’s an Ethiopian bean mixed with a Colombian leaf mixed with carbonated water and lots and lots of sugar. An American was the first person to discover that this combination tasted really good – our technological/economic head start ensured that. But in a world where America never existed, eventually some Japanese or Arabian chemist would have found that sugar-filled fizzy drinks were really tasty. It was a discovery waiting to be plucked out of the void, like penicillin. America summoned it but did not create it. If western medicine is just medicine that works, soda pop is just refreshment that works.

The same is true of more intellectual “products”. Caplan notes that foreigners consume western gender norms, but these certainly aren’t gender norms that would have been recognizable to Cicero, St. Augustine, Henry VIII, or even Voltaire. They’re gender norms that sprung up in the aftermath of the Industrial Revolution and its turbulent intermixing of the domestic and public economies. They arose because they worked. The West was the first region to industrialize and realize those were the gender norms that worked for industrial societies, and as China and Arabia industrialize they’re going to find the same thing.

Caplan writes:

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.

Certainly he’s pointing at a real phenomenon – sushi has spread almost as rapidly as Coke. But in what sense has sushi been “westernized”? Yes, Europe has adopted sushi. But so have China, India, and Africa. Sushi is another refreshment that works, a crack in the narrative that what’s going on is “westernization” in any meaningful sense.

Here’s what I think is going on. Maybe every culture is the gradual accumulation of useful environmental adaptations combined with random memetic drift. But this is usually a gradual process with plenty of room for everybody to adjust and local peculiarities to seep in. the Industrial Revolution caused such rapid change that the process become qualitatively different, a frantic search for better adaptations to an environment that was itself changing almost as fast as people could understand it.

The Industrial Revolution also changed the way culture was spatially distributed. When the fastest mode of transportation is the horse, and the postal system is frequently ambushed by Huns, almost all culture is local culture. England develops a culture, France develops a culture, Spain develops a culture. Geographic, language, and political barriers keep these from intermixing too much. Add rapid communication – even at the level of a good postal service – and the equation begins to change. In the 17th century, philosophers were remarking (in Latin, the universal language!) about how Descartes from France had more in common with Leibniz from Germany than either of them did with the average Frenchman or German. Nowadays I certainly have more in common with SSC readers in Finland than I do with my next-door neighbor whom I’ve never met.

Improved trade and communication networks created a rapid flow of ideas from one big commercial center to another. Things that worked – western medicine, Coca-Cola, egalitarian gender norms, sushi – spread along the trade networks and started outcompeting things that didn’t. It happened in the west first, but not in any kind of a black-and-white way. Places were inducted into the universal culture in proportion to their participation in global trade; Shanghai was infected before West Kerry; Dubai is further gone than Alabama. The great financial capitals became a single cultural region in the same way that “England” or “France” had been a cultural region in the olden times, gradually converging on more and more ideas that worked in their new economic situation.

Let me say again that this universal culture, though it started in the West, was western only in the most cosmetic ways. If China or the Caliphate had industrialized first, they would have been the ones who developed it, and it would have been much the same. The new sodas and medicines and gender norms invented in Beijing or Baghdad would have spread throughout the world, and they would have looked very familiar. The best way to industrialize is the best way to industrialize.

II.

Something Caplan was pointing towards but never really said outright: universal culture is by definition the only culture that can survive without censorship.

He writes in his post:

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.

Universal culture is the collection of the most competitive ideas and products. Coca-Cola spreads because it tastes better than whatever people were drinking before. Egalitarian gender norms spread because they’re more popular and likeable than their predecessors. If there was something that outcompeted Coca-Cola, then that would be the official soda of universal culture and Coca-Cola would be consigned to the scrapheap of history.

The only reason universal culture doesn’t outcompete everything else instantly and achieve fixation around the globe is barriers to communication. Some of those barriers are natural – Tibet survived universalization for a long time because nobody could get to it. Sometimes the barrier is time – universal culture can’t assimilate every little valley hill and valley instantly. Other times there are no natural barriers, and then your choice is to either accept assimilation into universal culture, or put up some form of censorship.

Imagine that Tibet wants to protect its traditional drink of yak’s milk. The Dalai Lama requests that everyone continue to drink yak’s milk. But Coca-Cola tastes much better than yak’s milk, and everyone knows this. So it becomes a coordination problem: even if individual Tibetans would prefer that their neighbors all drink yak’s milk to preserve the culture, they want to drink Coca-Cola. The only way yak’s milk stays popular is if the Dalai Lama bans Coca-Cola from the country.

But westerners aren’t banning yak’s milk to “protect” their cultures. They don’t have to. Universal culture is high-entropy; it’s already in its ground state and will survive and spread without help. All other cultures are low-entropy; they survive only if someone keeps pushing energy into the system to protect them. It could be the Dalai Lama banning Coca-Cola. It could be the Académie Française removing English words from the language. It could be the secret police killing anyone who speaks out against Comrade Stalin. But if you want anything other than universal culture, you better either be surrounded by some very high mountains, or be willing to get your hands dirty.

There’s one more sense in which universal culture is high-entropy; I think it might be the only culture that can really survive high levels of immigration.

I’ve been wondering for a long time – how come groups that want to protect their traditional cultures worry about immigration? After all, San Francisco is frequently said to have a thriving gay culture. There’s a strong Hasidic Jewish culture in New York City. Everyone agrees that the US has something called “black culture”, although there’s debate over exactly what it entails. But only 6% of San Francisco is gay. Only 1% of New Yorkers are Hasidim. Only about 11% of Americans are black. So these groups have all managed to maintain strong cultures while being vastly outnumbered by people who are different from them.

So why is anyone concerned about immigration threatening their culture? Suppose that Tibet was utterly overwhelmed by immigrants, tens of millions of them. No matter how many people you import, Tibetan people couldn’t possibly get more outnumbered in their own country than gays, Hasidim, and blacks already are. But those groups hold on to their cultures just fine. Wouldn’t we expect Tibetans (or Americans, or English people) to do the same?

I’m still not totally sure about the answer to this one, but once again I think it makes more sense when we realize that Tibet is competing not against Western culture, but against universal culture.

And here, universal culture is going to win, simply because it’s designed to deal with diverse multicultural environments. Remember, different strategies can succeed in different equilibria. In a world full of auto-cooperators, defect-bot hits the jackpot. In a world full of tit-for-tat-players, defect-bot crashes and burns. Likewise, in a world where everybody else follows Tibetan culture, Tibetan culture may do very well. In a world where there are lots of different cultures all mixed together, Tibetan culture might not have any idea what to do.

(one more hypothetical, to clarify what I’m talking about – imagine a culture where the color of someone’s clothes tells you a lot of things about them – for example, anyone wearing red is a prostitute. This may work well as long as everyone follows the culture. If you mix it 50-50 with another culture that doesn’t have this norm, then things go downhill quickly; you proposition a lady wearing red, only to get pepper sprayed in the eye. Eventually the first culture gives up and stops trying to communicate messages through clothing color.)

I think universal culture has done a really good job adapting to this through a strategy of social atomization; everybody does their own thing in their own home, and the community exists to protect them and perform some lowest common denominator functions that everyone can agree on. This is a really good way to run a multicultural society without causing any conflict, but it requires a very specific set of cultural norms and social technologies to work properly, and only universal culture has developed these enough to pull it off.

Because universal culture is better at dealing with multicultural societies, the more immigrants there are, the more likely everyone will just default to universal culture in public spaces. And eventually the public space will creep further and further until universal culture becomes the norm.

If you don’t understand the difference between western culture and universal culture, this looks like the immigrants assimilating – “Oh, before these people were Chinese people behaving in their foreign Chinese way, but now they’re Westerners just like us.” Once you make the distinction, it looks like both Chinese people and traditional Americans assimilating into universal culture in order to share a common ground – with this being invisible to people who are already assimilated into universal culture, to whom it just looks “normal”.

III.

I stress these points because the incorrect model of “foreign cultures being Westernized” casts Western culture as the aggressor, whereas the model of “every culture is being universalized” finds Western culture to be as much a victim as anywhere else. Coca-Cola might have replaced traditional yak’s milk in Mongolia, but it also replaced traditional apple cider in America. A Hopi Indian saddened that her children no longer know the old ritual dances differs little from a Southern Baptist incensed that her kids no longer go to church. Universal values have triumphed over both.

Our society is generally in favor of small, far-away, or exotic groups trying to maintain their culture. We think it’s great that the Hopi are trying to get the next generation to participate in the traditional dances. We support the Tibetans’ attempt to maintain their culture in the face of pressure from China. We promote black culture, gay culture, et cetera. We think of it as a tragedy when the dominant culture manages to take over and destroy one of these smaller cultures. For example, when white American educators taught Native American children to identify with white American culture and ignore the old ways, that was inappropriate and in some senses “genocidal” if the aim was to destroy Native Americans as a separate people. We get excited by the story of Bhutan, the tiny Himalayan kingdom trying to preserve its natural and human environment and prevent its own McDonaldization. We tend to be especially upset when the destruction of cultures happens in the context of colonialism, ie a large and powerful country trying to take over and eliminate the culture of a smaller country. Some examples include the English in Ireland, the English in India, the English in Africa, and basically the English anywhere.

One of the most common justifications for colonialism is that a more advanced and enlightened society is taking over an evil and oppressive society. For example, when China invaded Tibet, they said that this was because Tibet was a feudal hellhole where most of the people were living in abject slavery and where people who protested the rule of the lamas were punished by having their eyes gouged out (true!). They declared the anniversary of their conquest “Serfs Emancipation Day” and force the Tibetans to celebrate it every year. They say that anyone who opposes the Chinese, supports the Dalai Lama, or flies the old Tibetan flag is allied with the old feudal lords and wants to celebrate a culture based around serfdom and oppression.

But opponents of colonialism tend to believe that cultures are valuable and need to be protected in and of themselves. This is true even if the culture is very poor, if the culture consists of people who aren’t very well-educated by Western standards, even if they believe in religions that we think are stupid, even if those cultures have unsavory histories, et cetera. We tend to allow such cultures to resist outside influences, and we even celebrate such resistance. If anybody were to say that, for example, Native Americans are poor and ignorant, have a dumb religion with all sorts of unprovable “spirits”, used to be involved in a lot of killing and raiding and slave-taking – and so we need to burn down their culture and raise their children in our own superior culture – that person would be incredibly racist and they would not be worth listening to. We celebrate when cultures choose preservation of their traditional lifestyles over mere economic growth, like Bhutan’s gross national happiness program.

This is true in every case except with the cultures we consider our outgroups – in the US, white Southern fundamentalist Christian Republicans; in the UK, white rural working-class leave voters. In both cases, their ignorance is treated as worthy of mockery, their religion is treated as stupidity and failure to understand science, their poverty makes them “trailer trash”, their rejection of economic-growth-at-all-costs means they are too stupid to understand the stakes, and their desire to protect their obviously inferior culture makes them xenophobic and racist. Although we laugh at the Chinese claim that the only reason a Tibetan could identify with their own culture and want to fly its flag is because they support serfdom and eye-gouging, we solemnly nod along with our own culture’s claim that the only reason a Southerner could identify with their own culture and want to fly its flag is because they support racism and slavery.

(one question I got on the post linked above was why its description of American tribes seemed to fit other countries so well. I think the answer is because most countries’ politics are centered around the conflict between more-universalized and less-universalized segments of the population.)

We could even look at this as a form of colonialism – if Brexit supporters and opponents lived on two different islands and had different colored skin, then people in London saying things like “These people are so butthurt that we’re destroying their so-called ‘culture’, but they’re really just a bunch of ignorant rubes, and they don’t realize they need us elites to keep their country running, so screw them,” would sound a lot more sinister. The insistence that they tolerate unwanted immigration into their lands would look a lot like how China is trying to destroy Tibet by exporting millions of people to it in the hopes they will eventually outnumber the recalcitrant native Tibetans (if you don’t believe me, believe the Dalai Lama, who apparently has the same perspective). The claim that they’re confused bout their own economic self-interest would give way to discussions of Bhutan style “gross national happiness”.

(I get accused of being crypto-conservative around here every so often, but I think I’m just taking my anti-colonialism position to its logical conclusion. A liberal getting upset about how other liberals are treating conservatives, doesn’t become conservative himself, any more than an American getting upset about how other Americans treat Iraqis becomes an Iraqi.)

And I worry that confusing “universal culture” with “Western culture” legitimizes this weird double standard. If universal culture and Western culture are the same thing, then Western culture doesn’t need protection – as Caplan points out, it’s the giant unstoppable wave of progress sweeping over everything else. Or maybe it doesn’t deserve protection – after all, it’s the colonialist ideology that tried to destroy local cultures and set itself up as supreme. If Western culture is already super-strong and has a history of trying to take over everywhere else, then surely advocating “protecting Western culture” must be a code phrase for something more sinister. We can sympathize with foreign cultures like the Tibetans who are actually under threat, but sympathizing with any Western culture in any way would just be legitimizing aggression.

But I would argue that it’s universal culture which is the giant unstoppable wave of progress, and that it was universal culture that was responsible for colonizing other cultures and replacing them with itself. And universal culture’s continuing attempts to subjugate the last unassimilated remnants of traditional western culture are just part of this trend.

IV.

I am mostly just on the side of consistency. After that I have no idea what to do.

One argument is that we should consistently support traditional cultures’ attempts to defend themselves against universal culture. Support the Native Americans’ ability to practice their old ways, support traditional Siberians trying to return to their shamanistic roots, support Australian Aborigines’ rights to continue the old rituals, support Tibetans’ rights to practice Vajrayana Buddhism, and support rural British people trying to protect Ye Olde England from the changes associated with increased immigration. For most people, this would mean extending the compassion that they feel to the Aborigines, peasants, and Tibetans to apply to the British as well.

But another argument is that we should consistently support universal culture’s attempt to impose progress on traditional cultures. Maybe we should tell the Native Americans that if they embraced global capitalism, they could have a tacqueria, sushi restaurant, and kebab place all on the same street in their reservation. Maybe we should tell the Aborigines that modern science says the Dreamtime is a myth they need to stop clinging to dumb disproven ideas. Maybe we should tell the Tibetans that Vajrayana Buddhism is too intolerant of homosexuality. Take our conviction that rural Englanders are just racist and xenophobic and ill-informed, and extend that to everyone else who’s trying to resist a way of life that’s objectively better.

I am sort of torn on this.

On the one hand, universal culture is objectively better. Its science is more correct, its economy will grow faster, its soft drinks are more refreshing, its political systems are (necessarily) freer, and it is (in a certain specific sense) what everybody would select if given a free choice. It also seems morally better. The Tibetans did gouge out the eyes of would-be-runaway serfs. I realize the circularity of saying that universal culture is objectively morally better based on it seeming so to me, a universal culture member – but I am prepared to suspend that paradox in favor of not wanting people’s eyes gouged out for resisting slavery.

On the other hand, I think that “universal culture is what every society would select if given the opportunity” is less of a knock-down point than it would seem. Heroin use is something every society would select if given the opportunity. That is, if nobody placed “censorship” on the spread of heroin, it would rapidly spread from country to country, becoming a major part of that country’s society. Instead, we implement an almost authoritarian level of control on it, because we know that even though it would be very widely adopted, it’s not something that is good for anybody in the long term. An opponent of universal culture could say it has the same property.

Things get even worse when you remember that cultures are multi-agent games and each agent pursuing its own self-interest might be a disaster for the whole. Pollution is a good example of this; if the best car is very polluting, and one car worth of pollution is minimal but many cars’ worth of pollution is toxic, then absent good coordination mechanisms everyone will choose the best car even though everyone would prefer a world where nobody (including them) had the best car. I may have written about this before.

I’m constantly intrigued (though always a little skeptical) by claims that “primitive” cultures live happier and more satisfying lives than our own. I know of several of this type. First, happiness surveys that tend to find Latin American countries doing as well or better than much richer and more advanced European countries. Second, the evidence from the Amish, whose children are allowed to experience the modern culture around them but who usually prefer to stay in Amish society. Third, Axtell’s paper on prisoner exchanges between early US colonists and Native Americans; colonists captured by the natives almost always wanted to stay and live with the natives; natives captured by the colonists never wanted to stay and live with the colonists. Many people have remarked on how more culturally homogenous countries seem happier. Bhutan itself might be evidence here, although I’ve seen wildly different claims on where it falls on happiness surveys. I’ve also talked before about how China’s happiness level stayed stable or even dropped during its period of rapid development.

(on the other hand, there’s also a lot of counterevidence. More democratic countries seem to be happier, and democracies will generally be the low-censorship countries that get more assimilated into universal culture. Free market economies are happier. Some studies say that more liberal countries are happier. And there’s a complicated but positive relationship between national happiness and wealth.)

I also think that it might be reasonable to have continuation of your own culture as a terminal goal, even if you know your culture is “worse” in some way than what would replace it. There’s a transhumanist joke – “Instead of protecting human values, why not reprogram humans to like hydrogen? After all, there’s a lot of hydrogen.” There’s way more hydrogen than beautiful art, or star-crossed romances, or exciting adventures. A human who likes beautiful art, star-crossed romances, and exciting adventures is in some sense “worse” than a human who likes hydrogen, since it would be much harder for her to achieve her goals and she would probably be much less happy. But knowing this does not make me any happier about the idea of being reprogrammed in favor of hydrogen-related goals. My own value system might not be objectively the best, or even very good, but it’s my value system and I want to keep it and you can’t take it away from me. I am an individualist and I think of this on an individual level, but I could also see having this self-preservation-against-optimality urge for my community and its values.

(I’ve sometimes heard this called Lovecraftian parochialism, based on H.P. Lovecraft’s philosophy that the universe is vast and incomprehensible and anti-human, and you’ve got to draw the line between Self and Other somewhere, so you might as well draw the line at 1920s Providence, Rhode Island, and call everywhere else from Boston all the way to the unspeakable abyss-city of Y’ha-nthlei just different degrees of horribleness.)

Overall I am not 100% convinced either way. Maybe some traditional cultures are worse than universal culture and others are better? Mostly the confusion makes me want to err on the side of allowing people to go either direction as they see fit, barring atrocities. Which are of course hard to define.

I like the Jewish idea of the Noahide Laws, where the Jews say “We are not going to impose our values on anyone else…except these seven values which we think are incredibly important and breaking them is totally beyond the pale.” Sometimes I wish universal culture would just establish a couple of clear Noahide Laws – two of them could be “no slavery” and “no eye-gouging” – and then agree to bomb/sanction/drone any culture that breaks them while leaving other cultures alone. On the other hand, I also understand universal culture well enough to know that two minutes after the first set of Noahide Laws were established, somebody would propose amending them to include something about how every culture must protect transgender bathroom rights or else be cleansed from the face of the Earth by fire and sword. I’m not sure how to prevent this, or if preventing it is even desirable. This seems like the same question as the original question, only one meta-level up and without any clear intuition to help me solve it. I guess this is another reason I continue to be attracted to the idea of Archipelago.

But I think that none of this makes sense unless we abandon the idea that “universal culture” and “western culture” are one and the same. I think when Caplan’s debate opponent talked about “protecting Western culture”, he was referring to something genuinely fragile and threatened.

I also think he probably cheated by saying we needed to protect it because it was responsible for so many great advances, like Coca-Cola and egalitarian gender norms. I don’t think that’s fair. I think it’s a culture much like Tibetan or Indian culture, pretty neat in its own way, possibly extra interesting as the first culture to learn the art of summoning entities from beyond the void. Mostly I’m just happy that it exists in the same way I’m happy that pandas and gorillas exist, a basic delight in the diversity of the world. I think it can be defended in those terms without having to resolve the debate on how many of its achievements are truly its own.

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349 Responses to How The West Was Won

  1. Meh says:

    You lost me at “Coca-Cola isn’t culturally Western”. How is “an Ethiopian bean mixed with a Colombian leaf mixed with carbonated water and lots and lots of sugar” NOT Western? That’s exactly what the quote guy is talking about. We take the best stuff of other cultures and mix it together into something that’s optimally delicious (and bad for you). Pop music, fast food, crack cocaine, partisan politics, etc. etc.

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    • The Voracious Observer says:

      Coca-Cola isn’t western because any culture could conceive of mixing a bean with a leaf and lots and lots of sugar. No single step of the process of inventing Coca-Cola requires “The West” to exist, so the sum of the whole isn’t “Western”.

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      • MawBTS says:

        Coca-Cola isn’t western because any culture could conceive of mixing a bean with a leaf and lots and lots of sugar.

        Yeah, but they didn’t.

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        • Wrong Species says:

          Right. Similarly, gunpowder was a Chinese inventions even though anybody else could have done it.

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          • John Schilling says:

            Gunpowder is the Western name for a Chinese invention, and nobody cares what the Chinese called it because in spite of several centuries’ head start the Chinese never came up with the killer app. How long did it take the West to come up with the gun, once they had the powder?

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          • LHN says:

            China did invent cannon and handheld firearms starting around the late Song dynasty. But once Europe got gunpowder, the development of Western firearms and artillery certainly lapped them and stayed in front for quite a long while.

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      • U. Ranus says:

        Coca-Cola is Western because the only way to make the concoction palatable and refreshing is to refrigerate it.

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        • AlphaGamma says:

          Plenty of non-Western cultures developed methods of refrigeration based either on evaporation of water or melting ice. The Persians have been eating faloodeh, which requires refrigeration to make it, for centuries if not millennia.

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        • CJT says:

          While I might agree with you on grounds of personal taste, Coca-Cola is consumed unrefrigerated in vast quantities in the developing world. One thing you’ll hear from world travelers is that the only thing you can get everywhere (everywhere) in the world is Coke, from the African bush to the Andean altiplano. Most of the time it’s warm. People drink it anyway.

          Fun fact: there’s actually an NGO that packages medicine in specially-shaped containers that fit in empty spaces in Coke’s bottle distribution crates in order to piggyback on their bottle distribution network.

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          • Andrew G. says:

            the only thing you can get everywhere (everywhere) in the world is Coke,

            Everywhere… except the USA, where they have some foul-tasting substitute defective product.

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      • John Schilling says:

        No single step of the process of inventing Coca-Cola requires “The West” to exist, so the sum of the whole isn’t “Western”.

        Coca-Cola is more than just a recipe that happens to include ingredients from more than one continent.

        It’s the global supply chain that brings those ingredients together on a mass scale. It’s the refrigeration that, as others have noted, is vital to the process. And the carbonation. And the bottling, and so industrial glass production. And the mass-market distribution. And the advertising, which is probably more important than any other step on this list, or any of the countless others I have no doubt forgotten.

        Add up all those steps, and I think there is one step that is indispensable and is, at least historically, uniquely western:

        Step 1. Form a limited-liability joint stock corporation.

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        • Jiro says:

          Coca-Cola was invented 130 years ago. Many of these elements didn’t exist or were drastically less important back then. It was invented and produced in a Western country and sold to Westerners; selling it globally came later.

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          • John Schilling says:

            Actually, 130 years ago is about the time refrigeration became common enough (in the US) for the average town to have a soda fountain, even if the average private kitchen didn’t have a refrigerator. Likewise assembly-line bottling, and brand advertising on a national scale.

            Coca-Cola was invented and popularized very soon after Western Civilization put into place all of the elements necessary for Coca-Cola to exist as we know it.

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    • CatCube says:

      The objection is that we call it “Western culture” but we should be using the term “universal culture” instead–i.e., the Southern Baptist is part of “the West” but rejects some significant portions of what we’re calling “Western culture.”

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      • Anonymous says:

        I think this means that cultural appropriation is really just upgrading something from being part of “[non-universal] culture” to “universal culture”.

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        • Decius says:

          And much like Windows 10, that upgrade might be an improvement but it should require permission to perform that upgrade for others.

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          • Anonymous says:

            That’s interesting. Are you saying that I can just choose to not provide permission for the various aspects of “Western culture” having been upgraded to “universal culture”? Is Caplan then right that those things are still Western culture just because he didn’t give permission for it to be universal culture?

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  2. Pku says:

    This is true in every case except with the cultures we consider our outgroups – in the US, white Southern fundamentalist Christian Republicans; in the UK, white rural working-class leave voters. In both cases, their ignorance is treated as worthy of mockery, their religion is treated as stupidity and failure to understand science, their poverty makes them “trailer trash”, their rejection of economic-growth-at-all-costs means they are too stupid to understand the stakes, and their desire to protect their obviously inferior culture makes them xenophobic and racist.

    I think the distinction here isn’t so much about outgroups as about groups that present a credible threat to our culture. Take haredim for example: When I think of them as a marginal group on the verge of extinction, I get worried and don’t want them to disappear. When I see them as a massively growing demographic who can take over our culture, I really, really want them to.

    Thinking about it, ingroup/outgroup corresponds remarkably well with who we view as threats to our culture (rather than to our personal safety): Americans on the right worry a lot more about transgender bathroom laws than terrorists, in proportion to the odds of actually being killed by them. But if you view it as a threat to their culture’s ability to survive, it all makes sense (Same goes for the left, with traditional christian values for example). The people most worried about immigration are the ones who see it as something that may change their culture.

