Slaves To Culture

Bryan Caplan started a stir Monday, saying women were freer in 1880 than today:

Women of the Gilded Age were very poor …  But from a libertarian standpoint, they were freer than they are on Sex and the City.  … Marriage was still voluntary.  … One exception to the feme covert rule [limiting wife property] was in the instance of a prenuptial contract. All colonies accepted these contracts, but few couples signed them. … In economies with primitive technology and big families, it makes perfect sense for men to specialize in strength-intensive market labor and women to specialize in housework and childcare – and for default rules to reflect this economic logic.

Today Bryan says Amish women today are as free as others.  Tyler’s “views are close to those of” Will Wilkinson:

One way to deny an individual the ability to choose really freely is to raise her in a way that constantly cultivates and reinforces a set of preferences and expectations that fit comfortably within a social and legal order of paternalistic control and systematic inequality of status and rights. … I take it that [Bryan] would be unwilling to endorse slavery even if slaves could be conditioned from childhood to consent to their chains?

Judging relative freedom across centuries seems hard; so many things have changed.  But the idea that we should discount voluntary choices in other cultures more than in ours because of their supposed cultural brainwashing is pretty arrogant.

Sure the choices of the Amish, or of Utah polygamists, are greatly influenced by their culture.  Same for typical US folks of 1880.  Yes, I might want a chance to warn the young of other cultures against committing to their culture’s life plan, until they’ve considered the virtues of my culture’s plans.  Yes, I could imagine a hyper open culture that went out of its way to get its kids to consider a wide range of possible plans before committing.  And yes, we are now are rich, and wealth can buy many freedoms.

But other than being rich, we are not an especially open culture; on the whole our young are just as brainwashed into doing things our way as are the young of most cultures.  Is it really obvious, for example, that should devote so many of our early years to schooling?  Our descendants may well be as horrified by our common commitments, as we are by those of our ancestors.

Most folks in most cultures voluntarily commit to their culture’s usual life plans.  The young tend to be freer than the old, but once they have committed, they become less free.  The young enslave their future older selves, tying them to choices favored by their culture.  In this way we all become slaves to our culture.  I’ve argued we should try harder to overcome this provincialism:

Try to celebrate, and truly listen to, honest intellectual travelers, who take the time to be trained in other cultures, disciplines, and schools, which then influences their thoughtful contributions.

But to just assume that others are less free because they don’t do things our way is simple inexcusable arrogance.

Added 10p:  When the issue is marginal cultures, like Amish or polygamists, surely they are much more aware of dominant culture plans and arguments than vice versa.  Remove the log from your eye before you try to remove the speck from theirs.

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  • Rob
  • They may be as free in the (useless?) sense you mean, but there’s another sort of ‘freedom’ which is probably more relevant to people’s wellbeing:

    “An index measuring whether one would accept people of another race, immigrants, or homosexuals as neighbors shows a significant positive effect at the country-level: People living in more tolerant societies tend to be happier, regardless of their own beliefs (Model 4.3). More open social norms concerning the role of women, ethnic diversity, and alternative lifestyles give people more freedom of choice in how to pursue happiness, and tolerance of diversity increased substantially during the past quarter century.”

    You say we are not especially open to deviancy from our norms, but I think the data would show people perceive themselves as free to pursue a wider range of lifestyles than they did in the past. Someone in mainstream US is certainly freer than an Amish to pursue their idiosyncratic interests without alienating everyone they know. Count me in for that sort of freedom.

  • Rob, our society happens to be the richest in the world, richer than the past, and happens to pride itself on its ethnic and sexual preference tolerance. It is far less tolerant on many other dimensions.

    I added to the post.

    • On what sorts of behavior is there more general social opprobrium now than in 1880 in the US or Australia?

    • Rob, in 1880, people tolerated others choosing from a wide range of medical treatments; “patent medicines” were popular and widely varied. Today we do not tolerate people using medical treatments, or even talking publicly about health effects of common things like alcohol, that have not been approved by our central authority.

  • If you had bothered reading the comments on the post, you would have seen it pointed out that in 1880, extramarital sex was illegal but raping you wife wasn’t. This makes them freer than 21st century professionals living in New York?

    • Violet

      This so much.

      The article seems to be arguing that the suffering was not “so terrible” and then making a leap of faith that they were freer.

  • James K

    When the issue is marginal cultures, like Amish or polygamists, surely they are much more aware of dominant culture plans and arguments than vice versa.

    Surely this applies to us vs. the past though. We are at least somewhat aware of the past, but there’s no way the citizens of 1880 could be aware of our culture.