    This actually solves something that’s been bugging me, which is how to predict who some group’s outgroup will be – just look for whoever is threatening to replace their culture.

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    • Scott Alexander says:

      This is an important point. I should make this into a separate post, but I think some of modern American politics is best explained by failing to see the other side as a threat anymore because our bubble makes them seem as distant and bizarre as ISIS or North Korea. I think this explains why so much of the interesting debate these days is within tribes, eg between Sanders-style leftists and Hillary-style neoliberals, or between Romney-style technocrats and Cruz-style Tea Partiers and Trump-style nationalists. Does this sound plausible to anybody?

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      • Mendicious Mildew Bug says:

        The other Tribe is still a threat, just not one that can be reasoned with. Their utility function is an inversion of our own. Why engage in policy debate with Thamiel?

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        • Aegeus says:

          There is a difference between “Disagrees over several policy positions that you value” and “Hates you and literally everything you stand for. Hates the fact that you are alive and happy and smiling and will do everything in their power to ruin everything you hold dear.” Politicians of the other tribe are the former, Thamiel is the latter, and it does nobody any good to say that the opposite tribe is literally the Devil.

          Actually, despite the incredible polarization this election, both campaigns have tried to reach across the aisle. Hillary’s campaign has been reaching out to moderate Republicans, telling them “Yeah, you don’t like me, but Trump really is that bad, so hold your nose and help me keep him out of office.” And on the flip side, Trump has been reaching out to Bernie-or-busters, saying “Yeah, I’m not progressive, but you want to give a giant middle finger to the establishment, and I’m the guy to do that.”

          There’s common ground between both sides. Not a lot of common ground, but you can find it if you don’t think your opponents are Satan Incarnate.

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          • Doug S. says:

            ISIS is as close to Thamiel as you’ll find anywhere in the world. They must be crushed utterly and without mercy.

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          • Nornagest says:

            There is a difference between “Disagrees over several policy positions that you value” and “Hates you and literally everything you stand for. Hates the fact that you are alive and happy and smiling and will do everything in their power to ruin everything you hold dear.”

            I agree, but I’m not sure my Facebook feed does.

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      • Blue says:

        What is the point of ideological superiority if it doesn’t give you power over someone you know.

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      • Garrett says:

        Part of this is due to political incentives, I think.
        There is next to 0 chance that in near-future a DPRK-like political group will gain electoral power. I’d guess that the likelihood of a North Korean military invasion and occupation is higher. In either case, there’s no point in getting worked up by it. Sure – some nutjobs on a soapbox or college campus might support something like this in a non-ironic fashion, but that doesn’t spell over into any political success.

        But there is a very credible chance that the leader of the other Major Party (D|R) will win. The numbers vary year to year, but are almost always over 40% each election. That’s not the kind of Evil you can ignore. You have to do everything in your power to win. And so getting the troops all wound up about how Evil is about to take over and all that is Good and True is about to be wiped out is a winning strategy.

        This is partly because it’s not just a matter of polling well, but of having your supporters actually show up and vote. It’s easy to choose going to a movie over voting if you don’t care strongly about the difference between candidates. So there’s a deep need to have your own supporters care greatly so that they will prefer voting over I Love Lucy reruns.

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    • hlynkacg says:

      This actually solves something that’s been bugging me, which is how to predict who some group’s outgroup will be – just look for whoever is threatening to replace their culture.

      That is an excellent point. I kind of wish I’d thought of it first.

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    • Dan Simon says:

      I think the “threat” here is to a group’s interests more generally, rather than to its survival. Black people and Jews don’t actually threaten white supremacists’ survival, but the latter want to harm the former anyway, because it removes an opponent and increases their power. (And likewise for SJWs and fundamentalist Christians, of course.) Conversely, white supremacists are eager to protect threatened Neo-Nazi culture, because doing so strengthens an ally with common enemies. (And again, likewise for SJWs and, say, trans culture.)

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      • alia D. says:

        To their survival no, but to their culture’s survival yes. If it’s part of their culture that blacks and whites are different ontological categories and that all whites are superior to all blacks, then anytime a white is seen interacting with a black as an equal the culture is threatened. There are stories from the south of social pressure being brought to bear on whites who were too friendly towards blacks, as well as the violence directed against blacks directly.

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    • Bleyde says:

      I think this makes perfect sense from my semi-universal culture stand point: We go from attempting to exterminate to protecting ‘unique and interesting’ things based on their perceived threat level. Goes the same for wolves, snakes, Native Americans, middle eastern cultures etc.

      We will debate the ethics of wiping mosquitoes off the planet until we decide it was unethical and that the mosquito preserve in Wisconsin should be protected.

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      • gbdub says:

        Well, eliminating mosquitoes bumped into our desire to preserve rare birds so we abandoned the project. But I think that fits into your framework.

        If Zika gets bad enough and bald eagles start killing everyone’s puppies, maybe we’ll switch back to the kill ’em all stance.

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    • Doug M. says:

      It’s not just about “threat to our culture”. In a democratic polity, groups that hold very different values can literally be a threat to me, personally. If you’re a young educated British person who dreamed of living and working in Europe, the Brexit voters may* just have screwed you over in a big way. If you’re a gay person in America who wants to get married, the Baptist voter is trying hard to keep you from exercising a fundamental human right. If you’re a conservative small business owner, the liberal / progressive voter is trying to put her hand in your pocket and seize your hard-earned money to spend on social programs that are wasteful at best and often actively destructive. Und so weiter.

      Protect Hopi culture? Sure, that’s not going to affect anyone who doesn’t live on the Hopi reservation (which is so isolated that it’s actually completely surrounded by the Navajo reservation). Protect Southern Baptist culture? Putting aside the question of whether a faith that claims over 15 million adherents in the US needs much protecting, you’re very quickly getting into a lot of Terry Schiavo and Kim Davis type situations where the question of “who is being protected from whom” becomes nontrivial.

      Doug M.

      *details of Brexit are still TBD, so who knows for sure? But it’s uncertain enough that you could reasonably be very annoyed.

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    • Doug M. says:

      A pretty straightforward example: the Haredim in Israel. When they were 2% – 3% of the population, they were basically pandas — cosseted, given special privileges, exempted from military service. Once they hit 10%, Israeli society collectively woke up and began to freak out.

      The military exemption was ended in 2014, but the debate over the role of Haredim is ongoing; about a quarter of all Israeli Jews under 20 are now Haredim, which means that even with defections they’ll be the single biggest bloc of Israeli Jews within a generation. “Protecting Haredim culture”, from the POV of many other Israelis, means allowing the Haredim to enjoy an increasingly expensive free ride on the Israeli welfare state.

      Doug M.

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    • Vaniver says:

      There’s actually huge historical evidence for this. Early Americans thought Indians were evil and should be stamped out, primarily because of the huge threat they represented; the more distant Indians became, in space and time, the more benign and noble they seemed.

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  3. “egalitarian gender norms”

    [Sprays coffee all over the monitor.] Are you joking? Western gender norms are “egalitarian”? Are we talking about the same world? In the Western world I live in,

    1. Alimony makes divorced men slaves to their ex-wives, but almost never vice versa.

    2. A divorcing woman is almost guaranteed custody of the kids just because she’s the mother.

    3. If an inebriated man and an inebriated woman have sex, the man, and only the man, is charged with rape.

    4. Americans are eager to discard the keystone of Western jurisprudence, the legal standard of “innocent until proven guilty”, when the accuser is a woman and the accused is a man.

    5. Media portrayals of women are far, far more positive than portrayals of men:

    5a. The majority of child abusers are women, but in the popular media female child abusers are nonexistent or nearly so; it’s always the courageous mother protecting the child from the monstrous father.

    5b. It is an unbreakable rule, as far as I can tell, that if an American TV series or movie portrays a competition between a likable man and a likable woman, the woman must win. (Every time I have tested this, my prediction that the woman will win has proven correct.)

    5c. Women are often hyper-competent and men are buffoons. Compare Marge and Lisa to Homer and Bart on the Simpsons. Compare the female office help in the original Ghostbusters movie (smart, practical, full of spunk) to the male office help in the new Ghostbusters movie (dumb blonde). Compare the super-awesome-amazing Rey in the newest Star Wars movie, who never makes a mistake and becomes a powerful Jedi without breaking a sweat, to Luke Skywalker of the original Star Wars, who struggles through two entire movies to develop into a Jedi, the second one of which could have been titled “Luke Screws Up.”

    What sort of “egalitarian” gender norms are these?

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    • Scott Alexander says:

      You know what I mean.

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      • Bugmaster says:

        Would you mind explaining, anyway ?

        As far as I understand, you meant something like, “our gender norms are more fair toward women than the gender norms of most other cultures”. Kevin S Van Horn agrees with you completely, but he argues that our gender norms are extremely unfair to men; perhaps as unfair to men as other cultures’ gender norms are unfair to women. Neither situation could reasonably be described as “egalitarian”.

        I personally don’t agree with the stronger interpretation of Kevin’s point, but I don’t think you can dismiss the weaker interpretation out of hand. I suppose that one way you could resolve the conflict is to say that our current cultural norms, while not perfect, are the best in the world; and that they will get even better once our culture is further assimilated by the Universal Culture. I’m not sure if this is the argument you’d make, though.

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        • Scott Alexander says:

          I’m using “egalitarian gender norms” as Caplan’s easily-understood term meaning the kind of gender norms we have now.

          It’s like how referring to “Great Britain” doesn’t necessarily pass a value judgment on whether Britain is really great or not.

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          • Bugmaster says:

            Doesn’t the term “egalitarian gender norms” just reduce to a tautology in this case ? You are essentially saying, “Things that worked – western medicine, Coca-Cola, [whatever gender norms we’ve got now], sushi – spread along the trade networks and started outcompeting things that didn’t.” However, in that paragraph you appear to be saying that Western medicine, Coca-Cola, and sushi — are objectively superior to their alternatives (due to e.g. human biology). Are gender norms the exception, or what ?

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          • Scott Alexander says:

            I’m not sure what’s tautological. Yes, assuming that we are in universal culture (which I think we are), then the gender norms we have now are the ones that spread best, and we can predict that Iran will be trying to keep them out, as opposed to us trying to keep out Iranian gender norms. I think that’s a real prediction and not a tautology.

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          • Bugmaster says:

            I suppose that’s fair, but still, it’s a little weird:

            If I understand your argument correctly, Coca-Cola outperforms yak’s milk because it is better suited to human biology.

            Western medicine outperforms maypole-dancing or whatever for the same reason (in addition, it is presumably more hostile to the non-human biologies of bacteria, viruses, and parasites).

            Presumably, you would say that Western engineering is better than Feng Shui (or prayer, etc.) because it conforms more accurately to physics.

            Western gender norms outperform other ones because, well, just because they do, or what ?

            My point is that in all other cases we can objectively compare a Western value to its alternatives (excites more taste receptors / kills more bacteria / has a lower chance of collapsing / etc.); but, in the case of gender norms, this does not appear to be possible. So, gender norms are the odd man out in this example (pun intended).

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          • null says:

            These gender norms are best suited to economics, obviously. The reason these norms got implemented was because more workers were needed.

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          • hlynkacg says:

            These gender norms are best suited to economics…

            But are they conducive to reproduction?

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          • Broggly says:

            No, it’s nightclubs that outperform maypoles.
            I mean, for one thing you can’t go maypole dancing in winter.

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          • Peter Akuleyev says:

            Egalitarian Gender norms are more conducive to the levels of reproduction needed in a modern technological society with extremely low levels of infant mortality, increasingly long life spans and intensive resource consumption by the individual members of that society.

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          • Oldman says:

            I think “Great Britain” isn’t really comparible – as there isn’t any substantial group that thinks “Great Britain” means “Fantastic Britain.” Whereas some people do think the west actually has egalitarian gender norms.

            (fun fact – Great Britain literally means “bigger than Brittany, part of France, whilst being much smaller than all of France – it’s a kinda awful name)

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          • hlynkacg says:

            @Peter Akuleyev

            I’m not convinced that is the case seeing as how a lot of “Western” nations are breeding at < replacement level.

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        • Wency says:

          Increasing rights for women would seem to be a common phenomenon across a number of advanced civilizations late in their existence — not just ours (see Abbasids, Romans).

          Restricting the rights of women is “high entropy”, to use Scott’s term, at least in advanced societies. From that standpoint, it’s perfectly reasonable to consider it part of the universal culture. It might qualify as low entropy in less advanced societies. The sexes start to have more equal status as soon as a man is able to go through his entire life without using his upper body strength to kill a single man or large animal. In the modern case, it accelerated once male upper body strength lost most of its market value and birth control gave women control over their fertility.

          At some point, some proportion of sufficiently high-status/power men are motivated to defect from the status quo and grant rights to women. Once this process begins, it appears that societies have no means of stopping it, short of something like the Iranian Revolution — both extreme and, at most, a high-entropy pause button. Even in real-world circles where outright feminist proclamations are gauche, calls for men’s rights/patriarchy are even more gauche. Thus, women will at least lose no rights and at most continue to periodically achieve incremental gains in political rights and status.

          In time, the fertility of such societies tends to drop, and the population finds itself replaced by more fecund peoples, who generally have much less enlightened views about the role of women. In their more violent and less urban culture, men have higher status as providers and protectors. The cycle begins anew.

          You can roughly visualize the spread of the universal culture by looking at the decline of fertility rates across nations, though some of the lowest fertility rates seem to be in places where the universal culture has much more influence over singles than married couples and families, e.g. northeast Asia.

          Of course, the universal culture’s hope today would seem to be that this time, the more violent and fecund peoples will assimilate to its feminist values, given the culture’s unprecedented assimilative powers. On the other hand, matters of sex and fertility are more fundamental than matters of beverage preference — there is memetic and genetic selection for a people who can outbreed the universalists and resist their culture’s call.

          Today, nearly all societies are experiencing a drop in fertility, so it is entirely plausible (though uncertain) that the current generation of threats are no match for the universal culture. But Gnon/Moloch will keep searching.

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          • SUT says:

            Great comment. But the reason “this time is different”:

            1. the technology, not manpower becoming the major determinant in war, epitomized by nukes.

            2. increasing returns on raising a “blue ribbon” child e.g. Chelsea Clinton vs ten “breeders”.

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      • Alphaceph says:

        Probably best to not call them “egalitarian” if they clearly aren’t. Feminist gender norms would be accurate, and everyone would understand what you meant.

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      • Kyle Strand says:

        I was actually confused by the idea (in both the quoted section of Caplan’s post and in your response) of “Western (universal) gender norms” even before you classified them as “egalitarian”. I don’t think we *have* consistent gender norms in “universal” culture yet; in fact, I think that’s one of the most actively-evolving parts of modern “western/universal” culture.

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    • Mendicious Mildew Bug says:

      Even if I take all those claims at face value, the society you described is still egalitarian as fuck on a historical scale. Consider:

      •Both men and women are permitted to own property
      •Both men and women are free from slavery, they cannot be owned as property
      •Both men and women are free from being ritually murdered because their spouse died (or for some other stupid reason)
      •Both men and women are legally protected from being raped, even by their spouses
      •Both men and women can participate in politics
      •Both men and women are allowed to fill just about any professional role, although both genders occasionally encounter difficulty in certain roles

      When you put the West/”Universal Culture” on a spectrum with these things it looks pretty egalitarian, no matter which side of the culture war you fall on.

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      • Bugmaster says:

        I disagreed with Scott above, but I would like to point out that I agree with you, here. “Best gender norms currently on the planet” is not the same thing as “Best gender norms possible, period”.

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      • Anonymous says:

        Both men and women are legally protected from being raped, even by their spouses

        A protection which few are willing to exercise. Women’s reports of rape are often met with slut-shaming and suspicion, which is bad enough. But men’s reports of rape are a punchline. Not a shining example of egalitarianism here.

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      • Most of those equalities would apply to traditional Islamic culture, mutatis mutandis. Both men and women could be slaves. It isn’t clear what “participate in politics” means in that culture, but Aiesha played a sizable role in intra-Islamic conflict after Mohammed’s death, including leading an army. I don’t think women could be judges, not sure about muftis, but they could be legal scholars. Women warriors rare but not non-existent.

        Women were obliged to have intercourse with their husbands unless there was some good reason not to, but there was a similar, although weaker, requirement on the husband. And, of course, women had essentially the same obligation in western culture until quite recently, with marriage counting as consent.

        Islam happens to be the traditional society I’ve been most recently studying.

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    • Earthly Knight says:

      3. If an inebriated man and an inebriated woman have sex, the man, and only the man, is charged with rape.

      This may be true in kangaroo courts on college campuses,* but it’s not out in the real world. Three reasons why: (1) many states require that the alleged victim must be incapacitated for the encounter to qualify as rape, (2) few drunken encounters are reported as rapes to police in the first place, (3) prosecutors are generally reluctant to bring charges where the alleged victim was drinking heavily because they know they are likely to lose before a jury.

      *Probably not, actually, but if you modify the consequent to read “if either party is charged with rape, it is almost invariably the man” it might be.

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    • Bleyde says:

      I think that this is confusing ‘Universal Culture Egalitarian Gender Norms’ with what goes in the western worlds very liberal left.

      While this group/culture may be enabled by the move towards universal culture, I don’t think that they are actually representative of it. You’ll note that they (self sometimes included) are often up in arms about various trade agreements, working conditions in the developing world, lack of respect for environment etc. that is associated with globalization and western culture.

      If universal culture is being defined as ‘what survives best given the current conditions’ then it is not ‘liberal western’ culture but something else. Look outside college campuses at the world inhabited by multinational corporations for a better idea.

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    • antimule says:

      1, 2 might be true (although some argue that men just aren’t as interested in keeping kids) 3, 4 are mostly confined to college kangaroo courts and 5 are signaling games of Hollywood and the far left. Although I find all of those unjust, they are not a big deal when considering the big picture.

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    • Nestor says:

      Kevin> When I was a kid I used to think it was unfair how cats always lost to mice in cartoons. Then I saw a cat hunt a mouse in real life.

      As for the point of the main post, I’ve argued on a few occasions with people who think westernizing and educating a hunter gatherer child would be a terrible crime, but who would flip their lids about an unschooled child living in a slum. It’s a weird cognitive dissonance.

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  4. Jiro says:

    An American was the first person to discover that this combination tasted really good – our technological/economic head start ensured that. But in a world where America never existed, eventually some Japanese or Arabian chemist would have found that sugar-filled fizzy drinks were really tasty. It was a discovery waiting to be plucked out of the void, like penicillin. America summoned it but did not create it. If western medicine is just medicine that works, Coca-Cola is just refreshment that works.

    By this reasoning, sushi isn’t Japanese, since fish, rice, vinegar, and seaweed are found all over the world and if there was no Japan sooner or later someone would have put them together. It just happens that someone in Japan first did so. And let’s not talk about pizza as Italian food (tomatoes originated in the Americas, and dough and cheese are found everywhere).

    You seem to be using the term “refreshment that works” to mean two different things. First you are using it to mean “doing these steps produces the refreshment when done by anyone regardless of culture”. But then you are comparing it to medicine that works. Medicine that works is medicine that satisfies the goal of having medicine the best regardless of culture. Coca-Cola isn’t refreshment that works in that sense. (It might satisfy people’s tastes the best, but that’s a contingent fact; tastes do not have to be what they are now. The fact that particular medical procedures work for everyone is a necessary fact, given human biology.)

    Also, I don’t believe for one moment that Coca-Cola drove out yak’s milk because it tastes better. Coca-Cola drove out yak’s milk because a product backed by lots of advertising and sold by a company that is so big that it has huge economies of scale will sell better than one which doesn’t. In some alternate reality, yak’s milk could have spread around the world instead of Coca-Cola; it’s not inherently weirder than eating raw fish on sushi. And in that world, people would swear that yak’s milk tastes better than other drinks. Of course, if you assume that you are immune to cultural influences, advertising, and any other mental influence outside your head, you may assume that because you find fermented yak’s milk disgusting now, it is inherently disgusting. (I find this assumption to be a common fallacy by rationalists.)

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    • Scott Alexander says:

      I think I’m claiming that Coca-Cola tastes good for biological reasons.

      I agree that if you go back long enough by this argument nothing can be considered part of a culture. But I think that things that have been associated with one region for time immemorial and spread for reasons local to that region are how we define “culture”, and that western medicine is interestingly different than that.

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      • Jiro says:

        But I think that things that have been associated with one region for time immemorial and spread for reasons local to that region are how we define “culture”

        Many things associated with cultures have been associated with them since some time much less than time immemorial. If Coca-Cola is ineligible as culture for only having been around for 130 years, then we don’t have to worry about American culture displacing other cultures, because there isn’t any American culture.

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        • Kyle Strand says:

          … we don’t have to worry about American culture displacing other cultures, because there isn’t any American culture.

          That’s, er, the entire point of Scott’s response to Caplan (the first two sections of the post).

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      • Beige says:

        Coca-Cola is certainly *sufficiently* tasty to reach fixation as a part of universal culture, but it also enjoys a sort of founder effect, given that it was one of the first of its kind to the game, and that it has always had skilled marketers, cheap distribution, etc. that allows it to install itself as a fixture more powerful than, say, Pepsi. I mean, it would be a little overconfident to say Coke is more popular than Pepsi for purely biological reasons, right? But its dominance continues.

        This same logic helps explain why some people seem so unavoidably, consistently convinced that “Western medicine” is a scam perpetrated by expensive Western doctors. Western medicine certainly has many of the same hallmarks of an all-powerful capitalist brand that has cleared the market and rewritten the rules to its advantage: wide adoption, mainstream assumed acceptance, “everyone” assumes it’s well worth the money, etc. Unfortunately, this logic is sound for soda, but can get you killed for medicine. (Making good decisions is hard, it seems.)

        I thought “science thinks that Coke is the tastiest drink” was a weak point here (though I assume it was at least a little exaggeration for effect), but the rest is really excellent, and I think your points on the dominance of “universal culture” social norms (as opposed to the specific products that have reached fixation) was particularly spot-on. You always know how to bring up the hard questions, Scott!

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        • Scott Alexander says:

          Yeah, sorry, I should have clarified that by “Coca-Cola” I meant sugary sodas in general. I can totally see something more like 7-Up or A&W taking that position in an alternate world.

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          • Peter Akuleyev says:

            But is there a world where Moxie would have taken that position? Probably not…

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          • Jiro says:

            I meant sugary sodas in general.

            I don’t think this helps support your original point. As you note:

            People who complain about western culture taking over their country always manage to bring up Coca-Cola

            Those same people don’t, to the same extent, bring up the whole category of sugary drinks. So saying “sugary drinks aren’t Western culture, they’re universal” doesn’t refute them. You may have meant sugary drinks in general, but they didn’t!

            Furthermore, if your point is about sugary drinks and not specifically about Coca-Cola, variations within the sugary drink category count as elements of culture. It’s not cultural that we eat bread instead of rocks, but French bread or Italian bread are still cultural. Likewise, variations within the sugary drink category are cultural, and Coca-Cola is an example of Western culture taking over in the same way that everyone eating French bread would be French culture taking over (even though both sugary drinks and bread are universal).

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          • onyomi says:

            I can also imagine a world in which Arabs invent sugary, fizzy soda first, and everyone around the world drinks a sugary soda that tastes like mint and pomegranate, with a gold-colored can covered in Arabic calligraphy, partially to signal how “hip” they are by associating with the culture which first figured out how to be hip.

            Also, the teenagers drinking “Jellab-cola” start wearing colorful thawb, watching Arabic-language film, and listening to electric oud music, because they want to be hip like the people who invented sugary, fizzy soda in an awesome-looking can.

            Related, to what extent is Western clothing “winning” around the world because it’s “universal” and to what extent are, e. g. the Japanese businessman just adopting a particular form of dress because of its association with modernity, industrialization, etc.? I’m not sure a suit is inherently superior to a kimono in any way, and also not sure white people wouldn’t now be wearing kimono if the Japanese had invented capitalism.

            Put another way, I think agree with the general thesis, but feel like you may be underestimating founder effects and the wide range of potential “flavors” and priorities most innovations could take on as a result.

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          • “I can also imagine a world in which Arabs invent sugary, fizzy soda first, and everyone around the world drinks a sugary soda that tastes like mint and pomegranate”

            Sekanjabin. Mint, vinegar, no fizz. But it’s been becoming increasingly popular in the SCA over the years.

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      • Tibor says:

        Are you sure the claim that Coca-Cola is replacing yak’s milk is even correct? I think that cuisine is a particularly bad way to illustrate the spread of the universalist culture. Sure, you can get sushi and coca cola in France but still you have distinct local cuisine and most people eat mostly the local French cuisine because they were raised eating that and people tend to like the food they eat rather than eat the food they like. The universalist culture seems to be too weak to replace French, German, Spanish, Chinese or Peruvian cuisine, it is a complement rather than a substitute of the local cuisine. In most countries, cuisine is not regulated by law, there is no repression, still you don’t see eveyone eating sushi and drinking Coca Cola (in the sense of having a homogeneous “universal” cuisine across countries). In Europe, part of it might be the view of everything “American” as somehow “inferiour” (hamburgers and soft drinks especially, at least the soft drinks that come from America) and is partially frowned upon so that might explain it but I still think that people keep eating their local cuisine not because of social pressure but because they genuinely like to do so. And they do because they were brought up eating it.

        Incidentally, this might be true more generally than just in cuisine. The Amish are raised in a certain way and get to like a certain way of life which is why they often stay in Amish communities even though they have a choice not to. The same goes for everyone else. And while in some areas exposure to alternatives might make the local society drift one way, in others it does not. Cuisine seems to be very resistant to universalism, probably because I am rather skeptical about there being refreshments that work and those that don’t, at least not in as strong a sense as there is a medicine that works and medicine that does not.

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        • Decius says:

          Coca Cola, sushi, haggis, and chocolate each penetrate into universal culture to different degrees. Much like Darwinian fitness doesn’t always care about cardiovascular endurance, universal culture doesn’t always care about what a naive view would call “quality”. Coca Cola and sushi are “fitter” than haggis but not fitter than local cuisine in the same way that the coelacanth is fitter than the passenger pigeon but not fitter than the crocodile.

          The spread of something in universal culture is the measure of how fit it is, and that can be based on many things including marketing budget, early adopter advantage, and government intervention.

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      • Peter says:

        Coca-cola: I’m reminded of beer. Let’s the view from Britain.

        There’s what I call “megabrew lager” – a fairly consistent product that’s pretty similar the world over. There are your Czech lagers which are sort-of like the original from which megabrew lager was derived, the sort that beer snobs would be seen dead drinking (unlike most megabrew lagers which are an embarrassment). There’s CAMRA-approved Real Ale, pretty much a British phenomenon, the true drink of the beer snob, and the related “craft beer” thing which leads people to say “wow, the Americans can actually brew beer these days” and for British brewers to be producing some brews they’ll proudly promote as being “American style” or with American hops. There are weird foreign speciality beers that come mainly from Belgium.

        Now, for me, a proper pint of Real Ale when I’m in the mood for it is a great thing. But it’s not exactly “easy drinking” – you have to be used to the taste. It’s not so consistent, it’s hard to keep properly, not everyone who serves it knows how to make sure it tastes nice. The weird Belgian beers are even further from being easy drinking. Megabrew lager is easier drinking.

        Megabrew lager is well-adapted to it’s niche, and requires no effort to support. Real Ale – well, the fact that there was and is a campaign for it says it does need a little support, but it’s a fantastically successful campaign, so that says something about it as well. It fits in a different niche, with different conditions, different relationships to commercial conditions.

        So I guess coca-cola is the soft drink equivalent of megabrew lager – well-fitted to its niche, the niche expands across the globe but doesn’t completely push out other things that fit into different niches.

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        • Tibor says:

          That’s a good comparison. In Germany probably the most “popular” beer is Beck’s but that’s cause it’s relatively cheap, the taste is not very strong (but I personally find it quite tasteless) and so it is bought by students for parties and such. But you could hardly say that Beck’s is better than other beers or even that it pushes the other beers away, it is just a mass product the same way Hollywood romantic comedies or Britney Spears (or whoever is the current most popular pop singer) are. That is not to say that they are bad. They are good for people who have no particular interest in films or music or when you just want something simple and easy. The same goes for Coke. It is sugary and tasty in a rather boring way. It will never replace all other drinks (even if we exclude plain water) or even other soft drinks, but it is sort of the averaged out beverage, as Beck’s is an averaged out beer (and similar brands in other countries, Czechs call these kinds of beers “eurobeer”, which I think is quite a good term – it illustrates the mediocrity which is their essential property).

          One argument against universalist culture can then be exactly that it tends to produce things that are necessarily mediocre, because mediocre things tend to have mass appeal. It is actually an argument popular in the “cultural left”. They oppose Hollywood because Hollywood produces films aimed at the biggest audience possible and so Hollywood films are often predictable. They oppose pop music for the same reasons. And the same goes for preserving weird foreign cultures even if they are backward and anti-progressive. I do not really agree with that argument, especially since I don’t think that the fact that someone is interested in music and therefore quickly finds pop music to be repetitive and predictable should force people who only listen to music casually (and therefore don’t get tired by the mediocre stuff) to subsidize the “high art” or that the mediocre stuff should somehow be restricted. And the same goes for soft drinks, beer or whatever. But I can understand those people on an emotional level and if I thought that the mediocrity is eventually going to engulf everything (so to caricature a bit, eventually everyone eats only at McDonald’s, drinks Coca Cola, watches romantic comedies and listens to Britney Spears), it would be hard for me not to support them. However, I think that this is not the case as it is not with the beer.

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          • gbdub says:

            The movie example is interesting given Hollywood’s recent propensity to make action blockbusters China-friendly (e.g. all the China fanservice in the last Independence Day movie) because they do better universally, even though Americans might like them somewhat less (e.g. apparently Ant-Man did relatively poorly overseas despite good American reviews because the ironic humor and Paul Rudd don’t translate well).

            So in that case the “Western” film culture is in a sense being subsumed by a Universal culture that’s more accessible to Chinese people.

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        • Tibor says:

          By the way by Czech lagers you probably mean Pils type of beer (don’t you?) – which comes from Pilsen (the capital of West Bohemia) and the original is still brewed there under the name Pilsner Urquell (Urquell literally means original source in German). The beer was actually first made by a brewer from Bavaria – Josef Groll, whom the Pilsen city council hired to create a better beer for the city since there was a lot of unrest (not quite riots but not so far from it) because of the bad beer quality in Pilsen back then.

          Unfortunately, in the city where I study in Germany, the only Czech beer I’ve seen in a pub on tap is Staropramen for some reason. That surprised me because I never considered it a very good beer and Pilsner Urquell is a lot more famous. One can still buy it in bottles in a supermarket but that does not taste the same. And I am not so fond of most German Pils beers. So in Germany, I mostly drink Weißbier, which the Germans Bavarians ( 😛 ) make really well. Or Kellerbier, that’s also good.

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          • Peter says:

            Yeah, Pilsner. The Czechs certainly have other styles – some dark beers for instance, and when I was in Prague they had this odd thing where they mixed light and dark together. Pilsner Urquell does seem to be the one with the top reputation (and is utterly ubiquitous in Prague) but oddly enough I seem to prefer Staropramen; each to their own I suppose.

            Becks is indeed as you describe; I’ll drink it if there’s nothing else on, back when I was at the university and the chemistry department had some catered event that’s the beer they’d provide. Germany, I suppose, is another place with lots of interesting beers (mmm, Weißbier) but Becks could be from anywhere.

            Apparently another place for lots of interesting styles of beer is Lithuania, or so the internet tells me. Apparently they only export eurobeer but the local styles are said to be very interesting and not something you can find anywhere else.

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  5. Daniel says:

    I think there are two things going on here by the defenders:
    1) Some (many?) societal evolutions that develop are bad, so just because something gets adapted into universal culture, doesn’t mean it’s likely to make things better. It’s easy to make claims for things with clear evidence of their greatness like Coke and Sushi, but political-economic systems are far more complicated. Also, Moloch. So I think people are defending against aspects of “universal culture” that they think aren’t conducive for success.

    2) Many (not all) people want to surrounded by those who are similar to them, look the same, act the same, eat the same etc. They see this evolution as detrimental to their interests, regardless if it is more optimized for future success.

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  6. Sam says:

    Hi Scott, I’m in early this time! Time to squander that advantage by writing too many words.

    I have two major comments on this, and they’re not so much disagreements as agreements with caveats.

    First, I think you under-play the effect of path-dependence on the specific form of the ‘universal culture’. If the Industrial Revolution had kicked off in 11th-century Baghdad instead of 18th-century Birminchester, it’s likely that the resulting ‘universal culture’ would be recognisable, but quite different: different kin structures (the atomic family is very atypical, historically); different perspective on the calendar; different relation of church and state; maybe a totally different commercial environment, without corporate personality. This comment box isn’t big enough for the conworlding required to shake out what the gender norms could end up being, but I don’t believe that you’re right in writing that ours are the gender norms that work in industrial societies.

    Two: even the Noahide solution doesn’t really help without some kind of enforcement mechanism. Amish youths might not settle down in the big cities, but they’re atypical in that. Taking language as a proxy for culture, extermination of speaker communities is a (comparatively) rare event; what actually drives young people to speaking the locally dominant language more and more is that it’s how shit gets done (more access to more people means more and better opportunities means a (hopefully) better life), rather than their traditional language which has much less practical utility. Now, in the universal-versus-traditional culture case, this is confounded by the universal culture also bringing plumbing and healthcare and abundant food, so the playing field is hardly fair—but that’s the point, isn’t it, I suspect?

    (Why yes, I did just read The World Until Yesterday the other month—how could you tell?)

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    • hypnosifl says:

      “If the Industrial Revolution had kicked off in 11th-century Baghdad instead of 18th-century Birminchester”

      In my mind, restricting it to an industrial revolution is probably too narrow–to really get a “universalist” culture that parallels our own despite its different origins I think you have to imagine some other culture having a full scientific revolution and developing similar ideas about a material universe governed by mathematical laws, since I think a culture that manages to do that will likely also be one where there’s a significant contingent of intellectuals questioning previous traditional beliefs and trying to come up with a new rationalistic foundation for philosophical thought along with science. Probably such thinkers would tend to come up with ideas like humans-as-material-systems, some form of consequentialist morality, etc. (and of course assuming this culture also has a Darwin, the intellectuals of this culture will probably do a lot of serious reckoning with the philosophical implications of that as well). And I would also imagine that the new interest in rational reevaluation of tradition would be coupled to more attempts to understand their own history in objective terms, less in terms of grand spiritual destinies or cycles, and not necessarily trusting founding myths even if they had been central to the culture’s conception of itself, along with more interest in comparative studies of other cultures that don’t just denigrate them or view them as barbarians.

      So assuming that all this kicked off in Baghdad and spread to the wider middle eastern world, I don’t think the middle east would be likely to have the same sort of wide acceptance of blending church and state that they do in our reality, and likewise a lot of other “core” ethical and philosophical views would probably be closer to those that developed in Western culture in our reality (other issues like kin structure might be different as you said but these seem a lot less important to me, I could easily imagine those changing in the West a century from now without really changing the broader culture outside of family life too much).

      Also, what do you mean by “corporate personality”? Are you talking about something like what’s discussed on the wikipedia page, dealing with issues like collective vs. individual responsibility, or are you referring to something more like the “corporations are people” legal fiction, as suggested by your preceding comment about the “commercial environment”?

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      • Vaniver says:

        In my mind, restricting it to an industrial revolution is probably too narrow–to really get a “universalist” culture that parallels our own despite its different origins I think you have to imagine some other culture having a full scientific revolution and developing similar ideas about a material universe governed by mathematical laws, since I think a culture that manages to do that will likely also be one where there’s a significant contingent of intellectuals questioning previous traditional beliefs and trying to come up with a new rationalistic foundation for philosophical thought along with science

        Sure, but that just means the Mu’tazila school would have had to win, Ibn Rushd would be a major figure in intellectual history, and so on.

        You can see the precursors of reason and universalism in many cultures, but how close they get is highly variable. Medieval Islam is actually one of the stronger contenders.

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        • Chrysophylax says:

          The Industrial Revolution probably couldn’t have started in 11th century Baghdad, even given a Mu’tazila victory. The standard economic analysis of the IR has the British Agricultrual Revolution as a significant factor. Greatly increased agricultural productivity produced surplus labour and so permitted industrialisation. (Baghdad might have acquired the necessary labour some other way, of course. 11th century agricultural practices in the Arabian Peninsula are not my field of expertise.)

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    • TrivialGravitas says:

      First, I think you under-play the effect of path-dependence on the specific form of the ‘universal culture’. If the Industrial Revolution had kicked off in 11th-century Baghdad instead of 18th-century Birminchester, it’s likely that the resulting ‘universal culture’ would be recognisable, but quite different: different kin structures (the atomic family is very atypical, historically); different perspective on the calendar; different relation of church and state; maybe a totally different commercial environment, without corporate personality. This comment box isn’t big enough for the conworlding required to shake out what the gender norms could end up being, but I don’t believe that you’re right in writing that ours are the gender norms that work in industrial societies.

      I could maybe stretch things to claim that corporations are western in nature if I knew anything at all about non European analogs to early European corporations, but every other item on your list is entirely modern (I mean, you point out yourself the nuclear family is atypical historically, did you think the west was somehow an exception?). That’s exactly what Scott is talking about when he says universal culture is wearing western culture’s skin. Only (maybe, again I really don’t have the background outside European history) democracy and corporations are things that western culture is spreading/has spread around the globe and are actually traditionally western.

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  7. Ada says:

    I have no idea where you got the idea that coke won the drinks wars because it was, quote, “more refreshing”.

    Coke is dirt cheap to make. It costs fractions of a penny per bottle.

    Apple cider is not. Neither is yak’s milk.

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    • Dormin111 says:

      Water is even dirt cheaper than Coke, and probably more empirically refreshing at that.

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      • Wrong Species says:

        If we have three variables, cost, taste and refreshness, then maybe coke is the one that maximizes the function.

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        • Civilis says:

          This is a good point, though I wonder about qualifying ‘refreshness’. I know what you mean when you say it, but something doesn’t sit right when I try to separate it from taste. There’s a noticeable difference between bottled and tap water, which isn’t exactly ‘taste’, that has to relate to why bottled water is so much more expensive than soda, which is water + stuff and should thus be more expensive.

          I usually look at food and beverage choices as tradeoffs between quality, taste, and cost. Fast food frequently maximizes the function, as it has an acceptable quality that meets consistent minimums, tastes adequate, and has a low cost in money and time to acquire. A full restaurant has higher quality (averaged over a greater range of possible qualities; bad restaurant food can be much worse than bad fast food from a recognizable chain, at least in this area), tastes better, but is more expensive in terms of money and time.

          Soda is the same way, in many respects. It’s of a quality that is consistently better than average tap water, tastes fine, and is cheap in terms of money and time to acquire. Bottled water is of higher quality, tastes better (or is more refreshing, at least), but is generally more expensive for a given quantity.

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    • fasdfasdfa says:

      more refreshing per dollar then?

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    • Civilis says:

      To what degree is Coca-Cola dirt cheap to make because of economies of scale? If yak milk or apple cider were really that much better tasting, wouldn’t it be cheaper because there would be a massive incentive to have more yaks and apple trees?

      True, there is only so much that can be accomplished by modern economic processes. I don’t know if we could get juice down to the price per volume of soda. Still, the claim that soda is horrible tasting and we only drink it because it is cheap doesn’t pass the laugh test. Soda had to come from somewhere. It’s only because it is popular that the processes that produce it have been set up to make it as cheap as it is.

      There are exceptions. We can take a look at how tonic water evolved from something that started as a medical prophylactic and evolved into an acquired taste to find a case where people started drinking something and had to find a way to make it palatable.

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      • Kyle Strand says:

        No one is claiming that soda “tastes horrible”, and soda is *particularly suited* to economies of scale in a way that Yak’s milk, apple cider, etc are not.

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        • Dormin111 says:

          Why is soda particularly suited to economies of scale? To Civilis’s point, Coke used to be made from an extremely valuable plant grown in a small climate in one part of the world. Due to massive demand, soda technology has innovated to the point where it can be made out of corn, an extremely abundant crop which is artificially plentiful due to scientific progress, market forces, and non-market forces (is. government subsidies). I don’t know of an apriori reason why apple cider or yak milk couldn’t undergo the same process if there was sufficient demand.

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      • Jiro says:

        There’s a huge grey area where something has to have a certain level of low price to take over, and a certain level of appeal to taste, and a certain level of advertising, and a certain level of fitting in with the existing culture, and a certain level of military dominance, etc. None of these are a single deciding factor. Something that tasted worse might succeed with a little more advertising, and something that had a little less advertising might succeed if it fit the existing culture more, etc.

        Juice probably couldn’t be reduced to the price of soda. But beef can’t be reduced to the price of rice and tofu, yet McDonalds is doing pretty well at taking over. Beef is not optimal with respect to price, or cultural reasons (consider Hindus), but it’s not so bad that it can’t take over if the other factors are sufficient.

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  8. hlynkacg says:

    I am reminded of your bit in In Favor of Niceness Community and Civilization about how a certain level of preexisting liberalism is required in order for “super charged liberalism” to work. If you refuse to enforce social norms, you shouldn’t be surprised (or complain) when those norms get violated.

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  9. Tom Hunt says:

    I have to take issue with the claim that the Western/”universal” (mostly, just “progressive”) culture you describe is simply the Obvious Thing that will take over everything with no help at all. It’s had a lot of help; millions have died in the fights over, basically, whether Universal Culture will take over this place or that place. Japan would not be “Westernized” if they had won WWII. (I suppose you could argue that universal culture somehow imbues its carriers with superior military abilities. But this doesn’t hold up historically; the Germans were better at fighting than most anyone else in either war. Pretty clearly the result of the 20th-century conflicts was due to the US and its privileged geographic position.)

    Just to give one example, there’s enormous effort on the part of the US-influenced media/academic class within, say, Japan to enforce the modern “egalitarian” gender roles. It requires barely less continuing effort in the US itself. The perpetuation of this supposedly universal high-entropy state requires the enormous ongoing efforts of a huge power structure which, for instance, drags men to mandatory sexual-harrassment awareness training. (And imposes child support payments based on an imputed income, and constantly propagandizes everyone with the notion that egalitarian gender roles are the only possible arrangement and any hint of inequality is evil, and…) If this support were pulled away and things left to assume their actual equilibrium state, how likely is it that we would just naturally achieve the totally equal paradise that feminists have spent the last six decades constantly striving for?

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    • Scott Alexander says:

      Japan was somewhat westernized before WWII in the form of the Meiji Restoration. Vietnam won the Vietnam War and still ended up pretty westernized. I agree things could have gone differently, but I don’t see Japan reverting to Tokugawa-levels of cultural uniqueness.

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      • Tom Hunt says:

        Yes, but Meiji only happened because the US showed up and went all black ships. And then it used the opportunity provided by a temporary technological advantage (which one could argue is actually universal) to impose its incidental culture on Japan in a big way (trade agreements and so on). This isn’t a case of Japan just naturally conforming to the universal equilibrium.

        Again: You can’t argue that modern progressive norms are a real universal equilibrium state that everyone will fall into naturally if left to their own devices. The only reason they dominate as of the end of the twentieth century is because their holders imposed them on everyone else using massive amounts of force. The Left is constantly in a self-imposed state of emergency devoting all its efforts to preventing anyone from deviating from progressive norms. And all this effort is still beginning to fail, because progressivism is not actually an equilibrium state; it’s massively unstable, and the coalition that forced it on the world during the twentieth century has run out of energy to keep it together.

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        • Scott Alexander says:

          I agree that the Aborigines went 50,000 years without adapting Western norms, given that they were never exposed to them. And I agree that if Japan had remained perfectly isolated, it would have escaped Western norms – that’s what I was saying about how enough censorship can successfully avoid Westernization.

          But Tokugawa started the isolation policy because western ideas and products were already starting to infiltrate Japan before it was instituted.

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          • Tom Hunt says:

            You’re equivocating between Western technologies, which are plausibly universal and do indeed require censorship to keep down, and progressive social norms, which only achieve universality by force. (It seems like a big component of the reason Tokugawa imposed the sakoku policy was to keep something like a monopoly on access to Western weapons, which had been instrumental in winning the wars of unification. The other reason was to freeze out Christianity, which was seen as disruptive. And now, of course, Western technology is everywhere in Japan, but Christianity is still a rarity.)

            You can talk about guns and industrialization and say these are plausibly universal. But modern egalitarian gender norms are a product of progressive ideology, and saying that they’re a universal equilibrium state which everyone will inevitably fall into is just ideological triumphalism, as well as being very counter to observable reality.

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          • Dan Simon says:

            I disagree. Modern egalitarian gender norms have been thoroughly and voluntarily embraced even by the majority of society that does not embrace progressive ideology. Indeed, it’s a sign of how completely they’ve been embraced that progressive ideologues now have to resort to demanding gender-neutral bathrooms if they want to feel all progressive and ideological.

            I believe the main drivers of this trend are not ideology, but rather prosperity and technology, which have greatly narrowed the practical economic differences between men and women–most importantly, their ability to perform economically valuable work. Thus economically empowered, women have used their newfound power to throw off the constraints on their behavior traditionally imposed by more powerful men. The same forces are at work in prosperous non-Western countries such as Japan, and even in more modestly modernizing countries where women have made proportionally smaller strides towards equality.

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          • Tom Hunt says:

            The reason modern gender norms have been so widely embraced is because 1. an ideologically progressive legal system provides the environment in which it is sustainable, e.g. easy divorce and child support laws, and 2. an ideologically progressive information apparatus constantly pushes the notion that those gender norms are the only moral way of living and anyone who wants to follow traditional forms is a loser.

            The idea that women can only now do productive work is quite silly. Go back and tell a farmer’s wife from 1800, or 1600, or 1200 that what she’s doing isn’t “productive work”. For that matter, tell that to a modern woman who remains at home raising children rather than having a separate career. In fact, the ability of women to work for salaries outside the home in the manner typical of men is another unstable and unnatural situation imposed by a progressive power structure; see the massive edifice of anti-discrimination laws and sexual harassment regulations and so on. This isn’t a product of advancing technology, it’s ideological pure and simple.

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          • Bassicallyboss says:

            Tom Hunt:

            In fact, the ability of women to work for salaries outside the home in the manner typical of men is another unstable and unnatural situation imposed by a progressive power structure; see the massive edifice of anti-discrimination laws and sexual harassment regulations and so on.

            I agree with a lot of your points, but this seems to be somewhat far-fetched. Working for a salary outside the home typically results in more choice of work and a greater income. If these are larger benefits than those offered by working at home (increased free time, greater sense of place, more time with the children), people will continue to choose them. As long as companies find it advantageous to have a greater pool of potential workers, they will continue to run sexual harassment classes and whatever else is necessary (within reason and at expense not exceeding their gain) to allow it to happen.

            I think it’s fair to say that many aspects of present gender norms are subject to change over time. Perhaps that will include the types of jobs available to men vs women. But preventing women from working outside the home at all seems like a pretty clear case of restricting economic gain to preserve aspects of culture, which is pretty clearly the kind of tradeoff that Scott was talking about.

            This is true even if having women work outside the home results in less utility (perhaps due to hard-to-measure intangibles like happiness or job satisfaction), though I admit I don’t believe that to be the case. In that case, it would be just Moloch making things worse, rather than universalism making things “better.”

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          • Anonymous says:

            Tom Hunt articulates clearly something that Scott would prefer not to see. Prediction: Tom Hunt is banned from the comment section within a month – ironically, this actually provides evidence for his argument in this thread.

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          • Anon. says:

            For that matter, tell that to a modern woman who remains at home raising children rather than having a separate career.

            She would disagree, but she would be wrong. The numbers on the issue are quite clear: parenting doesn’t matter.

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          • Anonymous says:

            She would disagree, but she would be wrong. The numbers on the issue are quite clear: parenting doesn’t matter.

            OTOH, it does appear to matter that you *do* have a relatively normal upbringing – and that you are not raised by a single mother. Beyond the binary of receiving biparental parenting or not, it does not seem to matter that much, no.

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          • Peter Akuleyev says:

            I think Tom Hunt is in denial. The empirical evidence seems pretty obvious – every country that industrializes sees women achieve significantly more equality than they had in their traditional pre-industrial society. Countries that try to repress this change, like Saudi Arabia or Iran, have to spend massive resources on policing and apply “traditional” standards to women’s clothing and behavior that are often far more restrictive than the pre-industrial roles actually were, just to keep the women close to status quo. For the most part there is simply no real need in a post-industrial society for women to stay home – most domestic tasks that used to demand an entire day’s labor for most of history (cleaning, laundry, cooking, sewing) are automated or easily outsourced, and farming requires a tiny fraction of the labor force to feed the entire population. Child care is also provided by the state or can be outsourced relatively cheaply. Moreover, if women used to have to spend most of their 20s and 30s pregnant just to ensure the survival to adulthood of 2 or 3 children, modern medicine means pregnancy makes very few demands on a woman’s life. Most women can work through the 8th month and need to get pregnant twice to ensure two adult children. I would ask Tom Hunt what he thinks women should be doing if not working for salaries and competing with men. I suspect the rapid growth of home schooling is one answer to this – an attempt to create a compelling reason to allow (or keep) women to stay home where none naturally exists.

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          • Cliff says:

            In reality the Japanese traded with foreigners throughout the Tokugawa shogunate. Previously, the Portugese had been converting large numbers of Japanese to Christianity (Universal culture? Or it was at the time but now it’s not?) and they did get kicked out. Censorship? What if the Japanese had allowed radio and TV transmissions (anachronism alert) into Japan but no missionaries, is that still censorship?