  • novaseeker

    John Milbank, an English theologian, had an interesting perspective on the relative freedom of modernity a couple of years ago:

    What’s this about? Well I suppose fundamentally the collapse of all secular ideologies in the late 20th Century. One is left just with the truth of science as the reality of the modern. Science is the freedom to know and is Faustian. Beyond this is the right to choose one’s lifestyle. But of course one can’t interfere with the freedom or happiness of others nor the power of the State. The really crucial thing here which the left has missed is that sexual freedoms have increased exponentially while all other freedoms have declined.

    Today in Great Britain you scarcely have the right to demonstrate and a higher proportion of the population is in prison than are in China. The boy at the shop counter with no customers is not allowed to read a book to improve himself all day, but who cares what he gets up to with sex and drink after the shop closes? Of course there’s also a double think about sex—its all OK, male sexuality is nearly always exploitative, etc… But in general it would seem that, as Adorno and Horkheimer predicted, sexualization is intended to keep us all quiet: neurotic, hysterical, frustrated and unhappy but still ‘looking’. With sex divided from procreation, science and sexual freedom come together.

    So by supporting the total disjuncture of sex and procreation, the left is really supporting a new mode of fascism. ‘Women’ are lined up with science and choice in order to produce a new kind of ideal human subjectivity—male and autonomous and yet pliant in ‘female’ manner. The newly envisaged female body is the final site of the coming together of scientific objectivity and absolute freedom of choice. Perhaps one could even speak here of a new racism of the human race as such—it’s to be made the object of an endless ‘objective’ improvement and expression of a will to freedom/will to power. Of course this also means that the specific phenomenology of the female body is destroyed. It’s denied that this body is inherently linked both to the male body (as also vice-versa) and to another body that is itself and yet becomes not itself—the baby. Having denied the link of babies to men and also to women save as objects of their (‘male’) choice, babies thereby become pure consumer objects and all human personhood is abandoned.

    • Jackson

      Rather interesting. Sexual relations is by far *the* key issue, not so much the barometer as the determining factor of civilisation, or lack of. A mere glance at the barometer is enough to be aware of the Perfect Storm on the horizon.

  • stephen

    There seems to be an endogeneity problem. When discussing social norms people want to separate cultural preferences from the actual preferences of the individuals who create the culture. But its seems causality runs both ways.

    This reminds me of a discussion at TGGP’s a while back when Kerry Howley and Tod Seavey were arguing over something or other.

    It seems that if social norms are nothing more than the distribution of preferences over some space in a particular society at a particular time, then it is somewhat odd to say that that distribution is oppressive, unless we are talking about a small proportion of the population at one of tails.

  • Those poor hippies, they have to wear that uniform, tie die shirt with baggy green pants and long hair, you can spot them a mile away, not very utilitarian. And how about those poor young black men who have to wear those pants below the butt, they have to go around holding their pants up all day. I really feel for them.

    High heels are just evil and corporate men have to scrap their face with a razor each day. (OT: Do women prefer shaved faces?)

  • BTW 1880 had no war on drugs!

  • Sorry for the multiple posts.

    The young tend to be freer than the old, but once they have committed, they become less free.

    Boy I disagree with that. I think that youth culture is far more ridged and is in fact brutal toward non conformists.

  • Once the young commit they mostly become less free in the sense that once they have built things of value they don’t want to give them up by changing their minds. The young are free because they haven’t got much to lose. This is only enslavement of the old in the same way paying someone a lot if they do what you want them to is enslavement.

    There is also some social retribution for changing your mind much later in life, but I doubt it’s significant next to risking a career, marriage, lifestyle, friends, familiarity with your locale, routines and so on.

  • Ryan Vann

    Most commentary surrounding this seems to delicately avoid what I consider to be crucial; what exactly is meant by free? Are we talking legally allowed to engage in a wider variety of activities, or some more philosophical endowed sense of the word? Either way, I think Bryan is definitely wrong, but it would be nice to define our terms.

  • Ryan Vann

    “Boy I disagree with that. I think that youth culture is far more ridged and is in fact brutal toward non conformists.”

    I’d have to second this sentiment, assuming we are talking empowerment to do what we desire. Young people face pretty severe reprimand when they buck trends, as you mention. They also have limited assets (in the traditional financial sense), which some spin as having no entanglements, but I see as a huge barrier.

  • Philo

    “[W]e all become slaves to our culture.” Well, sort of. But this is using ‘slave’ metaphorically, in quite an extended sense. If my doing X is not against the law–so that it would bring upon me no formal (governmental) punishment–but I don’t do X because it is *not customary in my culture*, to which I am thoroughly acculturated, I am “free” to do X in Caplan’s sense of the term (Wilbin’s “useless (?) sense”). Only in some broader, looser sense am I “unfree.”