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          • Jiro says:

            I believe the main drivers of this trend are not ideology, but rather prosperity and technology, which have greatly narrowed the practical economic differences between men and women–

            I would suggest that a certain level of gender egalitarianism is inevitable, but that doesn’t mean that the level we have is that level. It may be that the level that exists in, say, Japan, is inevitable, but anything further is just due to progressives constantly pushing to keep it there and not natural at all.

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          • Tom Hunt says:

            I agree with a lot of your points, but this seems to be somewhat far-fetched. Working for a salary outside the home typically results in more choice of work and a greater income. If these are larger benefits than those offered by working at home (increased free time, greater sense of place, more time with the children), people will continue to choose them. As long as companies find it advantageous to have a greater pool of potential workers, they will continue to run sexual harassment classes and whatever else is necessary (within reason and at expense not exceeding their gain) to allow it to happen.

            It seems pretty clear to me that companies would not go to enormous amounts of trouble to increase the fraction of women in the workforce if they weren’t being pushed into it by ideological factors. (These factors could be either genuine ideological belief on the part of corporate decision-makers, or exterior coercion by governments; in most cases it’s probably a mix.)

            Of course, much of the state of things is determined by economic factors alone. But I think it’s pretty clear that in the absence of coercion, the equilibrium would have significantly fewer women working outside the home than there are now.

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        • Immanentizing Eschatons says:

          I think it needs to be clarified, the specific policies of 21st century feminism and social justice, justified or unjustified (and I think they are often but not always justified!), are not identical to the broader system of gender equality. Also, if “Universalization” can be a gradual process then people trying to rush ahead may still have to resort to “forcing it”.

          But more broadly I think you are failing to consider non-centralized coercion. Asking “would societies drift to gender equality in the absence of coercion?” and “would societies drift towards gender equality in the absence of coercion by the state or other large powerful organizations?” are very different questions. Remember that oppression in general and gender oppression in particular were historically often enforced by local communities and families as much as if not more than a centralized state.

          Actually the first question is almost tautological, as much of gender equality is just not coercing people into things based on their sex/gender, which is true more generally as well- alot of “universal culture” is just letting people do what they want (and is in a constant civil war over how this applies to economic policy). So in that sense, it is partly a universal equilibrium state without coercion, its just that well… absence of coercion is a large part of what “universal culture” is .

          (This rule is not universal (heh), but it holds in many cases)

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    • Bugmaster says:

      I suppose you could argue that universal culture somehow imbues its carriers with superior military abilities

      I think this is true, broadly speaking. Japan lost WWII because we had atomic bombs, and they did not; Germany arguably did as well, though the Allied industrial base also had a lot to do with it. Likewise, Spain managed to conquer lots of other nations because those nations lacked Spain’s powerful industrial base. Korea withstood the Japanese invasion because of basically one guy who said, “screw this, I’m going to put all my resources into tech and military training as opposed to whatever we were doing up till now”. The Vikings pillaged all over the place thanks, in part, to superior naval technology.

      Superior technology wins wars almost every time, and superior technology is just an application of “doing what works”.

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      • Scott Alexander says:

        Not to mention that capitalism and free trade grow economies which allow governments to buy more weapons.

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        • Bleyde says:

          I agree with this but I think it’s a mistake to assume that capitalism and free trade necessarily make liberal cultural values closer to the equilibrium state.

          In some cases technology (physical and economic) obviously lead to a more equitable situation. The most obvious example being the role of women changing with the increase in industrialization and capitalism. While I see this as a desirable outcome I don’t trust that it is the result of mutual acknowledgement of a more desirable situation. I think I may have more to do with hydraulic presses and robots eliminating the economic differences.

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        • Civilis says:

          Not to mention that capitalism and free trade grow economies which allow governments to buy more weapons.

          I may be reading into this too much, but there seems to be an assumption that a particular set of values is the best fit for every situation.

          Capitalism and free trade grow economies better in peacetime. Once the war begins, however, socialized economies can turn their industrial power into military force much quicker, being able to direct much more of their economy into producing troops, weapons, and so forth. In the long run, this damages the economy, but if you lose, the economic damage is meaningless, and if you win, well, you didn’t lose. If I recall right, one of Germany’s problems (in addition to having a smaller economy just based on size) was that it actually took longer to put all its economy into the war.

          Widespread development of nuclear weapons changed the picture completely. You could have a bigger economy than your enemy, that was growing faster than his, and mobilize it to war quicker, and still lose absolutely everything. (He wouldn’t win, either, but what was important was that you lost.)

          Warfare has fluctuated back and forth between being dominated by a technologically superior elite and being dominated by mass numbers many times depending on the technology and political culture of the era. There’s no reason to assume it won’t continue to do so.

          In the end, the ultimate cultural value might be the ability to adapt to changes. This is also something the universal culture seems to excel at.

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          • cassander says:

            decentralized solutions almost always work better in the long run, but centralized solutions can outperform them in the short run. If you want to bomb Germany to oblivion, the most efficient way to do or is to start paying bounties on bombs dropped and let the market go to work. But that will almost certainly take longer than just rushing whatever bomber design you have laying into production and doing it yourself.

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          • Civilis says:

            Exactly. The main problem with thinking in terms of ‘the long run’ with regard to warfare in the eras of mass mobilization and industry is that if you lose a total war, the long run doesn’t matter, because it doesn’t happen.

            Further, state-sponsored terrorism is a tactic born of this sort efficiency as applied to war under modern rules and technologies. If you can’t afford a conventional war, pay a bounty for someone else to do your dirty work for you. It’s also not a new development, Letters of Marque are basically the same thing as applied to naval warfare.

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          • Chrysophylax says:

            @ Civilis:

            “Once the war begins, however, socialized economies can turn their industrial power into military force much quicker, being able to direct much more of their economy into producing troops, weapons, and so forth.”

            “If I recall right, one of Germany’s problems (in addition to having a smaller economy just based on size) was that it actually took longer to put all its economy into the war.”

            Do you not see a contradiction here? I’d be pretty surprised if the latter claim is true, given that Germany was the one in the middle of an aggressive militarisation, but the claims as stated are obviously contradictory, unless you want to argue that National Socialism (with all its public works programmes) was somehow less centralised.

            “Widespread development of nuclear weapons changed the picture completely.”

            “Warfare has fluctuated back and forth between being dominated by a technologically superior elite and being dominated by mass numbers many times depending on the technology and political culture of the era. There’s no reason to assume it won’t continue to do so.”

            Eh? No modern state has lost a war against a non-modern state in a very long time, despite using much smaller armed forces and insisting on much lower casualty rates. (Pulling out of a war because it’s expensive and you lose a few hundred men does not count as losing, especially when enemy casulaties are ten times greater.)

            Mass numbers lost a lot of relevance once we had machine guns, and things like rocket artillery and daisycutter bombs only made it worse. Atomic bombs have made numbers totally irrelevant for those states with nuclear guarantees, because mutually assured destruction does not require having more nukes, it merely requires *enough* nukes. The Long Peace is really, really strong evidence that you’re totally wrong about this.

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      • Tom Hunt says:

        Germany didn’t lose because we had superior technology; Germany lost because they were swamped under massively superior numbers and resources, which were due to geographic advantage. Without the US sitting there pumping endless men and resources into the war, it would have gone entirely differently. (Yes, even the Eastern Front; I think without the US tying up Japan in the Pacific, the Soviets would be too busy dealing with the threat to their eastern frontiers to start pushing Germany back west.) The atom bomb was a sideshow; even without it, the US won the war in the Pacific, and would have successfully invaded the Japanese home islands.

        It’s easy to imagine a world in which you hand nukes to the Germans or the Japanese, and the war ends differently. The outcome of that would likely look similar in technology and the hard sciences, but to argue that all the components of the modern “Western” progressive consensus would have shown up due to magic or something is quite ridiculous.

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        • Pku says:

          Without the US sitting there pumping endless men and resources into the war, it would have gone entirely differently

          I’m not at all sure that’s true – as you pointed out, most of the war was on the eastern front. I don’t think the japanese could have affected russia that much – they didn’t really have the resources to take siberia, let alone slog through it. And your point about the numbers also applies to the japanese being massively outnumbered in Asia.

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          • Broggly says:

            Over half of the Soviet Union’s aviation fuel and about a third of its ordnance was provided by the US through lend-lease. 15% of Soviet aircraft were British or US made, and hundreds of thousands of trucks, and thousands of tanks and trains were provided to the Soviet Union.

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          • Yrro says:

            Yep, Germany’s biggest problem in both wars was that they couldn’t stop the Americans from sitting on the other side of the ocean and pumping resources into their enemies.

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          • gbdub says:

            America provided endless materiel. Russia provided the endless men.

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          • dndnrsn says:

            The “endless swarms of Russians” thing is an exaggeration. When you leave out POWs dying in captivity, Soviet military deaths:Axis military deaths on the Eastern Front is about 1.5:1. If you include prisoners dying in captivity, it becomes about 2:1.

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          • gbdub says:

            That’s because the Axis death toll on the Eastern front was also huge. Point being that the Russians contributed a much vaster number of dead soldiers to the cause of defeating the Nazis than any other Allied power.

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          • dndnrsn says:

            @gbdub: that is certainly true. The Red Army suffered the majority of Allied losses and inflicted the majority of Axis losses.

            The popular image of them vanquishing the Axis by sheer forces of numbers is, however, incorrect.

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        • U. Ranus says:

          If you could prove that German victory would have prevented the essence of progressivism to spread, you would simultaneously disprove Scott’s assertion that the Western-Culture-that-isn’t-Western is the default universal culture because entropy.

          For the record, I think you’re wrong. Nazi Germany was pretty progressive in many ways and would have drifted into far gone multi-culturalism too, after a few decades.

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          • Anonymous says:

            Nazi Germany was pretty progressive in many ways
            – U. Ranus, 2016

            I don’t essentially disagree with this, but it is pretty funny to read out of context. Do you have any examples?

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        • Chrysophylax says:

          Tom, the US certainly pumped in a lot of resources, but your claim about endless men is tottaly wrong. The battle of Stalingrad alone killed more soldiers than the entire Western Front. (Here is a superb video breaking down the death toll of WWII: https://vimeo.com/128373915.)

          “All the components” is very different from “most of the components, most of the way”. Nobody is asserting that Nazi!2016 would be arguing about gender-neutral bathrooms. It is pretty obvious that that world would have things like female emancipation and weaker gender norms than 1939, for the same reasons that China is now very capitalist and (heavily sanctioned, theocratic) Iran is pretty close to universal culture at street level. Things like income, education, high availability of food, percentage of the population engaged in manual labour and ability to control reproduction have really strong effects over the long term.

          Nobody’s postulating magic, we’re just postulating well-established mechanisms you don’t know / admit exist.

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      • Sir Gawain says:

        Also, fascist Germany and Japan initiated stupid, pointless, unwinnable (or at least very difficult to win) wars. Seems like a maladaptive trait.

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      • Peter Akuleyev says:

        I would argue that Nazi Germany and the USSR were also part of the “universal culture”, they just represent dead-ends in the transition away from traditional culture to a post-industrial culture. And make no mistake, Nazi ideals had very little to do with “traditional German values” as Martin Luther or Goethe would have understood them. Hitler was very aware the world was changing quickly, and he was trying to create a new global culture that would have been dominated and directed by Germany rather than the US/UK or USSR.

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      • “Japan lost WWII because we had atomic bombs, and they did not”

        They had already lost by then. So far as quality of military technology was concerned, they were arguably ahead of us as of the beginning of the war. The O92 torpedo, the zero, and the Yamato class battleships were all better than anything we had.

        Their big disadvantage was in quantity. We could produce airplanes literally in hundreds of thousands. They couldn’t.

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        • Nornagest says:

          I agree with the general thrust of this comment, but not with all the specifics: the Japanese torpedos were better than anything we had, though mostly because the American Mark 14 was an incredibly buggy weapon. The Zero was a beautiful airplane, and really good in its niche, but it reached that niche by sacrificing so much other stuff that new tactics could overcome its advantage in maneuverability to exploit its fragility.

          The Yamato-class battleship, on the other hand, was a monstrosity. Bigger and better armed than anything the Allies had, but slow, fuel-hungry, and lacking the radar fire-control systems common to the US Navy at the time. Even if it hadn’t been obsolete in the face of air attack (which sank the Yamato and Musashi) and submarines (which sank the Shinano), I don’t think it would have fared well in battleship combat.

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    • Nathan says:

      @ Tom Hunt

      Fantastic point, and one that Turkey is directly relevant to, given recent events.

      Kemal Ataturk decided that Western Civilization worked better, so he decreed that going forward the Turks were going to adopt Western culture. He took this to the point of banning the Fez.

      However the values of “Kemalism” have been steadily eroded in Turkey of late, especially by Erdogan. The main Kemalist party finds itself continually losing elections. The Kemalist military was dismayed to the point of attempting a coup to protect “their” culture from being overwhelmed.

      Turkey seems to me to be a clear example of “western” culture losing. A hardy weed, maybe, but not an unkillable one.

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    • Doug S. says:

      Germany lost World War 2 because Russia is much, much bigger than Germany and could afford to lose far more men and other resources in the fight; Russia fought a war of attrition and won. If the US never entered the war Germany would have still lost, although France being occupied by Stalin’s army instead of Hitler’s would not have been much of an improvement…

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      • Salem says:

        I find it hilarious when people say things like this. Germany successfully conquered Russia just 25 years earlier. If not for American materiel, Germany takes all of Russia from Archangelsk to Astrakhan.

        Probably they still lose the war, due to Britain, but it would have been a closer-run thing.

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        • dndnrsn says:

          Without American material assistance to the UK, Germany would probably have been able to defeat the British Empire. There’s a strong argument to be made that the knowledge that the US was assisting their foes, and the prediction that the US would eventually enter into the war, led the German leadership to gamble on being able to knock the USSR out quickly.

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          • Salem says:

            If we’re positing no American assistance to the UK, then we’re assuming Japan stays out of the war too, right? If not, I agree that Britain alone would probably have been defeated by Germany, Italy and Japan.

            However, against just Germany and Italy, I can’t see a German path to victory after 1940. Sure, they’d have defeated Russia once it entered the war, but they’d have been in a long-term war of attrition against Britain, sustained only by continually plundering their client states. The Nazi empire was obviously unstable and liable to collapse at any time; they weren’t going to win such a war, although it probably would have dragged out for closer to 20 years than 6. Maybe they could have landed some unlikely knock-out blow, but absent that, they were going to lose – if your system needs to grow to be stable, it’s going to collapse sooner or later. That, and not the invasion of Russia, is the real similarity with Napoleon.

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          • dndnrsn says:

            I reckon that the US helped the other Allies more than Japan helped the other Axis powers. In 1940, following the fall of France, Germany’s military production was greater than that of the UK.

            Early in the war the UK was pretty desperate to get US material assistance, to buy stuff on credit from the US, etc. Without knowing that they had the US in their corner, would they have held out against the Germans?

            Plus, British colonies started to break away in a serious way following a decisive victory by the Brits in a 6-year war. Would they have hung around during a 20-year stalemate?

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          • Salem says:

            But Japan’s entry into the war was a massive disaster for Britain specifically. Without American assistance, I don’t think Britain could hold out in North Africa and South-East Asia simultaneously.

            Britain’s colonies didn’t so much break away following WW2 as they were granted independence. India became independent because Britain no longer had the appetite for rule, and because the USA favoured decolonisation, not because Indian force of arms was remotely sufficient to achieve independence. And the same was true elsewhere. It’s even possible that a long, grinding solo victory over Germany would have resulted in a British Empire lasting to the present day, because it would have resulted in a post-war Britain feeling victorious, rather than defeated. Britain was quite capable of holding onto its colonies militarily, and it had the unconditional support of the Dominions. Even the independent countries that tried to break away – e.g. Iraq – were put down.

            I guess what you’re saying boils down to “Did Lend-Lease change the course of the war?” It’s hard to see it, but I concede that it’s possible.

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          • dndnrsn says:

            Not just lend-lease, or even the direct American impact on the war, but the knowledge that here was a massive country, with a large population and significant resource superiority fuelling the most powerful industrial economy in the world, clearly affected the course of the war.

            For reference, according to Wikipedia, from pre-war to the end of the war, Germany produced just under 50,000 tanks and variants. In contrast, the US 1940-1945 produced over 100,000 tanks and variants. The USSR produced a little more than the US. The gap in aircraft is far greater – the US produced both more planes than all the Axis put together, as well as the Commonwealth plus USSR put together.

            Without the knowledge that as long as they held in the fight US material support would gear up, and maybe the US would enter the war, would the British have stayed stubborn in 1940?

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        • Decius says:

          The last foreign army to occupy Moscow over the winter was the Mongols’.

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          • Salem says:

            What an arbitrary standard. Are you aware that Moscow wasn’t even the capital between 1712 and 1918?

            Not only did Germany conquer Russia in 1917-8 (go look up the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk), but this was explicitly Hitler’s model for doing it again. Hindenburg and Ludendorff, the authors of that victory, were not exactly obscure figures.

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          • Ilya Shpitser says:

            I don’t think Germany gets credit for Lenin needing Germany out of his business. 1917 Russia was not a typical Russia.

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    • Psmith says:

      how likely is it that we would just naturally achieve the totally equal paradise that feminists have spent the last six decades constantly striving for?

      What’s “natural”? Everything we’re talking about here consists of people doing stuff. I’m not sure there’s a principled distinction between feminism and patriarchy in this respect. Is it “natural” when the traditional societies win the wars but “unnatural” when they don’t? When bishops preach patriarchy but not when (Anglican) bishops preach feminism?

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  10. endoself says:

    The thing that’s important to protect is the thing gestured at in this Vassar essay. By the contingencies of history, it was especially strong in the West 400 years ago. It makes some sense to preserve arbitrary Western things due to the Chesterton’s fence argument, but it is better if we can understand what made the West succeed and preserve that.

    (Most things that are great about the West now are not what made the West succeed, but are instead causally downstream. The important things to preserve are the root causes.)

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  11. Dan Simon says:

    Two thoughts:

    1) The reason that the same people advocate carefully protecting threatened foreign cultures and ruthlessly suppressing local ones is that they’re acting out of group interest, not based on principle. For the more internationalist (or “universalist”, as you’d say) segment of the population, protecting foreign cultures provides a justification for intervening internationally in a way that benefits fellow internationalists–culture-minded travelers, NGO workers, academics, and so on–specifically, rather than the country as a whole the way garden-variety colonialism would. (And conversely, the less internationalist–that is, more nationalist–segment of the population prefers interventions that benefit the country as a whole, which of course includes them, over ones that benefit internationalists specifically.)

    2) My standard answer to the question, “what principled position should society take regarding tradeoff x?”, is, “let democracy sort it out”. Since groups are going to tailor their “principles” to suit their group interests anyway (see point 1), it’s better to let the entire population have a say than to make up a principled reason for one specific, self-interested group to have the last word.

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  12. Sniffnoy says:

    Stating the obvious, but — the strongest version of this is false; some of this is clearly arbitrary. E.g. the use of English. And really a lot of things; I think there might be more “West” in this “universal culture” than you give credit for. Dress, for instance (consider suits and ties). The seven-day week and the Saturday/Sunday weekend. I could probably go on. And there is considerable variance even between “universalized” areas; contrast food here with food in Japan, e.g. See also Zompist’s “Are You an American?” and its offspring.

    I mean, OK, I’m stating the obvious here, but, well, someone had to say it…

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    • Peter Akuleyev says:

      You would think English is arbitrary, but isn’t it a little odd that the language that prevailed globally out of all the Western languages just happened to be the one with the simplest grammatical structures and most friendly to foreign borrowings? English, even in the 16th century, was basically pidgin German with a huge amount of French and Latin vocabulary. In hindsight it seems like the logical choice. Maybe a language like Farsi, which has fairly simplified grammar and large amounts of foreign (Arabic) vocabulary, could have spread as easily but it is hard to imagine languages like Russian, Arabic or Mandarin spreading as quickly.

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      • Yrro says:

        Not particularly given that they were the strongest empire and economy on the planet. French and Spanish did the same thing in the areas they ruled, as did Latin and Chinese. Language follows economic conquest.

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      • Jiro says:

        You’re cherry-picking the advantages of English and not mentioning the disadvantages. For instance, Spanish spelling is a lot more regular than English spelling.

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      • PoignardAzur says:

        I agree. In fact, that’s probably why French, a language with ridiculously complicated grammatical structures and conjugations, was the prevailing languages for centuries in Europe (for much longer than English has been so far).

        I’m not writing in English right now because it’s an easy language to master (though it totally is). I’m writing in English because the guy who owns the blog is American. If we had to choose a “universal, grammatically simple” language, we’d all be discussing this in Esperanto.

        Which is how I feel about most of this article, by the way. When considering elements of our cultures, we always assume that they’re universal because we’ve never seen anything else. And you can’t just decide not to make assumptions, just like you can’t decide to always be incredibly smart. So the safe bet is to decide that you won’t be always incredibly smart and plan accordingly, and decide that your culture probably has elements that are really weird and hard to justify and not universal at all and you’re just not seeing them.

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    • Mendicious Mildew Bug says:
  13. AnonymousCoward says:

    I mostly like this universal culture, to the extent that it’s the same as what I’ve been calling “Enlightenment values”, and want it to spread, and agree with the statement that it’s what will inevitably win out assuming no censorship.

    But that seems like a huge assumption to make! What makes you think that low censorship is a high entropy state? Free discussion and flow of ideas seems low entropy to me, and it constantly feels like the powerful are trying to take it away.

    That’s why western/universal/enlightenment culture feels fragile to me.

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  14. The_Dancing_Judge says:

    I always enjoy when Scott channels his inner Land. That said, I believe this post is half-baked.

    Capitalism is a demon summoned from the void that now until the heat death of the universe will self-perpetuate because there is a mechanism for it- those societies with capitalism outcompete those without.

    Now, in a certain sense, this can work with social norms. However, at this point in history it is extremely hard to tell which norms those are. Like other commenters have mentioned, it appears to require a huge coordinated effort to sustain the “egalitarian gender norms” of modern societies, up to and including needing to reduce the competitiveness of institutions to ensure there exists a critical mass of women in all professional levels. And that is to say nothing of the endless amounts of formal and informal institutional effort it requires to keep men from tending towards unequal gender relations. Throw on top of this that modern society apparently produces unsustainably low replacement rates and makes up for it by importing other peoples…and well it’s not certain current norms are all that well developed for long run success.

    I can easily imagine some Chinese inspired, mild patriarchy with medium level birth rates, intensive education, and no immigration, out competing the current “modern” international zeitgeist. But i digress, my point is modernity is so young, we don’t know what is well adapted and what is the product of massachusetts conquering the world in 1945 and inflicting its values on everyone for a few generations.

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    • U. Ranus says:

      > it’s not certain current norms are all that well developed for long run success.

      True, if it remained static, “universal culture” would die.

      A crucial characteristic of “universal culture” is that it can turn on a dime and leave its hosts convinced the new normal is here and good because it is objectively better than what was objectively best yesterday,

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  15. SolveIt says:

    I think this post will become a part of the “canon”, much like Meditations on Moloch et cetera. Thanks for writing this stuff.

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    • lambdaphagy says:

      Given that this post argues for essentially the opposite conclusion, future exegetes and harmonizers will have their work cut out for them.

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      • Bassicallyboss says:

        It seems like pretty much the same thesis to me. Moloch is about how systems sometimes cause things that nobody wants to perpetuate. This is about how systems can cause things that people sometimes want and sometimes don’t to perpetuate. The meta point that unites them is that things can be perpetuated by systems regardless of whether people want them or not.

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      • U. Ranus says:

        This post adds that Moloch convinces his followers that going along with Moloch is objectively better than resisting.

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  16. Thecommexokid says:

    I anticipate that if I tried to make the argument, “Consistency demands that we think of Southern Baptists and Brexiters similarly to how we think of Cherokees and Tibetans,” the response I would get would probably involve the concept of “privilege,” and I think this piece would be improved if it specifically foresaw and rebutted that counter-argument in advance.

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    • Kyle Strand says:

      I think another part of the response would involve “racism”. We don’t feel as much of a need to protect the cultures of white people because any threat to their culture from other white people is not a case of “racism”, whereas threats to the cultures of non-whites is clearly “racist”.

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  17. Earthly Knight says:

    The latter part of the post alludes to this, but I want to emphasize that there is at best an imperfect correlation between the quality of a meme, product, or cultural practice and its success in the marketplace. Coke is a good example; famously, it’s more popular than Pepsi even though Pepsi consistently beats it in blind taste tests. Coke outcompetes Pepsi in virtue of the marketing behind it, not its quality as a soft drink. The English language is another good example. I love our mother tongue as much as the next guy, but I’m skeptical that it’s spoken by a quarter of the world’s population because it’s more effective or “objectively better” than German or Arabic– English became the world’s lingua franca because historical contingencies made it a convenient focal point for coordination. And it may be that when members of other societies complain about western cultural hegemony what they are most concerned about are these semi-parasitic memes whose success is attributable to features other than their utility to human life. Universal culture carries a host of useful adaptations, but it also brings along new pathogens in its wake.

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    • Montfort says:

      The story I always heard was that Pepsi outcompetes Coke in low-volume taste tests – the tester drinks a small cup of each, but that Coke fares better in a higher-volume test, e.g. testers take home six-packs to enjoy at their leisure. Arguably the second is a better measure of “quality” given soft-drink consumption patterns.

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  18. numbers says:

    When I think about arguments against immigration, I think things like: “immigrants are more likely to be poor people who are a drain on our welfare system” or “immigrants are more likely to be criminals, perhaps because they don’t have the right skills for many legitimate jobs” or “immigrants might not speak my language, which makes it difficult for me to communicate with them, and I like it when the people I meet are people I can communicate with”.

    I don’t know if these arguments are true. I’ve seen studies asserting the first two are false, and when I talk about the third people tend to get angry at me. I do think there are people who believe these arguments to be true.

    Above, you asked: “why is anyone concerned about immigration threatening their culture?” and answered that people are afraid of their culture getting supplanted by the immigrants’ superior universal culture. I agree that this seems like an accurate description of some groups, but it doesn’t seem like an accurate description of (eg) some people in Britain not wanting immigration from the EU, or some people in the US not wanting immigration from Mexico.

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    • Civilis says:

      We’re looking at cultural change as a cultural free market, where people as individuals make decisions, the sum total of which define the culture. In the real world, however, the cultural market isn’t truly free.

      Take a town in Europe where everyone speaks German. All the signs are in German. All the town’s business is conducted in German. Then some people that speak French and German move in. Still, because everyone speaks German, it’s easiest to conduct business in German. Then some people move in that only speak French. Perhaps they are the grandparents of the French and German speakers that are too old to learn. Some people put up signs in French and German. At this point, some of the traditionalists might start to grumble. Still, because everything is in German, the French speakers have an incentive to learn German, and to make sure their kids speak German. Some of the Germans will learn French to expand their businesses. Despite the grumbling, the cultural market in the town is still free.

      However, one day, somebody in the town Burgermeister’s office is going to see that there are a lot of people that speak French in the town. “Let’s require the town council to do all it’s business in German and French. Let’s require businesses, even those that only do business in German, to put up signs in both German and French. Let’s require people to pay for the change, or force them to change by law,” he’s going to say. His heart might be in the right place, but people won’t accept it

      Once the law favors immigrants over locals, or appears to favor immigrants over locals, that’s when the market is no longer truly free, and people start to get grumpy about immigrants. People think ‘at one point we were fine with everything in English. Now we have to pay for a staff of translators in case the government needs to do business with someone that doesn’t speak English’. A while back the area I live in had a criminal accused of rape who had to be let off because they couldn’t find a translator that spoke his native language for the trial, despite his speaking decent English. This may have legally and morally been the right decision, but it smacks of the government favoring immigrants at the expense of the universal cultural values most people take for granted.

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  19. Dormin111 says:

    All of Scott’s problems with Caplan’s post can be cleared up by noting that to Caplan “Western” doesn’t equal “Christianity, Odonism, Roman Empire, etc.” To Caplan, “Westernism” equals “Enlightenment values of Calssical Liberalism.”

    For example, Scott repeatedly attributes the cultural dominance of the West to a random “technological/economic head start.” That head start is anything but random. It was the product of specific thinkers who created specific ideas which spread throughout Europe and the US and lead to the West’s dominance. I’m talking about systemic rationality, the scientific method, free markets, independent judiciaries, individual rights, commerce as a moral good, consent of the governed, separation of powers, right to the pursuit of happiness, etc.

    For example, Western medicine is indeed just medicine that works, but no one knew how to find out what works until someone (primarily Francis Bacon) conceived of empirical replicability as a means of determining what is true and not true.

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    • multiheaded says:

      You typing “Odonism” made me imagine an anarcho-communist egalitarian pagan culture of maritime raiders.

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    • Avery says:

      Thank you, Dormin, for pointing that out. There’s usually at least 300 comments from clueless bloviators before anyone can bring up actually relevant points.

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      • Swami says:

        I agree. This is one of the useful comments. Western and universal cultures are alternative names for “enlightenment value classical liberal culture.”

        This was the killer app necessary to get the three institutions of open access democracy, free enterprise and science. When you combine the cultural mindset of liberalism with these three institutions, you get a problem solving network of unprecedented ability.

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    • Dormin111 says:

      Ooops, I meant “Classical**** Liberalism.” Not “Calssical.”

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    • gbdub says:

      But were there some “false starts” in other cultures that would have created Enlightenment values, or something closely approximating them? E.g. ancient Greece or the medieval Islamic states could maybe have hit on Enlightenment but for some historical anomalies (yes, I know we usually count ancient Greece as “Western”, but a Mediterranean Enlightenment kicked off by Frangiskos Baconopolous would have probably looked rather different from what we ultimately got). Or maybe the Enlightenment could have failed in Europe with another big plague or a stronger central church to crack down on early Protestantism.

      Maybe modern democracy would have stalled for a bit had the American Revolution (or the French one) failed.

      Point is, Western Civ clearly found the killer app first. But how inevitable was it that Western Civ would find it? How inevitable was it that other cultures wouldn’t? We’re definitely looking through a thick lens of hindsight, and how much is “universal” vs. uniquely “Western” will still be sorting itself out for a long time.

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  20. Rohan Verghese says:

    What about the pictures of students (especially female students) at places like Cairo University over the years? See How the Veil Conquered Cairo University.

    If universal culture is simply better and able to out-compete other cultures, why is it clearly losing in the trend in those pictures? Is fundamentalist Islam simply better than universal culture? Or are you claiming that even though it looks like the universal culture is losing, it will win the long run as it cannot be suppressed?

    What about Rome? It’s pretty reasonable to say that Roman culture was strong and effective. They may not have had the full scientific methods, but life in Rome tended to be comparatively better than life in non-Roman areas. Shouldn’t other people have adopted Roman culture as objectively better? Instead Rome fell, and what replaced it was not obviously better.

    I think the fall of Rome weighs heavily on those who insist on defending Western culture. Rome did a lot of things right, and it still fell. Its culture slowly changed into something that was probably a lot weaker than its early incarnations. If Rome could fall, why not the current West?

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    • Bleyde says:

      I would say that the truly persistent and weed like aspects of this universal culture are not the aesthetic parts. I doubt there is a lot of cultural evolutionary advantage in writing in English or Arabic or whether we consider it more freeing for people to be able to hide their faces or to show then but expect makeup and beauty. Capitalism, on the other hand, will likely persist as a dominant trait until the environmental/technological conditions that allow it to thrive change.

      Roman culture had many of the same aspects of ‘universal culture’ that seem to be persistent (including strong, technologically advanced military) and it did well before running into economic, political, and ecological problems. The conditions changed and the culture adapted, changing into something very different.

      Considering the rate of change in modern times, I think we are not at an equilibrium point. Our current ‘universal culture’ will change in dramatic and unexpected ways.

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    • Civilis says:

      I think there are a couple of reasons universal culture seems to be in retreat in places.

      One is that certain fundamental values that caused the universal culture to prosper and spread are in decline everywhere, such as the respect for the rule of law. As part of the rise of victim culture, many countries are throwing the baby out with the bathwater in order to roll over and accommodate perceived victims.

      To combine with this, the universal culture has strong trends toward pacifism as a result of world war two and anti-colonialism as a result of the horrors of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. This means we give former colonial areas as victims a free pass when it comes to not adopting the universal cultural values.

      Finally, Islam specifically, especially Wahabbi Islam, has memetic values that seem to be highly capable of keeping it in a sort of stasis by weeding out foreign elements to preserve itself. A strong, unified Islamic subculture in an area will weed out pollution from the universal culture and eventually take over an area by sheer numbers of united adherents. I think that, ultimately, however, this will fail when the universal culture reverts to some of the values it had around the time of the second world war.

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    • The original Mr. X says:

      Shouldn’t other people have adopted Roman culture as objectively better?

      They did, or at least tried to. That’s why Latin was the language of educated people for a thousand years after the Empire fell, and why people are still putting up neoclassical buildings.

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  21. Anonymous says:

    Consider the possibility of “feedback loops” on the evolutionary process that forms universal culture. Add the natural tendency (Reward systems tuned for savannah) to optimize for addiction / atrophying comfort and the fact that this perfect system from beyond the void is doing its best to function without people entirely… Looks pretty bad. Coca-cola is acceptable (At the cost of impulsive people’s health and worse, still worth it imho), letting the algorithm that summoned it shape and homogenize our entire civilization strikes me as suicidal and kind of inevitable.

    Reminds me of this:

    Niderion-nomai’s commentary: It is well that we are so foolish, or what little freedom we have would be wasted on us. It is for this that Book of Cold Rain says one must never take the shortest path between two points.

    I don’t really see any solutions… Maybe trying to engineer some kind of system that would thrive in this “ecology” and “encode” human values on it? Sounds like wishful thinking.

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  22. stahe says:

    This is probably one of the more moldbuggian things you have written

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    • U. Ranus says:

      More Landian really.

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    • Anonymous says:

      It’s really really not.

      Moldbug demonstrates at length with lots of historical evidence that the modern progressive perspective isn’t universal and is only “universal” because of military force which on the side of progressivism due to historical accident (progressives gaining control over a massive continent protected by two oceans). Scott either doesn’t see or pretends not to see the amount of coercion necessary to keep people acting like good progressives and how this force is only able to be brought to bear because (as someone else pointed out in a comment earlier) Massachusetts conquered the world in 1945.

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  23. Providence Commenter says:

    Are you so sure that the process by which local cultures are being replaced by universal culture is a voluntary, nonviolent one? Certainly people drink Coca-Cola voluntarily, with gusto. But Coca-Cola is not what resistance to universal culture focuses on, usually.

    Are you so sure that agents of universal culture don’t meet and threaten to meet more central examples of resistance with violence, and that this might partly explain the great success of universal culture?

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  24. W.T. Dore says:

    Heroin use is something every society would select if given the opportunity.

    Is it?

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    • hlynkacg says:

      Yes, until the heroin addicts failed to reproduce.

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      • Jody says:

        Don’t Date Robots!

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      • U. Ranus says:

        Junkies actually reproduce just fine. Insiders told me stories about, eg, a 16 y.o. male drug addict who already had four kids that he knew of. Heroin addicted prostitue mother of three. It goes on.

        I don’t know stats, but anecdotically, they reproduce better than the average Child of Moloch.

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        • Anonymous says:

          I do wonder what future culture will look like if it’s mostly just the underclass that reproduce (the costs of their reproduction being paid, of course, by the taxpayers, which they aren’t). They’re only nominally aligned with the cathedralites, due to the package deal that gives them welfare – anyone who had dealings with the underclass knows that they’re not paragons of progressive thought.

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          • Tibor says:

            If that were the trend, then the future would probably look like a significantly reduced welfare state followed by a reversal in reproduction patterns.

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  25. Brian Slesinsky says:

    Another category to think about might be corporate culture.

    Businesses exert control over who works for them though hiring, firing, education, propaganda, mentoring, peer pressure, monetary rewards, and so on.

    Sometimes this works. Nonetheless, a business’s culture usually isn’t as different as they like to think. Tactics that work tend to be adopted everywhere.

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  26. Ghatanathoah says:

    There’s a transhumanist joke – “Instead of protecting human values, why not reprogram humans to like hydrogen? After all, there’s a lot of hydrogen.” …. own value system might not be objectively the best, or even very good, but it’s my value system and I want to keep it and you can’t take it away from me. I am an individualist and I think of this on an individual level, but I could also see having this self-preservation-against-optimality urge for my community and its values.

    I think viewing culture as a tool in the same way as a physical tool helps you think about this. We have certain physical tools for doing stuff, like hammers, books, lathes, etc. We occasionally replace a tool with a more advanced version, like replacing a smithy with a steel mill, or a physical encyclopedia with the Internet.

    Some people get sentimental about their physical tools and still like to use them, even if there is a better one available. Some people still like to make metal stuff in medieval smithies instead of buying it from a steel mill; or like owning a physical copy of an encyclopedia (and that’s fine, people are allowed to be sentimental). But most people just want to accomplish whatever goal they need to tool to accomplish, and it’s not fair for somebody who likes smithies to stop everyone else from using steel mills; or someone who likes text encyclopedias to ban Wikipedia.

    Let’s extend this metaphor:

    Replacing a traditional culture with a universal one is like replacing an old tool with a newer one that fulfills the same desire the old tool did, even better.

    Reprogramming people to like hydrogen is like getting rid of the desire people were using those tools to fulfill in the first place.

    Those are not the same thing at all. We have core values that go much, much deeper than any culture, which we colloquially call “human nature.” These are what our “real values,” our cultures are instruments for serving them.

    I think the reason it might be so hard to think about this topic is that people have trouble keeping their instrumental and terminal values separate. In my extended metaphor I treated “cultural values” as “instrumental values,” and “human nature” as “terminal values,” but often the two seem to get fused together, like the guy who likes making stuff in smithies, or the person who values their culture independently of what it does for them. But I think the fact that people voluntarily assimilate into other cultures, or adopt parts of other cultures, indicates that most people seem to believe that “human nature” comprises our real values, and the values of our culture are just instrumental tools.

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    • Anonymous says:

      Nah, I think cultural and environmental values are real and not necessarily less important than our “core values” (Which are not deep at all, strictly meant to help us breed, way lower on the “moral hierarchy” according to several perspectives.)

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      • Ghatanathoah says:

        If by “core values” you mean, “the values of natural selection” like “survive and breed” [it being understood that natural selection is not intelligent and saying it has values is a metaphor] I definitely agree with you. Natural selection’s values are not the same as human values.

        Natural selection’s values weren’t what I was talking about when I said “human nature.” What I meant was the values and behaviors like love, happiness, friendship, curiosity, etc. These values occur in all humans, everywhere. While they may have been programmed into us by natural selection, they aren’t the same as “survive and breed.” Human are adaptation executors, not fitness maximizers. In fact, they are just as violently opposed to natural selection’s “values” as cultural values are.

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    • nydwracu says:

      Replacing a traditional culture with a universal one is like replacing an old tool with a newer one that fulfills the same desire the old tool did, even better.

      [moves to Brooklyn]
      [goes on antidepressants]
      [has lots of drunken casual sex until turning 30 or contracting incurable STDs]
      [gets three cats and an alcohol problem]
      [fails to reproduce]
      [dies alone]

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      • Anonymous says:

        Like you care about their happiness. Woman aren’t real people whose utility matters. The real issue is that the drunken casual sex isn’t with you or people like you.

        It’s unbelievable to me how many millions of words of turgid prose have been written that all boil down to rage against the drunken sluts that think you are creepy.

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    • Scott Alexander says:

      I agree that we have both biological and cultural values, but I don’t think that there’s necessarily a moral difference between them. That is, if I value both Judaism continuing to exist as a religion (cultural value) and my children doing well and having children of their own (biological value, at least if you trust evo psych), but on net I believe the Judaism thing is more important, then that’s a legitimate belief and any utilitarian who cares about my value system should help preserve Judaism rather than help my children.

      It’s true that it might take less work to raise my children not to care about Judaism than to raise my children not to care about their own children, but until that work is done we have to respect the values that people actually have (including the value not to do that work if they don’t want to)

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  27. onomaphobe says:

    I like a lot of this post and it ties up some important ideas very nicely, but there are a couple things that bother me.

    First, is this culture really universal? I think you’re claiming that certain things including egalitarian gender norms, somewhat-restrained free market capitalism, and effective medicine are part of a “universal culture” in the sense that they are attractors in the space of possible cultural traits. That most cultures will tend to drift in their direction when given the chance. In the case of effective medicine, I’m willing to believe this without much proof, but some of the other things (fizzy sugar drinks, for example) seem very contingent on current tastes and, in particular, on America / the West’s economic and political dominance. It seems plausible to me that, much like the lingua franca was not always English, what you might call “universal culture” next century might have more of a Chinese or Arab flavor (or whatever) than the Western flavor that generated Caplan’s confusion. You allow that the dominance of a culture (or of anything really) is context-dependent, but then how “universal” is it? Since it’s not everywhere and always an attractor, the argument that the summoner culture is just as much a victim of the demon as any other seems, as least, not airtight.

    Second, what is “culture”? I guess this is in some ways an extension of my first point. There seem pretty clearly to be some adaptations that just about any real culture will tend to move towards, but I would assign pretty low confidence to any assertions about the universality of, say, denim jeans or Coca-Cola. And then if the only things I’m comfortable calling universal are things like medicine and faster transportation, I feel strange calling that cluster of ideas a “culture.”

    On the other hand, it’s possible that all I’m saying is that “culture” (as I use the word) tends to point towards the deviations from or variations in the dominant “universal” culture.

    (I had the impression while reading especially the first half or so of this post that it was less compelling than some of your other similarly though-through writing, but I admit I’m not really satisfied with my attempts to explain that impression.)

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    • Scott Alexander says:

      “Universal culture” is a terrible term and I’m only using it because “capitalism” would sound too left-wing and “cosmopolitanism” too right-wing and I want to stay as apolitical as possible (ie not very)

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      • Nornagest says:

        “Cosmopolitanism” is a right-wing shibboleth? I wouldn’t have thought that — it sounds academic to me, if anything.

        I would have said that “globalism” belongs to the right and the populist left, “capitalism” belongs to the left generally, and “cosmopolitanism” is more or less neutral.

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  28. josh says:

    interesting essay, though I’m a bit confused about your Tibet example, especially when you first use it. do you think the Sinicization of Tibet is “universal culture” replacing Tibetan culture? I’d say there are some elements of “universal” culture — modernization, infrastructure building, mining and business development — but there are also very Chinese elements at play, like armed guards maintaining order outside the Potala Palace, sporadic mobile communication censorship/blockage, etc. Is “universal culture with Chinese characteristics” still universal? or is it possible that there are free-roaming “universal” elements that supersede individual cultures/civilizations but don’t undermine the discrete identity of those civilizations? would there not be a foreseeable clash between “Chinese” and “Western” universalisms, for example, which are defined and propagated in different ways?

    unrelated side note 1: I recently interviewed an artist who worked with Robert Rauschenberg on his 1985 “Cultural Interchange” project in Lhasa, this struck me as amusing and is maybe relevant to this post, if obliquely: “Li collaborated with Rauschenberg on the ROCI exhibit, which in Lhasa included more than 70 works flown in on decommissioned military aircraft. Rauschenberg’s goal of using art as a ‘non-elitist’ form of universal communication was not entirely successful. The exhibit included ten video works, some of which featured snippets of Disney cartoons. ‘There were not many TVs in Tibet back then,’ Li explains, saying that some local viewers were entertained to the point of distraction by the novelty. ‘Some of it was cryptic, incomprehensible to the average person. How could they ever understand those paintings? When Rauschenberg saw the Tibetans happily watching Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck, he got angry and told us to turn off the TVs.'”

    unrelated side note 2: Tibetan Buddhism already has a prominent transgender bodhisattva, Avalokiteśvara, which is also the most popular bodhisattva in Mainland China, as Guanyin. though this doesn’t necessarily filter down to everyday identity politics in Tibetan (or Chinese) society.

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    • multiheaded says:

      but there are also very Chinese elements at play, like armed guards maintaining order outside the Potala Palace, sporadic mobile communication censorship/blockage, etc

      I could hardly think of something more universal than state violence. Yes, it’s bad. Yes, aggressive Sinicization can also be pretty bad. No, what you are saying is not an example of Sinicization, it’s utterly generic industrial-era violence and oppression.

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    • Scott Alexander says:

      Suppose we asked someone in 1700 “There’s going to be a country that has armed guards and lots of censorship – is this country more likely to be China or England.” I don’t think our hypothetical person would have any reason to go one way or the other.

      I agree that there’s more subtlety than I’m admitting in that dictatorships tend to converge on a set of best practices for running a successful dictatorship and this is different from democracies converging on the best practices for running an optimal democracy, but it’s not clear to me that there’s much that’s “Chinese” in the sense of “descending in unbroken continuity from the values of Confucius, the Yongle Emperor, etc” about modern PRC culture, least of all what they’re doing to Tibet.

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  29. alia D. says:

    Visual Mangalwadi in his book “The Book that Made Your World” makes a good case that many aspects of this “universal” culture that’s gaining on the world does have deep root in western culture, especially in Christidom. Ideas like the need for written versions of the vernacular and for translations into them, or that nature is logical and orderly and humans can understand it, but only if they approach it with humility, were born out of Christian theology.

    It’s clear that you can hold these parts of universal culture without holding to the Christian theology, but western culture does have a built in harmony with the philosophy of the universal culture. It’s not clear to me that other cultures can achieve such a good fit.

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    • Scott Alexander says:

      I haven’t read the book, and what you’re saying is true, but there are so many strains of Christianity (and other religions) that I worry it’s easy to make up patterns here. Think about how modern Buddhists are always talking about how Buddhism is the only truly rational religion and the Buddha always said that we should believe things based on evidence and not faith and so on. If Tibet industrialized and took over the world, it would be easy to prove that modern culture descends inextricably from Tibetan Buddhism.

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  30. Thomas says:

    Why doesn’t everyone default to this universal culture when it seems to be superior to any other culture?

    My gut feeling is that diversity makes for a more interesting society and a (relatively) unique individual identity provides meaning and satisfaction to people – who don’t want to all be the same.

    That extra identity actually adds something on top of universal culture, making people happier than if they just went full on generic universal culture. The better their base culture, the more people hold on to, rather than swapping it out for universal ideals.

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    • Civilis says:

      To some degree, while there is a homogenization of values under the universal culture, there is a value for respect for diversity in a lot of the more superficial elements of culture like individual tastes.

      What sports or food or entertainment you enjoy isn’t defined by the universal culture, just that there is a large number of sports and foods available for you to pick from.

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  31. Aevylmar says:

    I think this post misses something very important in what Caplan was saying, even as it makes a very important point of its own.

    Caplan is not defending the worship of Thor, or encouraging everyone to dance around maypoles, or even defending the worship of Christ. He’s defending this monster-beyond-the-void universal culture thing, and he’s calling it “western culture” because that’s what people mostly call it, even if they’re shouting at it for being evil. He’s defending it because he thinks it is Good, that it makes people happy and wealthy and healthy and he likes this. And he’s saying that it doesn’t need to be elaborately coddled because it is very powerful.

    Really, I’d describe him as making a similar point to the one you make at the end of “In Favor of Niceness, Community, and Civilization”: Wait, it’s not just that you guys don’t think this is evil, you don’t think it’s a horrifyingly powerful monster?! Of course it’s a horrifyingly powerful monster! It’s just our monster.

    At least, that’s how I interpret him.

    Edit – Never mind, I should’ve read more carefully, I was misinterpreting *you*. Manifold apologies.

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  32. Nick Whitaker says:

    Huntington says you can graph a country on two axis: One Modernization/Industrialization and one Westernization. There are cultures like that of Japan, which have modernized, yet have not become part of the West. Japan remains distinctly Japanese. In Huntington’s words “Western culture is not the Big Mac but the Magna Carta.” Elements of Western Culture might produce the most utility, but that should not make them necessarily universal.

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  33. MawBTS says:

    Good article with parts that confuse me.

    “Western culture” is no more related to the geographical west than western medicine. People who complain about western culture taking over their country always manage to bring up Coca-Cola. But in what sense is Coca-Cola culturally western? It’s an Ethiopian bean mixed with a Colombian leaf mixed with carbonated water and lots and lots of sugar.

    But this argument could be used to define anything as universalist!

    There’s nothing intrinsically “Native American” about making a headdress from dyed feathers. Does that make Comanche war bonnets universalist?

    There’s nothing intrinsically “Jewish” about putting religious texts in a box and wearing it on your head. Universalist phylacteries?

    You’re using a radical definition of “cultural” that I don’t think I’ve ever heard before – that unless something’s an exclusively [adjective] trait, we can’t describe it as an [adjective] trait. What kinds of things would you consider cultural? I’m drawing a blank.

    So-called “western medicine” is an inhuman perfect construct from beyond the void, summoned by Westerners, which ate traditional Western medicine first and is now proceeding to eat the rest of the world.

    Why the “so-called”? I’m probably missing something obvious, but don’t we call it “Western medicine” because as a factual matter that’s where it came from? Sort of like we might talk about “a Caravaggio painting” when in principle those same brushstrokes could have been laid down by an equally talented disciple, a robot, or an infinite number of monkeys?

    Yeah, its an idea plucked from the void, but that’s trivial information. All ideas are waiting to be plucked from the void. In theory a Scythian or a Bushman could have come up with germ theory. In practice, they didn’t. The West did. (Or maybe not? Greg Cochran suspects that its real discoverer was an unknown person two thousand years ago).