    Caplan’s critics mostly reject his simpleminded libertarianism because of its inadequate treatment of children; they think that the acculturation process may have been a *wrong done to the child*. Whatever the plausibily of endorsing a nightwatchman state for the imaginary situation where everyone is an adult from the start, they think the state must stand in some sort of quasi-paternal relationship to *children* (and it’s hard to disagree!). Thus, as it seems to the critics, the state’s responsibilities cannot be limited to *maximizing freedom*.

  • Philo

    Nevertheless, I find the question whether American women were freer (in Caplan’s narrow sense) in 1880 than in 2010 mildly interesting. He may be right that they were. But it’s *so* hard to figure out how to measure freedom.

  • Re: young vs. old, I put a comment on the Amish women post about how teenagers are more constrained than adults, yet they have free exit and should be considered free.

    But if we look at pre-pubescent children, they are a lot more free. They don’t have such conformist cliques, they feel little regret offending their friends (their parents have to scold them to get them to behave properly toward friends), etc.

    The cut-off for learning a new language is about 14; after that you’re committed to a particular culture. So here young vs. old is a pre vs post-pubescent split, not pre and post-21 or so.

  • Ian

    Simpler rationale supporting the decline of human freedom with time (applys to past few hundred years):

    1. freedom is euphemism for power
    2. obtaining power grows more difficult, on average, as population size increases

    • Ian

      I wish comments were editable. 🙂

  • Popeye

    “My colleague Bryan Caplan is the sharpest thinker I’ve personally known.”

    Someone interested in overcoming bias might be interested in updating his priors at this point.

    It’s almost as if… overcoming bias isn’t about overcoming bias.

  • Ez E

    “But other than being rich, we are not an especially open culture; on the whole our young are just as brainwashed into doing things our way as are the young of most cultures.”

    Can you give an example of an especially ‘open culture’?

    Interesting ideas but the term ‘culture’ is so vague to me that I never know what people mean by it.

  • Marvin Minsky on culture:

    The whole transcript

    ROBERT: But doesn’t this reflect what human beings really are?

    MARVIN: No. Most cultures exist because they’ve taught their people to reject new ideas. It’s not human nature, it’s culture nature. I regard cultures as huge parasites. I think each person has a lot of potential, and I find it painful when I’m introduced to somebody, say, in Europe, and when I hear that a man’s name is O’Brien, I know he’s Catholic. He didn’t choose it. His culture chose it. And to me that culture is an evil, mindless force that first teaches its values and then teaches you to fear other values. So, of course it looks like human nature, but it’s meme nature.

    ROBERT: “Meme” being a term coined by British biologist Richard Dawkins to describe the contagious spread of ideas that replicate like viruses and spread from mind to mind. Memes are inherited, like genes–they’re transferred from one person to another by imitation, and they compete as they spread throughout society. They’ve been described as “mind viruses,” caring only about their own propagation.

    MARVIN: They’re ideas that get into the brain. And the ones that stick best are the ones that are best at killing the other ideas.

    ROBERT: Don’t you have a culture in Cambridge at MIT?

    MARVIN: I have many cultures. Look, the other day I logged on to the Net because a little girl was asking me something, and I found a group of people who collect the whiskers of cats. There are only about fifty of them, all over the world. They spend a lot of time collecting these whiskers, and they send little E-mails to each other about how to find them. On a long-haired cat, the whiskers get blown around….Oh, well, forget it. The point is that I’m in a lot of cultures. Every week I find a culture, and I say, “I’m going to get into this.”

    FRANK: But you’re not really part of those cultures. You’re just a visitor.

    MARVIN: What do you mean, part? You mean it doesn’t eat up my whole brain? Thank God, no.

    MARVIN: I share norms and values with the chemists in our Chemistry Department. That’s a little culture. But I don’t want ninety percent of my mind eaten up by sharing the norms and values of a bunch of rules that were written thousands of years ago and don’t reflect anything good.

    MARVIN: What’s so great about tolerance? Do you mean we should teach our kids that all ideas are equal and good?

    MARVIN: It would be nice to prevent violence, but I don’t think that we should tolerate ideas that say, “It’s OK–let that poor person have his brain eaten by that set of ideas.” That offends me.

    MARVIN: But [cultural thinking] is a disease, yes? So critical thinking is not exactly an imposition; it’s more a cure. Most cultures, although they’ve defended themselves against other bad theological ideas, haven’t found a way to defend themselves against critical thinking very well, and they’re terrified.

    [Post edited to be <500 words. RH]

  • Stuart Armstrong

    Variety of life outcomes (in terms of careers, hobbies, income, life choices, etc…) seems a reasonable proxy mesure for level of liberty and lack of brainwashing. And by that measure, the modern USA does seem to have the past beat hands down.

    Of course there are subcultures, past and modern which score higher on this scale, but, in general, we moderns seem to be doing something right.