    Maybe there’s an alternate universe where the electron microscope was invented by a Bushman. But the patent office doesn’t accept applications from alternate universes.

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    • Scott Alexander says:

      What is so great about a headdress of dyed feathers that it’s clearly the optimal solution and we should expect every country to use it once they realize it is an option?

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  34. lambdaphagy says:

    I’m kind of curious to know how the obvious superiority of egalitarian gender norms squares with Warrenian concerns about the 90% marginal tax rate on women’s income and other infelicities? Infelicities that could have been avoided had we only managed to coordinately assign status points to SAHMs, i.e. to preserve a certain culture?

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    • suntzuanime says:

      “Obvious superiority” from the perspective of the demon, not the summoner. Lots of taxes are good.

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    • multiheaded says:

      It’s called welfare, dude. It works pretty well in places where it works. Hell, it was even pretty okay-ish for women in the Eastern Bloc.

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    • Scott Alexander says:

      Without commenting one way or the other on the optimality of gender norms, I would add that competitiveness isn’t necessarily about actually being the best, but about being the most convincing. If you have a country that doesn’t have egalitarian gender norms, and they become aware it’s an option, people are going to start agitating for egalitarian gender norms and probably get their way if there’s no crackdown. I’m not necessarily saying they’re right to agitate for them – it could be something like “buy Made in the USA” which is stupid but naturally convincing to the average member of the populace – but it is certainly seductive.

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  35. blacktrance says:

    Heroin use is something every society would select if given the opportunity.

    That’s not at all obvious. Who needs heavy censorship to know that heroin is terrible? How many people are thinking “If only that darned government didn’t keep me from taking heroin, because I’d love some”? Undoubtedly some people would be pressured into taking it and become addicted, others would be curious and have poor impulse control, and so on. But it seems implausible to me that it would happen on the level of a society. Also, while heroin is an example of people choosing something that’s bad for them, the fact that someone chooses something is still prima facie evidence for it being good for them.

    As for multi-agent games, the question there is whether one would trade being able to participate in universal culture in exchange for your neighbors not being able to do the same. If universal culture has significant negative externalities, one should take this deal. But it doesn’t seem good – if anything, one would hope that one’s neighbors would embrace universal culture as well.

    Finally, there are the arguments that universal culture is universalist, and that aspect comes from a universalizing religion. Maybe something similar could’ve formed around Islam, but not around an ethnic religion that doesn’t proselytize. For example, we care much more about Tibetian peasants getting their eyes gouged out than Tibetians care about our poor people not getting their eyes gouged out.

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    • multiheaded says:

      Strongly endorsed.

      (Re: Islam – see that famous anecdote of the Ottoman Sultan sending famine relief to Ireland against Britain’s will.)

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    • Scott Alexander says:

      I’m not sure we really have a disagreement. I don’t think heroin is objectively the best thing, and I probably wouldn’t take it even if it were available. But I think if it were legal, it would become very common, in the same way not literally every single person drinks Coke and eats cheeseburgers but they’re viewed as a common part of our culture.

      My evidence for this is first of all that many people use heroin already despite dire penalties and limited access, and second of all that apparently somebody thinks it’s necessary to fight a war on drugs to prevent heroin from being used more often.

      Consider also the popularity of cigarettes, which are about as dumb a decision as heroin but remain popular because of their addictiveness.

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      • Yossarian says:

        I would definitely disagree with the second part – considering that cigarettes do not produce even a small fraction of the behavioral influence that heroin does, the decision to smoke is, indeed, significantly smarter and safer.

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    • Yossarian says:

      I would add to that, that civilization-destroying power of opiates is even something that does not bode very well with history – the laws strictly prohibiting the use of opiates are relatively modern, and the opiate medical use and not-so-medical abuse was known for quite a while (and seriously damaging mostly in the cultures it was rather recently introduced to). Plus, the bans on such addictive substances do have a significant negative effect on the society, too…

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  36. hnau says:

    This was a great read– thanks Scott! Made a bunch of important issues much clearer to me. Though I was kind of frustrated when I found Part IV addressing and even sympathizing with all of the objections I had been forming.

    The one major hole / critique I’m left with is that the nature of the summoner / demon relationship was never really addressed. Why did “universal culture” start in Western Europe, as opposed to China or India or Mesoamerica? Jared Diamond would have an answer, of course, but only part of the answer– from the state of the world in, say, 800 AD the other regions might seem to be equally likely candidates.

    Furthermore, we need a way to explain how “universal culture” began and grew up within “Western culture” if the two are really opposed to each other. It seems far-fetched to presume that “universal culture” sprang fully formed from the head of Galileo (or anyone else) and immediately started taking on traditionalism. If you’re going to take that route, the obvious figure to thank for “universal culture” would be Jesus, since it appears fairly miraculous anyway. (And just to be clear, I seriously consider this to be a plausible explanation.) In the alternative, you’ll need some explanation for what “universal culture” was when it was simply part of Western tradition.

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    • Psmith says:

      Why did “universal culture” start in Western Europe, as opposed to China or India or Mesoamerica?

      Excellent question.

      (HBD seems at least historically relevant to Scott’s post as a whole, incidentally. Nuclear families and outmarriage are plausibly more conducive to progress than the historical alternatives, and, conversely, I suspect that the international spread of e.g. foods is subject to biological constraints as well. Current universal culture may not be stable if it’s sufficiently dysgenic.).

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    • SamChevre says:

      I would suggest that “universal culture” began not in Western culture at its core, but in the trading peripheries of the West–and it has strong analogues in other trading cultures. (Note that the Renaissance starts with books brought from Greek and Islamic territories.)

      I do think that Jesus (and Paul) is a core figure–although he is part of a well-established, already articulated interpretive tradition–but combine typical border/port/trading culture with some “everyone is equally important in ultimate terms” values, and universal-ish culture won’t be far behind.

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    • Scott Alexander says:

      I don’t think that the reasons that Europe had the Industrial Revolution are relevant to anything in this post (except the caveat at the end that maybe Western culture is “better” in that it was better at setting the stage for industrialization) and I know this subject is very complex and heavily debated, so I stayed away from it.

      I would say that culture and genetics might have played an enabling role, but that it also needed lot of luck, both in terms of geography/resources and the economic patterns of the time. I think any explanation that’s too culturally or HBD based ends up unable to answer the question of why it started in England instead of Germany or France.

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  37. suntzuanime says:

    I don’t believe in destiny as much as you do. Sure, some things will turn out the same if you run the experiment multiple different times, but some things are chaotically dependent on starting conditions. For all that Japan is “westernized”, they don’t really care much for sugar-filled fizzy drinks. They have this amazing vending machine culture and they waste it buying cans of milk tea. And yes, this doesn’t actually matter, but imagine a capitalism developing not around a kernel of Christianity, but rather Buddhism, or Islam, or the Aztec one where they cut out the people’s hearts. Can you really say that it would not have found some different local minimum of the cultural space to occupy? Can you really say that a Shinto-originated capitalism would be able to outcompete the existing network effects of Christian-originated capitalism just because it was actually better? When it has to grow from nothing? And Christocapitalism is sitting there in its full splendor enticing you with its blue jeans?

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  38. utilitarian troll says:

    who cares which elements came from what culture. that way lies pointless identity politics. let’s maximize expected utility

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  39. multiheaded says:

    Interesting post! As Oligopsony says, you are at your most fascinating when you engage in materialism.

    Also, I fucking hate the Dalai Lamas so much, ugh. Sorry, but yay China.

    (I mean, China ought to be less oppressive about it and all that, but still. Also, the Soviet Union did similar things to Central Asia, and that was objectively great.)

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  40. Nelshoy says:

    Yay! An interesting long post! Here are some thoughts:
    1) If universal culture evolved out of Western traditions, and is still incorporating new memes from other parts of the world (sushi), shouldn’t we think of it as more of a local maximum than anything else? In that case, we don’t truly have a universal culture yet and probably won’t until the quickest spreading elements are universalized. The current implementation of not-quite-universal/Western culture incorporates all the highest entropy Western memes (and some leftover baggage) but it hasn’t yet incorporated the rest of the world’s best. In this view (as /u/edman2133 on reddit pointed out) Coke might just be the best thing we’ve come up with yet, and maybe if Japan industrialized first and universal culture had originated more from there, maybe Bubble Tea Or whatever other concoction would have been the norm.
    2) Won’t the spreading of universal culture lead to “coordination problems” of its own that prevent it from every becoming truly universal? I’d say language is a pretty huge barrier to universality. Let’s say I am a Chinese person who loves the quality stories and amazing special effects of Hollywood movies, but would prefer to watch movies with Chinese specific elements and without subs or dubs. I’m going to continue watching Holywood movies really only until the point where my own culture is able to match the story-telling and special effects while catering to my other preferences.
    Language might be a only a small culture-differentiator (maybe they eventually film two versions of the same movie with Chinese and Western actors), or maybe everyone learns the language of universal culture (English), but I think that’s a rather impossible problem to solve barring some huge changes in technology. Climate/location seems like another obvious differentiator of the end result:people in the Sahara probably won’t ever do to wear Uggs.
    There is also the habit of habit. Australians might not be able to convince others to try Vegemite, but other cultures might be equally unable to break the taste Australians have acquired for it. Of course, as Scott mentions, time plus migration plus good alternatives seems like a sure recipe for eventual destruction.
    3) What about push back? How much homogenization can occur before people’s need for Feeling inclusion and signalling individuality pushing them back towards The fringe?
    I think you already see this a ton with participants of Western universal culture; if you have an ethnic identification you can take on, you get really invested in nurturing that aspect of yourself even if you hadn’t felt that urge earlier. if you are an American WASP who looks on the remnants of your ancestors’ culture with distain, you probably end up feeling lost. You might find whatever you think you can hold onto, criticize colonialism/the system for what it does to others, find cultural identity through other ways (hello, rationalists!), or just forget about it and happily go along with Moloch. I expect this trend to increase, especially as the outgroups one differentiates herself with continue to lose influence.
    4) It seems a lot of disagreement between countries with a big dose of universal culture is about how to deal with perverse incentives, like the example Scott used with heroin. Canadians and Singaporeans might speak the same language, support democracy and egalitarianism, buy the same products, consume similar media, etc. But Singapore supports extreme penalties for anything relating illegal drugs, while Canada is moving in the direction of decriminalization. You could just say it’s down to difference in starting culture, but I’m not so sure. Perhaps the reason universal culture exists in harmony with restrictions is because each society still needs to function well to appeal to the outside, and to produce and spread it’s memes.
    If so, I think it’s very possible that universal societies could get “worse” and more wire-heady over time, especially if technological productivity gains are frequent enough to pick up the slack. If universal culture societies still function well enough with llegal addictive drugs, attention-shortening media, and prevalent obesity, will the public really be as concerned with limiting these “societal ills”? Over the long term, other cultures might to well to hold the line against cultural entropy, like Singapore with its drug policy.

    This may be the most SSC buzzword-y thing I’ve ever written.

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  41. Dan Lucraft says:

    There are two amusing examples of English culture that illustrate both your and Caplans’s points in turn:

    1. Whenever someone asks me what the English national dish is, I say: sandwiches! But I’ve always known this was slightly facetious because I understood that sandwiches are pure “universal culture”. If you have bread, then a sandwich is an obvious and tasty way to make a portable meal. Maybe it first arose in England (I don’t really know whether this is technically true but it is sometimes claimed) but even so it’s hard to say sandwiches worldwide are an example of English culture.

    2. Whenever someone asks me what the English national dress is, I say: the business suit! I’m much more sure this is genuinely English than sandwiches. And it’s hard to say the business suit is the optimal office working clothes, so I think it’s spread globally really is an example of Caplanian Westernization.

    On the other hand, no one I know professionally wears suits anymore. We wear t-shirts, jeans, shorts etc. Comfortable and easy stuff. This is universal culture supplanting Western culture, exactly as you suggest.

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    • Anonymous says:

      Maybe it first arose in England

      Hillel the Elder beat the eponymous earl by 18 centuries.

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    • Jiro says:

      Whenever someone asks me what the English national dish is, I say: sandwiches! But I’ve always known this was slightly facetious because I understood that sandwiches are pure “universal culture”.

      So is meat. So is bread. But specific dishes that use those can be cultural even though the general idea of meat isn’t. (And likewise for Scott’s Coca-Cola example.)

      Are English sandwiches exactly like anyone else’s sandwiches? I find that unlikely.

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    • Scott Alexander says:

      I thought you were going to say “chicken tikka masala”, which I’ve also heard.

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  42. S says:

    Shut up and take your soma.

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  43. U. Ranus says:

    Quibbles:

    Refusing to call it “Western Culture” smacks of posturing. You wouldn’t say there’s nothing African in African-Americans because what some call “African” is just a genome that works, or would you?

    Almost nobody likes warm Coca-Cola, which tells us that an essential ingredient is refrigeration, which back then was not to be found just anywhere in the world.

    Of your list of ways that “universal culture” is “objectively better”, I will only agree that it makes the Economy grow faster, and I wouldn’t even agree that fast growth is inherently good. Given that much intersubjective disagreement, can we really call it “objectively” better?

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  44. Avanoosil says:

    Could someone explain to me why universal culture is described as being high entropy and not low entropy? I would have understood a high entropy society to mean a society that must expend greater effort to offset the natural decay of its institutions. In Scott’s post however he implies the opposite, that a high entropy society is one that survives and spreads without help.

    How have I landed backwards on this one?

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    • david says:

      He’s using entropy in a non-judgmental way here. He means that high entropy regions (such as the US) have progressed further towards having cultural norms that will only have trivial fluctuations from the universal culture, i.e. a state of maximal entropy. To prevent an increase of entropy in a society, such as Tibet, one would need to pump in effort, which is analogous to the work required to maintain a low entropy state in the presence of noise.

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      • Avanoosil says:

        Ah gotcha. Thanks.
        My basic reading comprehension failed me. I was treating maximal entropy as akin to a state of societal collapse. Treating universal culture as a culture that doesn’t need to continuously fight disorder because its institutions are just that good. i.e. a culture that is exempt from entropy. dumb.
        But I follow you now that maximal entropy is the state all cultures would tend toward in the absence of resisting effort, and countries like the US are the ones that let themselves go with the flow.

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  45. Two points that sprang to mind:
    1) The captives who preferred Native American living to Western living weren’t choosing something over “Universal Culture” – because the colonists weren’t living in that culture. If anythign they had deliberately rejected the forward-moving Western European culture so that they could continue in their religious lifestyle in a new place.

    Think of them as the Brexit voters who decided the best way to avoid living in Europe was to move to a new, “empty”, country…

    2) The reason not to invade a country because they’re violating basic human rights (which are the modern equivalent of the Noahide Laws) is because unless you then spend a vast amount of resources recreating a liberal democracy in said country what you are left with is generally worse than what you had before. And, frankly, we haven’t shown much interest in doing that since the Marshall Plan.

    It’s generally been easier, and more effective, to use the carrot rather than the stick and say “You can join our peaceful pan-continental trading group if only you sign up to the European Convention Of Human Rights.” and let countries transform themselves into liberal democracies.

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  46. Anonymous says:

    There’s a good point here – there is such a thing as a universal solvent culture that spreads – Coca-cola, like heroine trips the pleasure centers of the brain more strongly than apple cider or yak milk (actually, probably not more than yak milk, but it’s cheaper and there’s no satiety limit on how much coke you can drink).

    What you’re missing is how much violence and enforcement it takes to keep in place the fashionable but insane ideas of current “Western civilization” – bringing up one example you mentioned over and over “gender equality”. This example is a perfect summary:

    If you mix it 50-50 with another culture that doesn’t have this norm, then things go downhill quickly; you proposition a lady wearing red, only to get pepper sprayed in the eye. Eventually the first culture gives up and stops trying to communicate messages through clothing color.

    No. That’s only if you hold the invisible to the fish because he swims in it assumptions of a society that goes to tremendously violent extremes to enforce “gender equality”. All of the following could be the outcome of that encounter:

    1) Woman in red pepper sprays the man. The man throws acid in her face. When the police speak to the man he explains that the woman was dressed in red then pepper sprayed him when he asked her price. The police accept that explanation and go about their day. The woman’s father plots revenge on the man’s family.
    2) Woman in red pepper sprays the man. The man drags her into an alley and rapes her then leaves her with the standard fee for a prostitute. Police confront the man, he explains that she was wearing red, they laugh it off.

    etc.

    Eventually either “gender equality” takes over the police force or women stop wearing red in public – even if they were from the culture that doesn’t encode woman wearing red in public as a signal that she is a prostitute.

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  47. Ruben says:

    Maybe this “basic delight in diversity” isn’t just “basic” and can be broken up and explained? Although I agree it is simply beautiful, and that’s my best explanation why I can donate to preserve species diversity when I could save more chickens with the same money.
    The most useful reduction I can come up with myself is that diversity is a reservoir of potentially useful adaptations.

    If a powerful virus comes along, a more genetically diverse group of organisms has a bigger chance of having a few resistors around. That’s why we have a seed bank on Svalbard and it’s the best argument against (GMO-)monoculture.

    If a powerful memetic virus comes along (e.g. drugs, a very engaging computer game), a more memetically diverse set of cultures has a bigger chance of having a few who won’t opt-out of existence. That’s why we have xxx and it’s the best argument against universal monoculture.

    Not sure what xxx is. Seed banks are pretty harmless and hard to disagree with. I don’t dislike efforts to preserve old languages and rituals in databases, but even the Académie Française seems a bit too intrusive to me. Maybe societies that hold up old rites are pretty okay, but not all of them are doing very well. Seems to work for carnivals and dancing around maypoles, not so much for less fun things, like forbidding foreign media.

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    • Tibor says:

      This seems to me more like a post hoc explanation (even though the arguments might be correct) than the reason behind those feelings. Humans are generally curious and want to expose themselves to new things. If the whole world were completely uniform then it’d be pretty boring.

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  48. Anonymous says:

    I think you’re overly optimistic about what Caplan thinks of as “western culture” to be adaptive and the currently-best-available. We’ve had this thing implemented for a century, at best (the world wars period being the transition from soft traditionalism to cathedralism). In historical terms, this is almost nothing. Time will tell whether cathedralism will reign supreme for any significant amount of time – I will be impressed if it survives another century.

    Cultures, just like all memetic entities, reproduce in two ways – horizontally (peer to peer) and vertically (parent to child). Cathedralism obviously has an edge on horizontal transmission, standing on the shoulders of giants – its Christian ancestors – but unlike its ancestors, it represses the vertical reproduction of its hosts. It is like a virus that makes you feel good while debilitating you, making you infertile. We know that all human behavioural traits are hereditary in the genetic sense, I figure that a natural resistance to cathedralism is hereditary in this way too.

    What I predict is cathedralism burning brightly for a time, like the Black Plague, until it runs out of suitable hosts to spread to because it has decimated their numbers below the threshold required to keep spreading.

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    • Ruben says:

      Because low fertility is an absolutely vital component of universal culture and won’t respond to changes in structures, incentives and culture. Got it. Why was that again?

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      • Anonymous says:

        Because low fertility is an absolutely vital component of universal culture and won’t respond to changes in structures, incentives and culture.

        A component of the culture will not respond to changes in the culture?

        Can you rephrase with some added sense, please?

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    • Scott Alexander says:

      Hm. There’s a lot to be unpacked here. I agree that, for example, tomorrow someone might discover another drink that is even tastier than Coke, in which case it will replace Coke as part of universal culture and traditionalists will grumble about the good old days when everyone still had Coca-Cola. And the same thing could very well happen with gender norms! Maybe there are other gender norms that are better (ie more seductive and likely to catch on). For example, someday polyamory might take over the world, which would require a lot of changes.

      If you mean that authoritarianism might someday prove to work better than non-authoritarianism, I agree that might be true. I think that (even though it’s much more important), this isn’t ontologically different than that some soda might be better than Coke. The only exception is that if censorship became more popular, it would then allow other cultures to develop again.

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  49. JBC says:

    You think that the reason for Coca-Cola’s popularity is that it is soooooo delicious? Then please explain why they have to spend more than any other drink advertising and marketing it.

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    • Ptoliporthos says:

      I think your model of how advertising works is wrong. It doesn’t expand the market (the decision to buy a sweet fizzy drink or not is not influenced by advertising) but it does expand market share (the decision to buy the fizzy drink in the red can versus the fizzy drink in the blue can). Coke can’t spend less on advertising because they’re locked in competition with Pepsi. If they could collude to arrange caps on ad spends at the present level, or if the UN Security Council threatened to nuke Coke and Pepsi headquarters if they changed their ad spends, their relative market share would remain as it is presently.

      I don’t think Coke is in competition with yaks milk, each appeals to different parts of your brain. Yaks milk isn’t sugary or carbonated. You couldn’t substitute one for the other in a recipe. Yaks milk is competing with other milk. Coke is competing with things like kvas or malta.

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    • Whatever Happened to Anonymous says:

      It’s old and unnecessary, people get bored of old and unnecessary things unless they’re constantly reminded of them.

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  50. Jonathan Monroe says:

    On the gender norms issue (and related issues around the other social justice categories), I think part of the confusion comes from ignoring the divisions within universal culture. Like all cultures, we have a set of gender norms embodied in our “religion” that we don’t entirely live up to in practice. So universal culture’s “priests” (mainstream media and mainstream education) preach one set of gender norms, universal culture’s commercial elites practice a different set of gender norms (see Charles Murray, or any of the standard screeds about redneck sexual morality), and arguably we see yet another set of gender norms appearing for practical commercial reasons among groups entering universal culture from outside (for example assembly-line work now appears to be coded feminine).

    Universal culture is the world’s greatest commercial culture, bar none. But third-wave feminism comes from the religious caste, not the commercial caste. Deciding whether it is part of the “just better” culture or whether it is the result of a virtue-signalling death spiral is left as an exercise for the interested observer.

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  51. Alex says:

    I really liked the original “Outgroups” piece and more than any other piece it made me stick to reading this blog. However, with every addition the author makes to the original material, my confusion grows. What I have taken from “Outgroups” and still hold to be true not at all seems to match the author’s intended message or his current stance. This, frankly, is accompanied by the growing impression that the author has spent his powder on “Outgroups”, “Moloch” and “Archipelago” and all that is left to him now is reiterating the same topic over and over again with very mixed quality but never failing to extensively link to his prior greatness. Also, at least from the European’s perspective, I think the curren piece contains unusual amounts of wishful thinking. Here is why:

    One of the central revelations of “Outgroups” to me was that there even is such thing as a red tribe. The author’s description of how he is socially insulated from red tribers resonated with me. Throughout my youth, Europe’s political landscape was firmly divided into “conservatives” and “socialist” (which Americans probably should imagine as slightly more extreme “liberals” rather than slightly less extreme “communists” from what I understand about American use of these terms). While both camps did routinely paint eachother as the absolute evil, by the late 1990s or early 2000s they had more values in common than not and I think that was common knowledge. Social circles of nominal conservatives and socialits did overlap. The actual working class was shrinking and to my understanding Blair and Schoeder built a political career on realizing this and repositioning their parties accordingly. In Germany this culminated in Frau Merkels first term, the ultimate empirical proof that conservative and socialist politics had become interchangable in anything but the name. Universal culture at its best, one should think.

    Hovever, in the last 10 years, things have changed. In hindsight neither conservatives nor socialists of that time were particularly red tribeish. A statement which coincidentally seems to match a cornerstone of the philosophy which we shall not name. If there was a leave-movement in 2006, I think it was nowhere near a majority. If “westeners” did convert to Islam, nobody talked about it. To me, and I realize this might be completely different in the US, the (re)emergence of the red tribe not only happened unnoticed by the blue tribe, it is also a new phenomenon. To me, this is not about some traditionalists rediscovering their culture for whatever reason and finding it to be endangered. It is about the explicit rejection of universal culture by people who were part of it and found that it has nothing to offer to them.

    In this context I think it is disputable, if universal cuture really is on the rise. In Europe I think it is stagnating or even retreating. I cannot tell if this is offset by the global trend. But that question is sort of besides the point. What really puzzles me is this: In times were Britain managed to coordinate half of its voters againts universal culture, how can one seriously claim that:

    a) Universal Culture is “objectively better” than the alternatives. [Here’s 52% saying it isn’t. And while this is not per sé an objective assessment, the author does seem to judge cultures goodness by people’s willingness to accept it, so I think this is a fair counterpoint.]
    b) Alternatives face unsolvable coordination problems. [It was universal culture that famously could have won if it had managed to coordinate which it didn’t.]
    c) Universal Culture’s rise does not rely on government intervention [Cameron, albeit weakly, did try to intervent on behalf of universal culture. This, I think, was hardly a first.]

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    • U. Ranus says:

      I’d say Meditations on Moloch was the best thing Scott ever wrote, but I suspect the true reason the best is in the past is not that he’s spent his powder. I think that when he saw where this train of thought was ultimately leading him, he flinched.

      I don’t agree for a second that “universal culture” wins because it is “objectively better”. At least not for us mere humans, that is. But if we cross out the human value judgement and leave it at “objectively different”, I’m on board. Yes, this new “universal culture” is objectively different from all the traditional cultures that came before. A new kind of beast.

      I get similar vibes from Nick Land, btw, in that he, too, seems to have grown reluctant to mercilessly follow through on some of his earlier insights.

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    • Publius Varinius says:

      This post summarizes my feelings pretty well about peak-SSC.

      The “red tribe in Europe” part rings true as well, apart from the timeline, which seems oddly Germany-centric. For example, by late 2006 the red tribe was definitely dominant in Hungary, and if the elections would have taken place in the second half of the year, Viktor Orban would have won easily (as he did in 2010). Meanwhile, in the west, the red tribe was less spectacularly successful, but it had a strong presence in many countries: by 2006, DF, the Danish People’s Party was undeniably among the big three of Danish politics.

      Anyway, Scott seems to regard Western culture as some kind of universal that sweeps to other areas via osmosis. This seems contrary to evidence: take e.g. Iran’s transformation from a Western state to a theocracy, or for that matter Turkey’s slow de-Westernization.

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  52. Ilyushechka says:

    Eight crucial tenets of the (west-centered) Enlightenment are presented in Jonathan Israel’s Enlightenment Contested: Philosophy, Modernity, and the Emancipation of Man 1670-1752 (p. 866) as the following “hardy weeds of the Radical Enlightenment” (in Caplan’s phrase):

    Radical Enlightenment conceived as a package of basic concepts and values may be summarized in eight cardinal points:

    (1) adoption of philosophical (mathematical-historical) reason as the only and exclusive criterion of what is true;

    (2) rejection of all supernatural agency, magic, disembodied spirits, and divine providence;

    (3) equality of all mankind (racial and sexual);

    (4) secular ‘universalism’ in ethics anchored in equality and chiefly stressing equity, justice, and charity;

    (5) comprehensive toleration and freedom of thought based on independent critical thinking;

    (6) personal liberty of lifestyle and sexual conduct between consenting adults;

    (7) freedom of expression, political criticism, and the press, in the public sphere.

    (8) democratic republicanism as the most legitimate form of politics.

    From an SSC perspective — especially from a psychiatric perspective — the culturally and biologically universal aspect of Israel’s eight “hardy weeds” is that they naturally extend to the following “eight hardy medical weeds”:

    Radical Enlightenment conceived as a package of basic medical concepts and values may be summarized in eight capacities:

    (1) medical practice grounded in science and based upon evidence;

    (2) remediation of obsessive-compulsive and/or delusional cognition in favor of self-directed and rational cognition;

    (3) equality of all patients;

    (4) healthcare practices anchored in equality and chiefly stressing equity, justice, and charity;

    (5) remediation of Cluster A personality disorders (“odd or eccentric“), sufficient for freedom of thought based on independent critical thinking;

    (6) remediation of Cluster B personality disorders (“dramatic, emotional, or erratic”), sufficient for satisfying social lifestyles, including healthy sexual conduct between consenting adults;

    (7) remediation of Cluster C personality disorders (“anxious or fearful”), sufficient for healthy and mature freedom of expression, political criticism, and open participation in the press, in the public sphere.

    (8) universal (unrestricted) access to healthcare as the most legitimate objective of democratic economies.

    Medicine being at present still largely in the Dark Ages — particularly in regard to the effective medical treatment of personality disorders — the medical elements of the 21st century Radical Enlightenment, that presently are nascent, in coming decades will become globally prominent and even geopolitically dominant.

    Needless to say, it isn’t simple to navigate between the Scylla of restricted access to Enlightened Medicine, and the Charybdis of the compelled embrace of it. As Alfred North Whitehead put it:

    “It is the business of the future to be dangerous; and it is among the merits of science that it equips the future for its duties.”

    Never are Whitehead’s “dangerous merits of science” more plainly evident than when we contemplate the prospects for Enlightened 21st century medical capacities. Although individuals may reject the seductive attractions of 21st century’s burgeoning medical capacities, cultures as a whole cannot resist the personal freedoms and the relief of familial sufferings that are inherent in these capacities, neither in practice do most individuals, most families, and most patients desire to resist “these hardy medical weeds”. Quite the contrary!

    This is why, on timescales of decades and longer, NGOs like Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), and the medical capacities these NGOs provide, and the knowledge they disseminate, and the training they provide, in aggregate already are acting as a more potent agent for Enlightened social change than any feasible occupying army, in that the “hardy weeds” of the 21st century’s Enlightened Medicine are proving to be universally and irresistibly attractive. 🙂

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  53. Alphaceph says:

    There’s a dangerous unstated assumption in this post: “universal culture” may not be a unique solution to the high communication culture problem. There may be multiple equilibria, and they may be dependent upon other factors such as genetics.

    We haven’t really seen much of this yet, but the global high communication state is still quite young.

    EDIT: And even now we see differences with so-called universal culture – the gender/culture wars, we see ISIS-inspired radical Islam exerting cultural control over individuals in Europe. It would certainly be interesting to travel 70 years into the future and see how well the assumption made here stands the test of time.

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  54. Typhon says:

    « the idea is advanced that the spread of Western consumption patterns and popular culture around the world is creating a universal civilization.
    This argument is neither profound nor relevant. Cultural fadshave been transmitted from civilization to civilization throughout history.
    Innovations in one civilization are regularly taken up by other civilizations. These are, however, either techniques lacking in significant cultural consequences or fads that come and go without altering the underlying culture of the recipient civilization.
    These imports “take” in the recipient civilization either because they are exotic or because they are imposed.
    In previous centuries the Western world was periodically swept by enthusiasms for various items of Chinese or Hindu culture.
    In the nineteenth century cultural imports from the West became popular in China and India because they seemed to reflect Western power.
    The argument now that the spread of pop culture and consumer goods around the world represents the triumph of Western civilization trivializes Western culture. The essence of Western civilization is the Magna Carta, not the Magna Mac.
    The fact that non-Westerners may bite into the latter has no implications for their accepting the former. It also has no implications for their attitudes toward the West.
    Somewhere in the Middle East a half-dozen young men could well be dressed in jeans, drinking Coke, listening to rap, and, between their bows to Mecca, putting together a bomb to blow up an American airliner.
    During the 1970s and 1980s Americans consumed millions of Japanese cars, TV sets, cameras, and electronic gadgets without being “Japanized” and indeed while becoming considerably more antagonistic toward Japan. Only naive arrogance can lead Westerners to assume that non-Westerners will become “Westernized” by acquiring Western goods.

    What, indeed, does it tell the world about the West when Westerners identify their civilization with fizzy liquids, faded pants, and fatty foods?

    A slightly more sophisticated version of the universal popular culture argument focuses not on consumer goods generally but on the media, on Hollywood rather than Coca-Cola.
    American control of the global movie, television, and video industries even exceeds its dominance of the aircraft industry. Eighty-eight of the hundred films most attended throughout the world in 1993 were American, and two American and two European organizations dominate the collection and dissemination of news on a global basis. This situation reflects two phenomena. The first is the universality of human interest in love, sex, violence, mystery, heroism, and wealth, and the ability of profit-motivated companies, primarily American, to exploit those interests to their own advantage.
    Little or no evidence exists, however, to support the assumption that the emergence of pervasive global communications is producing significant convergence in attitudes and beliefs.
    “Entertainment,” as Michael Vlahos has said, “does not equate to cultural conversion.”
    Second, people interpret communications in terms of their own preexisting values and perspectives.
    “The same visual images transmitted simultaneously into living rooms across the globe,” Kishore Mahbubani observes, “trigger opposing perceptions. Western living rooms applaud when cruise missiles strike Baghdad. Most living outside see that the West will deliver swift retribution to non-white Iraqis or Somalis but not to white Serbians, a dangerous signal by any standard.”
    »
    (Samuel P. Huntington, The Clash of Civilizations, chapter 3, “A Universal Civilization? Modernization and
    Westernization”, 1997)

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  55. Salem says:

    in the UK, white rural working-class leave voters… their ignorance is treated as worthy of mockery, their religion is treated as stupidity and failure to understand science, their poverty makes them “trailer trash”, their rejection of economic-growth-at-all-costs means they are too stupid to understand the stakes, and their desire to protect their obviously inferior culture makes them xenophobic and racist.

    This is a misunderstanding.

    In the UK, the working class is not rural. In fact, almost nowhere is rural in the sense that so much of America is rural – our island is much more densely populated than that. Many working class areas voted for Brexit, and rural areas voted for Brexit, and so you seem to be conflating the two, but it’s not the same thing.

    To put it into stereotypes – there were unemployed ex-coal-miners from Middlesbrough voting for Brexit, and there were retired Colonels in Hampshire voting for Brexit. The (semi-)rural leave voters aren’t seen as protecting an inferior culture – no-one thinks “Oh, the Cotswolds, what a hell-hole(!)” – but rather that these are old, rich, NIMBYist people who are stuck in the past. The poor urban Brexit voters are more seen as protecting an inferior culture, but they aren’t much like US “trailer trash.”

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  56. Dirdle says:

    Ohhh, so this is why “white people have no culture.” It means “universal culture is at best a very non-central example of a culture.” That’s really obvious in retrospect. Thanks, Best Crypto-Conservative!

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    • candles says:

      This also gets at why the “white people have no culture” thing is so incendiary to so many. Blue tribe white people / “universal culture” people have no culture _might_ be a more useful assertion.

      I come from a Mormon family. Mormons are overwhelmingly white. They also absolutely have their own culture. I’ve heard mention of studies that suggest Mormons, by some statistical measures, resemble a separate ethnic group, like Orthodox Jews.

      I also grew up around a bunch of white southerners who’s roots go WAY back. Again – to claim they didn’t have their own culture is just absurd, regardless of what you think of that culture.

      Of course, the defining thread of both of those groups is that they have very strong, non-universal identities. Moreover, they define themselves largely in contrast to some sort of larger, more universalizing culture.

      This is part of why I appreciate Scott linking the Tibetans and Southern Baptists.

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  57. Long time reader, first time poster; first of all, thanks for the excellent blog!

    And I worry that confusing “universal culture” with “Western culture” legitimizes this weird double standard. If universal culture and Western culture are the same thing, then Western culture doesn’t need protection – as Caplan points out, it’s the giant unstoppable wave of progress sweeping over everything else.

    I think this is a bit pessimistic: generally, people do not forget “the summoner” so easily. “Traditional Western culture” is protected and cherished much in the same way as the “exotic” cultures you mention, and it started a very long time ago; see, e.g., the Gaelic revival that started back in the XIX century — you don’t get much more Western than that. Traditional Spanish, French, or Russian cultures are also preserved.

    Naturally, nobody expects Gaelic to become a rich and important international language… and this brings me to my second point.

    We think of it as a tragedy when the dominant culture manages to take over and destroy one of these smaller cultures.

    To me, this stance sounds very patronizing towards the smaller cultures and unfair to the people in these cultures. It sounds like there are some specific people who have a responsibility to “preserve their culture” — but are there really? As much as I regret the unrecoverable loss of a whole language (no sarcasm, it’s an unfortunately very common tragedy for linguistics), can anybody require that real people spend their real lives “preserving culture” that they happened to be born into?.. I wouldn’t want myself or my children to be pressured into “preserving Russian culture”, dance traditional dances, play balalaika, and tame bears with vodka — it’s no fun at all, I have better things to do with my life. Scott actually makes the same point: if a culture loses, maybe it’s happened for a reason, and the reason is that it is actually a better outcome for all the people involved?

    P.S. Yes, I realize that Scott is not making the second point himself; this is more of a general rant.

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  58. Gil says:

    I sympathize with your sympathies but I have an objection to you implicitly merging several things (Science, Food, and Gender norms specifically) under the aegis of Universal / Western Civ. I think their robustness and [and thus likelihood of being adopted] is varied.

    Gender norms in the modern day seem more like religions in that they are taught in schools and modern gender norms are preached implicitly and explicitly on television by groups who are very distinct from the great masses. This is different from fast food which is not officially sanctioned by anyone and yet is perpetuated by its own addictive qualities. (And most western people left and right don’t care about preserving fast food anyway)

    And on the other hand it’s not entirely clear you need any legal or cultural protections for women or non-straight persons in order to have a technologically modern society. Nor do you necessarily need democracy. The only circumstances I can think of where non-ideological feminism would take root would be a situation where women are required for practical reasons to enter the workforce.

    Also universal values aside, something that many of these cultures that are coming to the west lack. (Which the east Asian countries are reasonably good at) is social scale. The inability of groups to cooperate outside of a small social circle of relatives makes the institutions you describe difficult if not impossible to maintain.

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  59. jacksmonkey says:

    I send my friend excerpts from stuff I read an he guesses who wrote it. His reaction to the below was “slate star codex being facetious was my second guess. robin hanson being deadly serious, my first”

    Instead of protecting human values, why not reprogram humans to like hydrogen? After all, there’s a lot of hydrogen.” There’s way more hydrogen than beautiful art, or star-crossed romances, or exciting adventures. A human who likes beautiful art, star-crossed romances, and exciting adventures is in some sense “worse” than a human who likes hydrogen, since it would be much harder for her to achieve her goals and she would probably be much less happy.

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  60. Rob says:

    I’ve always thought that the infinite game rules from Finite and Infinite Games would make a decent minimum viable ethical system, suitable as a basis for modern Noahide laws.

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  61. Peter says:

    A point about culture – numerals. I notice your sections are numbered in Roman numerals. Roman numerals are one of those little holdouts that never really went away, but are like a once-dominant species being pushed into a tiny niche. Out “Arabic” numerals – which aren’t the same shape as their counterparts in Arabic scripts, and which the Arabs didn’t invent either have won out over our own Roman numerals in most cases because, well, they’re much easier to get anything remotely serious done with. But whenever the actual numbers are small or don’t matter too much and we want to add a touch of class to things, out come the Roman numerals.

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  62. John Ohno says:

    Suggesting the universalism of any kind of cultural norm is a dangerous game, because every culture is prone to seeing its own norms as universal and the norms of other cultures as temporary abberations. I’m not convinced that you’re wrong here, but I don’t think you’re being careful enough about the subject to convince me that you’re right.

    There’s another angle here that makes it worthwhile to code this culture, even if it is closer to ‘universal’ than others, as western, which is that any culture will pick up whatever elements are optimal without violating its norms (and those elements in turn cause a change of norms, but not immediately) — in other words, we’ve gotten a head start on universalism but it’s still the subset of norms we don’t find perverse. My suspicion is that a ‘universal culture’ will look far more alien to us than western culture would look to, say, the Sentinelese.

    The west hasn’t reached anything close to peak objectivity in terms of cultural selection, and indeed its questionable whether or not we can expect cultural selection to get closer to universality over time: the current state of a culture is the environment in which new states appear, and provides selection pressures for those new attributes — in other words, the energy change for a particular mutation is not relative to some theoretical universal baseline but relative to the current state of culture.

    The west, by being more advanced in terms of distribution tech, has the same kind of edge over other cultures that it did when it had an advantage in manufacturing or weapons, so it’s particularly easy to confuse ease of distribution for universality.

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  63. newt0311 says:

    They’re [western] gender norms that sprung up in the aftermath of the Industrial Revolution and its turbulent intermixing of the domestic and public economies. They arose because they worked.

    Given the sub-replacement fertility levels in pretty much every single society that has adopted them, I don’t think we can declare that these norms “work.”

    I’ve known lots of competent female professionals (incl. my mother and sister) but if it’s a choice between this and the extinction of the human race … perhaps that requires a little thought?

    Re. Peter Akuleyev: I’m pretty sure all societies need above-replacement fertility levels.

    PS. I think hlynkacg mentioned this first and I think it deserves a little more consideration. Thus the separate post for it.

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    • Nathan says:

      Also, as Scott himself pointed out recently, women are happier in more traditional societies where they don’t have to work.

      The west is currently surviving on immigration from higher-fertility regions with different gender norms. If it ever becomes so successful as to convert all its donor countries, it will struggle to remain successful. We have seen what a shrinking population looks like and it looks like Detroit.

      Women being expected to pursue careers like men is pretty defensibly a case of Universal Culture being inferior.

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      • Anonymous says:

        Who’s to say that surrogacy won’t take off? It’s only been possible for thirty years and it’s still pretty expensive for even the upper middle class of the west. As that changes, and especially if an artificial womb is developed, we may see large cultural shifts.

        Extending out the current trend line indefinitely is the worst sort of lazy reasoning.

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      • Psmith says:

        We have seen what a shrinking population looks like and it looks like Detroit.

        Or Japan. Even without leaving the Rust Belt, there’s Pittsburgh.

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        • Anonymous says:

          Japan, what a shithole! I’d much rather live in Niger. Now there’s a successful culture.

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          • Psmith says:

            Yes, that’s my point, and Pittsburgh has been voted “most livable city in the US” for five years out of the last ten or something. The problem is not that declining population sucks to live in. If the declining population is sufficiently nice and civilized it can be quite pleasant while it lasts, “while it lasts” being the operative phrase.

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    • Anonymous says:

      The extinction of the human race, hysterical much?

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  64. Alex says:

    Whenever I read anyone talking about the universal awesomeness of Western Civ, I always think about garum. In every region that was a province of the Roman empire, you can find the cracked shards from jars of garum – a sauce made from fermented fish-guts that the Romans used to put on everything. I can imagine some Romans explaining this by virtue of garum’s “universal awesomeness”. After-all, at the time, everyone from Persian to Britannia was wild about it. Now, not a single one of those regions produce the stuff. I could come up with biological reasons for why garum is awesome – after all, it was extremely nutricious and vitamin-rich – just like people come up for chemico/neuro/cognitive explanations for the popularity of literally EVERYTHING these days, but obviously the once universal popularity of garum was dependent on Roman cultural hegemony, and it ended when Rome did.

    There’s a quote of Samuel Huntington (hardly a bleeding-heart multiculturalist) from The Clash of Civilizations: “The West won the world not by the superiority of its ideas or values or religion (to which few members of other civilizations were converted) but rather by its superiority in applying organized violence. Westerners often forget this; non-Westerners don’t.” This comes over as a bit portentious, but I take it as a reminder that there are other, less flattering, explanations for for the current success of Western cultural forms than their default superiority. If you’ve been raised with Western gender norms or entertainment, or to venerate anything that comes out of the West as superior, or simply been forced to by a Western government, then you’ll copy Western gender norms, but for the same reason that Celts and Gauls started wearing togas and Koreans and Vietnamese following Confucian ritual – ie. contingencies of local history, rather than some Hegelian unfolding of universal culture.

    I don’t want to push this too far – obviously all humans like sugars and fats (which is why all cultures that have access to those things cook with them), and there may well be more specific products – coffee I’m sure of, cocoa maybe – that produce pleasant effects common to all people on a biological level. But even as I write this I’m becoming skeptical: in Burma, for instance, chocolate in available but not frequently consumed.

    People seem innately more attracted to positing explanations for a fact that rely on innate properties than cultural-historical causes. In the 18th and 19th centuries, the fact that few women could read/write/went to university was explained by their inferior intelligence; as Orlando Patterson observed, in all slave-holding cultures, the proverbial laziness of laves is put down to their innately “slavish” nature. Sure, I’d wager that if you gave a randomly-selected human child the choice between coke and some milk-yak blood concoction from Mongolia, they’d probably take the coke (but who knows?), but I’d wager that the reason everyone loves coke, or Hollywood films, has as much to do with the current prestige of America/Europe coupled with the Western companies’ drive to acquire new markets than it’s essential superiority. As much as it would flatter my personal vanity to imagine myself as a representative of truly “universal” culture, I’d wager that the world consumes the Western culture I do because Westerners had better guns (to put it bluntly), not because “Western civ is better”.

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    • cassander says:

      > “The West won the world not by the superiority of its ideas or values or religion (to which few members of other civilizations were converted) but rather by its superiority in applying organized violence. Westerners often forget this; non-Westerners don’t.”

      This pre-supposes that ability to apply organized violence is orthogonal to all cultural traits, a notion that is manifestly false. Ability to organize allows you to be good at violence, but it also allows you to do things like organize year long oceanic trading voyages that let you consume coffee and sugar in England for pennies a cup.

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    • Scott Alexander says:

      I agree the West invaded a lot of places and that helped it institute its preferred form of government. But we’re not invading China now, and they sure did adopt a lot of our commercial practices / foods / etc, and they sure are putting a lot of effort into censoring our TV shows and movies.

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    • Civilis says:

      The problem is that non-westerners, or more accurately, people in the west that don’t like western civilization, don’t understand that the reason organized violence worked so well for the west was because of the superiority of its values at producing military force, specifically, the political, scientific and industrial revolutions that transformed warfare. The Chinese, Mongols, Huns, and Islamic states were just as inclined to organized violence, but the necessary economic, technological and social backing to support violence wasn’t there. Western civilization had better guns because western civ is better at producing guns.

      In Japan, the nobility maintained control of the development of society, including the development of weapons and the tactics to employ them, to limit the threat to the noble military caste, the samurai. In Europe, the ‘samurai’, the knights, were increasingly displaced from their place in the military order by the development of ‘peasant’ weapons such as the longbow, and with the noble military caste deprived of its monopoly on power, the power of the nobility fell proportionately. Japan stagnated, Europe evolved.

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  65. Peter Gerdes says:

    I realize it was just an analogy but you are both wrong about the spread of heroin use and how bad it would if that happened.

    Lots of people are exposed to and even try illicit opiates (most borrow and oxy but more people try IV drug use than you might think) and it’s not a lack of access or fear of law enforcement that stops them from becoming addicts. Indeed, social conformity is a much more powerful force than mere illegality. As long as society viewed it as distasteful or bad (rather than excitingly good but forbidden) I doubt usage levels would climb very high nor that this social attitude would change.

    Also, it’s my understanding that there are some traditional African societies who engage in social opium smoking with relatively little problematic effects. Of course this might partially be a lack of availability but I suspect not.

    Having said this I think your point stands despite the imperfect choice of example. Just because people might choose something doesn’t mean that is the better choice.

    —–

    Also if we all liked hydrogen we would be horribly unhappy all the time at the constant destruction of our favorite thing in billions of stars across the universe.

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    • Yeah, Scott’s understanding of heroin doesn’t tie in with my understanding of how it interacts with culture, or with how Portugal’s approach has worked.

      Heroin, by itself, is not dangerous in known amounts, and heroin addicts can have perfectly productive lives, as evidenced by numerous doctors who have been secretly addicted to heroin for decades, but because they have access to pure/clean heroin in known quantities haven’t suffered ill effects.

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      • Psmith says:

        numerous doctors who have been secretly addicted to heroin for decades, but because they have access to pure/clean heroin in known quantities haven’t suffered ill effects.

        I’ve heard this before, but can’t find a source (other than paraphrases.). Citation?
        (Also, consider the possibility that the relevant factor is not having access to pure/clean heroin in known quantities but rather having sufficiently high IQ, conscientiousness, future-orientation, etc., to become a doctor.).

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        • S says:

          Also note that resistance builds up to heroin, so it’s not a matter of a known quantity of X mg per body-weight for a given effect; you also have to guess what your current level of resistance is. Get that wrong, eg by quitting for a few months and then going back to too close to your old dose, and you’re dead.

          (Quite apart from moral considerations of self-stupification).

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      • Scott Alexander says:

        I didn’t deny any of that. I’m saying if it were freely available, people would probably use it a lot.

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  66. Jay L. Gischer says:

    What you describe is often true, but not universally true. Your argument is a little bit like arguing that since VHS beat Betamax, it was better. It was not better in any metric other than winning.

    Adoptions of various practices, products and institutions are not independent of each other and of who the powerful people in the culture are at the time.

    As an amusing example, it is very, very hard to get Coca-Cola to drink in the city of Bellingham, WA. That’s because Bellingham is just isolated enough to be served by one bottling company, which is affiliated with Pepsico. Everywhere we went, they served Pepsi, not Coke. Because that bottling company had outcompeted the local Coke distributor.

    Power is part of this equation, and it always has been.

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    • Scott Alexander says:

      I agree that “winning” is the appropriate metric here. Universal culture isn’t necessarily better – part IV goes into this at length – just better at winning memetic competitions.

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  67. stargirlprincess says:

    Great post. I expect this post to get alot of criticism. Imo this reflects a problem with rationalist norms. An original peace is less likely to be totally polished and people will focus on the minor issues instead of the main ideas.

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  68. Quixote says:

    You often end posts by saying we need something like archipelago with noahite laws. But that is mostly what we already have. The conflicts in the US are mostly between groups that want to violate the norms you yourself said would be imposed from the top outside the local level in archipelago, or the general noahite laws of our modern culture. The one that comes up a lot is “thou shall not select a random subsection of the population and be utterly horrible to them.” The other one is “don’t dump poison into the rivers that supply everyone’s drinking water.” Every* major conflict in US politics comes down to a local group violating one of these two laws and the top level saying no.
    *(well most of them)

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    • Vaniver says:

      Some universalists are clamoring for conflict with Russia because of how they treat their LGBT citizens. But note that this is actually the Russian government enforcing the Noahide laws!

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  69. Vaniver says:

    The SF metro area may be 6% gay, but the city itself is about 15% gay.

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  70. Kenziegirl says:

    Wow interesting read. I do have to take issue with a few of your points:

    (1) Regarding Western medicine – a while back I read a book called “Crazy Like Us” which basically argues against your point. According to that author (who is speaking about psychological treatment specifically, but I think it applies to other fields) Western medicine is a worldview. It is a set of assumptions about a human body, its interaction with the mind and the soul. Non-Western cultures have been importing Western psychological techniques and treatment methods, not without a negative impact to the local cultural worldview and how they view the health of the human person. Is it in fact more effective to have a disease model of psychological disorders, and to treat it in accord with Western rationalist techniques? The author argues at minimum that it’s not a 100% improvement.

    (2) You say “If China or the Caliphate had industrialized first, they would have been the ones who developed it” – but the fact is they didn’t. And many people believe there are reasons for that. Real, cultural reasons. And I absolutely disagree that if the Industrial Revolution had started in China, that it would look the same as it currently does. I’m sure you’re familiar with Guns Germs and Steel which lays out some interesting theories basically regarding the availability of resources that gave some cultures a head-start. But even beyond that there are cultural factors at stake. China’s complete respect for authority, and inhibitions on saying exactly what you mean, is nothing like what we have in the West. The argument can be made that such a culture stifles creativity and innovation, in the name of obedience and subservience to those in authority. Leaders in such a country are never required to hear a conflicting viewpoint, if they have the power to just have dissenters killed on a whim. It’s the worst kind of groupthink. Why is it that China and not the US has such strict laws about censorship? And what effect does it have on China’s economic and industrial activity? They seem to be navigating their way through these issues somewhat, but obviously they’ve got a lot of catch-up to do to be a truly global player.

    And finally, here is how I would define “Western culture” – a commitment to rational principles. A belief in science and scientific methods as being trustworthy and irrefutable. Despite the belief in science, Westerners also generally affirm that an individual has the right to pursue their own faith practices and their own conscience, even if it seems irrational to others. A belief in the dignity of the human individual, and their right to pursue liberty, wealth, and happiness – no matter their social class. A belief in individual autonomy and agency, contra a more communal and community-focused worldview. A belief in the absolute good of progress, without taking account of the costs or what will be lost; related to that, a capitalist and acquisitive mindset that wants “more! more! more!” without considering our impact on the ecosystem or on less advanced cultures. And yes, a bit of arrogance and the belief that WE have the right solution if only those poor unenlightened tribes could just see it. All these things I believe are unique and peculiar features of the Western world, and to the extent that the other nations follow suit, they are learning them from us.

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  71. Divy says:

    Great article, but I would say that there is a sharp distinction between traditional colonialism and immigration as practiced today. Colonial powers in the past did not respect the legal systems of the countries they invaded and instead granted special rights for themselves. Europeans in China forced the Chinese to accept concessions and extraterritoriality so that the could live in China while still being subject to their own laws instead of Chinese laws and have more legal rights than the native Chinese. Europeans in Africa often abandoned even any pretense of law and enslaved or plundered the local populations. Colonialism wasn’t bad because it changed native cultures (I don’t think most people would equate deliberate attempts by a country like Turkey or Japan to Westernize with colonialism even though both had the effect of changing native cultures); it was bad because it reduced native peoples to second-class citizens or worse in their own country.

    By contrast, immigrants to England have to follow the same laws and have the same rights as the native English, nor are they plundering or enslaving the native English. So the main things that made traditional colonialism bad–like apartheid and slavery–do not exist with modern immigration. Therefore, I think it is perfectly consistent to oppose colonialism as it happened historically, while supporting free immigration today.

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  72. Kenziegirl says:

    I thought of one more point that you haven’t addressed – university education. The US, followed by the UK, are the most popular destinations for students who want to earn their degrees abroad. Link That link says that 684,807 students from abroad were earning advanced degrees in the US. By contrast, US students studying in other countries number only 40,000. Link. These are the future economic, political, and business leaders, and they are literally coming to the US to absorb Western education and Western thought and then presumably returning to their home countries.

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  73. John Schilling says:

    I cannot help thinking that this post could well have been written as an essay in fourth-century Rome.

    More generally, and this isn’t original to me but I don’t recall who I should be crediting, I believe there is a general tendency for cultures or civilizations that are losing their material supremacy, to take pride and comfort instead in their presumed moral supremacy. Their culture is the universal culture, the one that all right-thinking people will adopt once they see how much better it is, and if the rivals of a declining civilization should acquire material supremacy, why it won’t matter a bit because those enemies will by then want nothing more than to share in – and if necessary help enforce – the “universal culture”. Why, if you look around, you can see former rivals already moving to adopt the UC, a clear sign of the End of History…

    We’ve seen all this before, and mostly in the form of Ozymandian ruins both material and cultural.

    Western civilization, like every other civilization, is particularly good at the things it values most. Which, at the moment, means creating material wealth, denying mortality, and achieving racial and gender equality. I would argue that Western Civ isn’t just particularly good at those things, but the best there has ever been. Western Civ, like every other pretender to “Universal Culture”, is the culture that works. Problem is, the things it works at are not universal human goals.

    If there is a universal human goal, it is either happiness or power. It has been convincingly and repeatedly argued here that Western Civilization is not the best at producing happiness. It has traditionally been the best at achieving raw power, in part because of the correlation between wealth and power, but it is not clear that this will continue indefinitely. If Western Civilization does not work to achieve truly universal human goals, then it is not the Universal Culture on the basis of being the culture that works. And it may in the future be replaced or subjugated by a culture or civilization of powerful, happy people who do not have great wealth or race/gender equality. This is not an inevitability, but it is a possibility that ought to be seriously considered.

    Should such a transition occur, the early stages will likely appear to the casual observer as the rising civilization adopting the forms and values of the universal culture declining civilization. Partly because the ones who are most likely to speak the language of the declining civilization, to create content likely to be viewed by them, are the ones on the assimilationist tail of the bell curve. And partly because the rising civilization will want to experiment with all the tolerable bits of the rival culture, to figure out which ones were responsible for that culture’s past power and might be safely incorporated into the new, while tossing out the rest.

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    • Scott Alexander says:

      Didn’t Rome’s culture in fact get adopted by everyone including its rivals and survive so well that my university diploma is still written in Latin and the world’s biggest religion is still Christianity? And didn’t Roman culture only get replaced by other things after a few thousand years when our technology was finally advanced enough to do what the Romans did except better?

      This doesn’t really seem like a good example of arguing against me.

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  74. TheAltar says:

    If Universal Culture continues its expansion and assimilation of favorable (superior?) parts of other cultures do you think it will ever change to a degree that you will be uncomfortable living in?

    The demon sounds less kind to those who favor its current proclivities when you realize it’s not going to stay the way it is right now for very long.

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  75. naath says:

    Personally I think coca-cola tastes vile (also I think cow-milk tastes vile and likely I would think the same of yak milk), I prefer the proper English drink of TEA (which doesn’t even grow here, but whatever). I think Universal Culture has room for more than one kind of beverage, and I am saddened when it fails to (also when it fails to have more styles of dress, or art, or music, or food, or etc.). I think we do quite well with food and drink, and quite badly with clothes (Western style business suits are common on the streets of Tokyo, are they really “better” than a kimono at covering your nakedness or displaying status?). I think I can celebrate the March Of Progress towards Better Things and still enjoy renaissance art and maypole dancing :-p

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    • Nornagest says:

      You could make a pretty good argument for tea as an early product of universal culture. The Chinese have been drinking it since forever, but it took the Brits to start planting it in India (Darjeeling didn’t exist before the East India Company), mixing it with milk and sugar (sugar itself being something you need a global supply chain for), shipping it to godforsaken places like Boston or Glasgow where tea plants won’t grow, and drinking it with scones and clotted cream at four o’clock in the afternoon.

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  76. Brian says:

    You note the Noahide laws as a strong example, but we Americans have our own version of the Noahide laws, called “federalism.” “You 50 states can make whatever rules you want, as long as you defer to the federal government on a few key issues like interstate commerce and national security and don’t break these few extra rules we added to protect individual rights.” And conveniently, it even includes a process for adjudicating what should be added to those rights, except for the part where the left has come up with creative ways to justify interpreting new rights into existence if five Supreme Court justices agree. As government institutions go, it’s hard to do a better job of striking the balance between protecting local culture and promoting universal culture than the Constitution does.

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    • Nornagest says:

      Except that it’s implementation that matters here, not law as written, and as you note the implementation of the Constitution is so different from the written document that it’s hard to give the latter much credit.

      You could argue that this is a recent development, but I’m not sure it is. The feds are more powerful now and so there’s more scope for abuse, but Congress has been happy to flagrantly ignore the Constitution within the scope of its authority since about 1793.

      On the other hand, the practical tradition of Constitution-plus-creative-interpretation has been remarkably successful.

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  77. Brad (The Other One) says:

    This is ultimately a discussion surrounding kingdoms of this world, and not God’s kingdom, but I would like to note that Humanity tried universal culture without God before, and it didn’t go well.

    The principle issue facing humanity is not global cosmopolitanism vs. parochialism, but the question of where the culture – by which one can mean the people – stands in reference to God, that is, Jesus Christ: is it for, or against? I do not feel the need right now to link the many examples of God judging nations in the bible for their sins, which should take priority over any other considerations. I therefore highly recommend that individuals inclined to hear me out do what has always been commanded by Jesus and his servants and Repent away from sin and towards God. We have it on record that the repentance of a nation has averted disaster before.

    (Interesting side note: Jesus remarks both in Matthew and Luke that “whoever does not gather with me scatters.” I suspect but cannot confirm the use of “scattering” may be a subtle reference to the scattering of the people at Babel. Also, I am linking David Guzik’s commentary in case anyone wonders why God confused the languages at Babel. )

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    • Jiro says:

      Do you understand what this blog is about?

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      • Brad (The Other One) says:

        “Topics here tend to center vaguely around this meta-philosophical idea of how people evaluate arguments for their beliefs, and especially whether this process is spectacularly broken in a way that may or may not doom us all. “

        It seems to be about that.

        As for this specific thread, it’s questioning current distinctions between western culture, global culture, and local culture, and then, relevant to my interests, tries to parse which is preferable. I am saying that, strictly speaking, evaluating which form of culture is best via human self-selected preferences may not, in fact, be in the best interests of humanity insofar as both their temporal and eternal wellbeing goes, since the bible repeatedly presents A: Humanity’s base motives as sinful, evil, selfish, destructive, etc. and B: Presents global, united societies and empires which operate without God’s guidance as fundamentally wicked and ultimately doomed to destruction. You know, the whole “doom us all thing” above.

        Since my model of the world may be seen as pretty weird compared to Scott Alexander’s, I framed it using biblical verses (which I consider authoritative and accurate) to explain my position and indicate the solution, which is living, active, and sincere faith in Jesus Christ, Son of God.

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        • Saint Fiasco says:

          What’s wrong with your previous comment is not the specific claims, but the way you “evaluate arguments for [your] beliefs”. I’m sure your sincere faith sounds convincing to you, but you will have to justify that using a common epistemic framework before we can discuss your ideas properly.

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        • TheAltar says:

          “I am saying that, strictly speaking, evaluating which form of culture is best via human self-selected preferences may not, in fact, be in the best interests of humanity insofar as both their temporal … wellbeing goes…”

          I think arguments could be made for this with proposals for alternatives and the downsides of giving people what they think they want.

          “Since my model of the world may be seen as pretty weird compared to Scott Alexander’s, I framed it using biblical verses (which I consider authoritative and accurate) to explain my position and indicate the solution…”

          If your goal is to convince other people of your argument, then using evidence, explanations, and ideas that will be effective at convincing them of your position is likely the first step. Knowing your audience and tailoring your argument to your audience is very important.

          If your goal is something else like self-affirmation, bravery debate statements, or signalling, well then more power to you.

          If you want to make arguments that are effective here, I would start by reading:

          Original Post on SSC which talks about the Principle of Charity
          Policy Debates Should not be One-Sided
          Politics is the Mind-Killer

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  78. Mercer says:

    I disagree with your characterization of universal culture. I think outcompete is a bit of a funny word to use, as it implies that universalism is better and grows because of its betterness. But it could also be growing because its highly invasive, and is the majority culture of a very powerful tribe (The Blue tribe). This tribe projects power globally and is very interested in spreading, and hence their culture has pockets everywhere in the world. It does not need to be “better” in any way to pull this off. Technically killing the people who subscribe to an enemy culture and replacing them is “outcompeting”. I also challenge the notion that this culture really does take “the best from everywhere”. What I think it does is kill its enemies then parade around wearing their corpses. Its a giant charade that to my eye as little to do with improvement. Other cultures are acceptable to universalism so long as they’re either completely dead, or horribly neutered. It deals with real, living other cultures in the same fashion as any predatory culture.

    Certain things absolutely will spread because they’re outcompeting given open enough pathways of transmission. But I don’t see universal culture as being synonymous with this. If we were to actually assemble all the things that in a truly open world would rise to the top, I dont think that collection looks anything like our current universal culture. I think universal culture is itself a tradition. Which is to say I agree with Voldemort on this, mostly.

    Now, a different question, and an important one, is how right are traditionalist cultures to be afraid of multiculturalism?

    Jews have lived as a minority people in many places for a long, long time, and tend not to attempt to win converts, so they arent really a threat to whoever “hosts” them. Gays have a distinct culture but whether they can grow as a population is hard to say, probably theres some fixed limit for how many people in a population are going to be gay. Neither group can threaten to replace the culture they coexist with. For all the attention these groups have historically received from host cultures, they seem pretty benign. The arguments advanced against them generally seem wholly unconvincing.

    Some cultures coexist fine next to one another, and some don’t. Some want to replicate themselves far and wide, some stick to themselves. And multicultural unease is not always necessarily about being replaced, its also about coexisting safely. The growth of the Muslim population in Europe isnt happening as fast as some alarmists suggest, but even if they remained at their current proportion indefinitely, it doesnt seem like they’re getting on too well. Blacks have a distinct culture and relations between them and the two majority cultures in America are not exactly going well at the moment, either. So some skepticism of multiculturalism is warranted, I think. Some say its impossible to pull off peacefully; I think it is probably possible, but very difficult, and usually requires some clear hierarchy of cultures and control over what is likely to repeat itself and where. The fact that the Red and Blue tribes in the USA can coexist despite absolutely hating one another speaks to this, I think.

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  79. Doctor Mist says:

    I am floored by this. I love it when you write something that seems so obvious it makes me feel like I haven’t been paying attention.

    It boggles my mind that, from this perspective, the Moldbuggian monarchists (whom I sort of respect as an odd sort of hyper-libertarian) and the anti-globalists (for whom I have never had anything but contempt) are actually sort of on the same page. I must think further on this.

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  80. Mark says:

    This reads like TheLastPsychiatrist. Nice.

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  81. Tyrrell McAllister says:

    So why is anyone concerned about immigration threatening their culture?

    There is a difference between culture and community.

    Culture includes things like food, clothing, languages, and customs. It’s “the way things are done”.

    Community includes your actual network of connections to those around you, in all its historical specificity. Your communal ties embody the specific obligations and sympathies that you have to other people of your community, the sympathies that they have to you, and the common knowledge shared by you and your neighbors that these sympathies exist. Communal ties include all the historically specific Schelling points that you and your neighbors can use to coordinate and cooperate cheaply.

    Suppose that you had just landed in a random “Western” culture with which you had no communal ties. Maybe you’ve been transported to an alternate Earth timeline. You don’t know any of their history. They know that you’re a foreigner from another “Western” culture, but nothing else.

    You would know that people are probably eating something like McDonald’s and drinking something like Coca Cola. You would know that gender norms are relatively egalitarian. But you wouldn’t know that the members of this culture know that you know that they know that you’re not going to break into their houses at night. There is less trust, not because you dress differently, but because there isn’t as strong a history of trust-building and common knowledge binding you, personally, to them.

    Such a network of trust is built on an actual history of interactions. More generally, the benefits of community rely on everyone sharing a lot of common knowledge about a bunch of specific historical facts. Communities that rely on these benefits fear immigration because they think that immigrants will not share that common knowledge. The fear is that what was known and could be relied upon in your social interactions with your neighbors will become false. This could lead to a breakdown of trust, and a community without trust is dangerous at a basic physical level.

    This is the danger that motivates fear of immigration. It’s not loss of culture as such, but loss of community.

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    • Scott Alexander says:

      I’m confused. Say somebody lives in a small town and has their friends, their priest, their doctor, their boss, et cetera. Which of these is immigration going to take away?

      On the short term, immigration maintains all of the people you know but just adds more people also. On the long term, maybe your next priest or boss will be a Mexican guy, but why is that less of a community contact than a white priest/boss?

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      • Jiro says:

        On the average, the Mexican priest or boss will have fewer values and goals in common with him and will sympathize with him less than a white priest/boss would.

        (If I was posting on any other blog, someone would reply “well, not every Mexican priest/boss would be like that”, missing the point of “on the average”. Mercifully, that doesn’t happen here much.)

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  82. Emgo says:

    Our society is generally in favor of small, far-away, or exotic groups trying to maintain their culture. We think it’s great that the Hopi are trying to get the next generation to participate in the traditional dances. We support the Tibetans’ attempt to maintain their culture in the face of pressure from China. We promote black culture, gay culture, et cetera. We think of it as a tragedy when the dominant culture manages to take over and destroy one of these smaller cultures.

    I feel like there’s an element of selfishness in this impulse.

    We like being cosmopolitan and living in a melting pot. We love to see beautiful traditions from other cultures. But as soon as a culture we’ve deemed beautiful starts heating up their own pot, we rush to protect them from becoming… us? Not every culture can be cosmopolitan like the West is. Someone needs to actually revere their own ancient traditions for us to find them beautiful and authentic.

    In fact, our society trying to maintain those small, far-away, or exotic cultures could be seen as a form of maintaining our own culture. So much of our cultural identity involves partaking in, or at least observing, cultural product which we see as authentically alien. We love sushi not only because it’s delicious, but because it’s a totally foreign take on food to us. We like that the Hopi preserve their dances not because they’re aesthetically pleasing dances but because they represent another culture. If the Hopi are drinking coke, wearing our blue jeans, and listening to our rock and roll music, we can’t revere their cultural purity anymore

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  83. orthonormal says:

    How about this as a fair proposal: countries with nukes are required to subscribe to universal culture (with the decline in warmongering that implies). Other countries get more leeway. If you want to preserve your way of life, you can do so, but first you need to get rid of your nukes.

    Obviously unenforceable in the current equilibrium, but seems fair to me. If you want the most destructive consequences of the Industrial Revolution, you have to consent to the most pacifying consequences as well.

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    • John Schilling says:

      If a country with nukes rejects your proposal, what are you going to do about it? You really up for waging offensive nuclear war in the name of Universal Culture?

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    • Salem says:

      I think it’s the other way around. Countries with nukes can keep their own peculiar institutions, sorry, characteristics. Countries without nukes are required to subscribe to universal culture.

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  84. Michael Vassar says:

    I think that this is the critical question. ‘And here, universal culture is going to win, simply because it’s designed to deal with diverse multicultural environments. Remember, different strategies can succeed in different equilibria. In a world full of auto-cooperators, defect-bot hits the jackpot. In a world full of tit-for-tat-players, defect-bot crashes and burns. ‘.

    Not everyone agrees about whether universal culture plays a game theoretically robust long term strategy. It might be expanding by playing an unstable and exploitable strategy, or by preying on other strategies hat it encounters. If Universal Culture had existed on an island somewhere, fairly stably, for centuries, I would trust it more. As it, when I look at Universal Culture, I see it as likely to converge on something that looks like India, the oldest universal culture we are familiar with, and I don’t want to live in India, I prefer Greece. Much better at summoning demons!

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  85. Nornagest says:

    Flashing back pretty hard to the end of “In The Beginning Was The Command Line”, here.

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  86. Subbak says:

    It could be the Dalai Lama banning Coca-Cola. It could be the Académie Française removing English words from the language.

    It’s so nice when you try to use as arguments things that are actually counterarguments to your thesis. You may hold the position that Coke is just plain better as a drink as yak milk, because specific fabrication process and everything. But in which way is English a noticeably “better” language than French, other than the fact that the country that won history is English-speaking? English is actually a terrible language for getting other people to understand you, as the pronunciation is horrible (so many vowels, so many ways to write them), and the vocabulary is about double the size of most other languages (that’s what you get from being a bastardized form of French and Saxon). Yes, the grammar is a bit simpler than many other languages due to the relative lack of declensions and the absence of random genders for noun (as in French or German), but it’s far from clear that this compensates. You might only have to learn a noun, and not a noun and the gender, but you have to learn uncorrelated spelling an pronunciation, and you have to learn twice as many anyway. Also, it’s an stressed language, which further complicates things for people who speak unstressed languages (like French).

    I’m not defending the Académie here. It’s an institution of old, disproportionately white, disproportionately male, conservatives, who have by design an extremely prescriptive vision of language. But the fact is that here the “global” culture has taken a characteristic “English speaking” not because it’s objectively better but because it happens to match US culture. Just like so many other things in the global culture. Like Christmas. Or Hollywood. Or US-style politics (I’ve talk to people from different European countries that agree that in the last 10-15 years, politics have become, sadly, more US-like, i.e. more of a giant staged show and close to zero actual policy debate).

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    • Civilis says:

      It’s not that English is superior to French, it’s that a language that can adapt its vocabulary by bringing in new words and concepts is one that has an advantage over one that cannot, and even more so than one that actively purges foreign words from its vocabulary. We already have perfectly good words for sushi and escargot, why would we want to purge them from our language because they are foreign?

      And French specifically is notorious for purging its language of foreign words. The same comparison applies when you compare French to other languages. Nobody’s going to rename Beisbol / Besuboru any time soon. Interestingly, the French word for Baseball is Baseball, though that may have to do with Canada.

      Also, consider English is also in widespread use because Great Britain controlled or influenced much of the world at one point or another.

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    • Scott Alexander says:

      I agree that language is a definite counterexample to my thesis. Universal culture would probably be much happier with Esperanto or Lojban. But language has unique dynamics in that it’s hard for one person to adapt a better language; you have to have everyone change over at once. In other words, it has much stronger founder effects than most domains.

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  87. Wrong Species says:

    Instead of separating out “universal” and western culture, I think it makes more sense to understand that western culture is itself diverse. Of course, any categorization is missing something but I think a better map of territory would be a separation of western culture in to three pieces. Traditional, modern and contemporary. Traditional culture would be western culture from pre-modern times. This includes Christianity, Roman history, and things of that nature. Modern culture is from everything before world war two. This includes nationalism and limited government. Contemporary is everything after ww2. This includes social justice and anti-colonialism.(Yes, the dates aren’t perfect but work with me here).

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    • Wrong Species says:

      For some reason my comment of what I want to say isn’t going through but it basically said that Western Culture is subjective and everything that you call universal is probably going to be subsumed in to something completely different. I think technocommercialism is possibly the future and many aspects of socialism are the past.

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  88. Jacobian says:

    You know, it strikes me that our own loose gray tribe is doing remarkably well indeed. We aren’t held hostage by immigration or even hostile government, our culture can exist with most of its member spread around the world and only a few hotspots. The average adherent of our culture is in the top 1% globally by most measures of success, and we are well positioned for the future through our focus on education, science and technology. Our culture isn’t popular, but it strikes me that it converts a much higher percentage of people than it loses to rival ideologies. As long as the internet is on, we are thriving. If cultures do compete in an econo-Darwinian struggle, how long until we take over the world?

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    • Psmith says:

      If cultures do compete in an econo-Darwinian struggle, how long until we take over the world?

      Taking birth rates into account, sometime after artificial wombs and sufficiently advanced AI make human parenting optional.

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  89. The original Mr. X says:

    A few random thoughts:

    (1) As you point out with your heroin example, something can be (seemingly) good in the short term but do long-term damage to those who take it up. Indeed, I’d suggest that that’s what people who worry about the fragility of Western civilisation are concerned about: sure, “universal” (i.e., secular liberal) gender norms (say) might seem fun and liberating and spread in that way, but it’s possible/likely/certain that there are hidden costs which make them a net negative for societies that adopt them.

    (2) Given that highly religious couples are more likely to report greater relationship satisfaction and less likely to get divorced, it might be that secular liberal norms about gender and sex are worse on the individual as well as societal level, although people don’t realise this because the benefits tend to be more immediately obvious than the costs.

    (3) If these “universal” norms really are the low-entropy state, then why do we see so much effort being put into things like increasing female participation in the workforce, banning speech or actions deemed offensive to women and sexual minorities, and the like?

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