By Virginia Postrel
Libertarian intellectuals and activists know that culture matters. If I had a hundred bucks for every time I’d heard someone chalk up poverty to a black box called “culture” or demand that we “change the culture” or complain that Hollywood or the universities or the media or women in general are culturally biased against markets I could buy a vacation home. And not a cheap one, either.
That culture matters isn’t controversial. The real issue is that most libertarians simply aren’t terribly curious about how culture works. They treat it as an instrument—a tool for promoting or hampering the advancement of their political ideas—rather than a phenomenon worthy of its own careful observation and analysis.
Libertarians and classical liberals know and care about government. They know and care economics. They don’t know or care about culture.
One result is that, when faced with cultural outcomes they dislike, people who surely know better fall back on explanations that sound eerily reminiscent of how leftists and populists describe markets. Either a small group of powerful people determine the public’s attitudes and behaviors or somewhere there’s a magic lever and if we could find it and pull it everybody would agree with us. We just need a good documentary film and more celebrities!
But culture is not a tool. It is not a machine. It is an emergent order, as complex, dynamic, and intellectually interesting as the economy—and thoroughly entangled with it.
Here are a couple of useful definitions of culture:
- “a way of life of a group of people—the behaviors, beliefs, values, and symbols that they accept, generally without thinking about them, and that are passed along by communication and imitation from one generation to the next.”
- “the cumulative deposit of knowledge, experience, beliefs, values, attitudes, meanings, hierarchies, religion, notions of time, roles, spatial relations, concepts of the universe, and material objects and possessions acquired by a group of people in the course of generations through individual and group striving.”
Culture includes the topics newspapers put in their “culture” sections—arts and entertainment—and the rest of the newspaper as well. It encompasses how we think and behave. It determines who we trust or fear or censure. Culture shapes who we want to be and who believe we are. It is too important to be treated as an afterthought.
In a liberal order, however imperfect, the competition, criticism, innovation, and open-ended pursuit of better ways of doing things that characterize economic dynamism also give rise to cultural dynamism. Free individuals exercise voice and exit. They use what I’ve called “criticism by expression” and “criticism by example”—otherwise known as complaining and entrepreneurship—to shape new norms and institutions. And since the culture and the economy are not, in fact, separate spheres, the two forms of dynamism affect one another.
I’d like to suggest a few big questions through which classical liberals might make contributions to a better understanding of culture. These questions in no way exhaust the range of possibilities, but they give us somewhere to start.
How do cultural norms shift and why?
The mid-20th century period in which the modern libertarian movement arose is now looked upon with great nostalgia, especially in the United States. As my friend Brink Lindsey puts it, the right wants to live there and the left wants to work there.
When Donald Trump says “Make America Great Again,” the again refers to the world in which he grew up. The war was over, standards of living were rising, and new technologies from vaccines to synthetic fibers promised a better future.
Social critics of the day deplored mass production, mass consumption, and mass media, but the general public enjoyed their fruits. The burgeoning middle class happily replaced tenements with “little boxes made of ticky-tacky.” Snobs might look down on the suburbs, but families were delighted to settle in them. Faith in government was high, and other institutions—universities, churches, corporations, unions, and civic groups—enjoyed widespread respect.
It looked like a satisfactory equilibrium. But it wasn’t. The 1950s, after all, produced the 1960s.
Consider a series of best-selling books: The Lonely Crowd, by David Riesman, published in 1950; Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand and The Organization Man by William Whyte, both published in 1957; and The Feminine Mystique by Betty Friedan, published in 1963. All of these books, and undoubtedly others I’ve overlooked, took up the same essential theme: the frustration of the person of talent and integrity in a society demanding conformity and what Riesman called “other-directedness.”
These books succeeded in the economic marketplace, as well as the marketplace of ideas, because they tapped a growing sense of discontent with the prevailing social and business ethos. Their audience might have been a minority of the population, but it was a large, gifted, and ultimately influential one. Despite the era’s prosperity—or perhaps because of it—many people had come to resent social norms that demanded that they keep their heads down, do what was expected of them, and be content to be treated as homogeneous threads in the social fabric. The ensuing cultural upheaval, which peaked in the late 1970s, took many different forms, with unanticipated results.
One of the most paradoxical examples I’ve run across comes from Dana Thomas’s 2015 book Gods and Kings,1 on the fashion designers Alexander McQueen and John Galliano. It’s about Galliano, who was born in Gibraltar and grew up in South London as the son of a plumber. His career, Thomas comments in passing, was made possible by two cultural phenomena: Thatcherism and punk.
How could that be? After all, Thatcherism and punk are usually seen as antagonistic. I asked Thomas about it in an interview. “Both were breaking down British social rules and constraints,” she said. Punk brought together kids of all classes, while Thatcher’s economic reforms encouraged entrepreneurship.
- If you had an idea and you had the backing then you could make it happen, no matter what your dad did in life or your mother did in life or where you came from or what your background was, or where you grew up or what your accent sounded like. These were all barriers before. So it double-whammied for Galliano. It was great. Because it allowed him to get out of South London, get into a good art school and be seen as a bona fide talent on his own standing, as opposed to where he came from. And he was also able to get the backing to start his company, because there was more money out there. It gave him more freedom. Before punk and before Thatcherism, chances were the son of a plumber was not going to wind up being the head of a couture house.
If you care about the open society, how could you not be interested in a phenomenon like that? How exactly do such transformations take place, and what are their unexpected ripple effects? What processes of experimentation and feedback are at work? Could a young designer do the same thing today and, if not, why not? Are these moments of cultural and economic opportunity inherently fleeting?
What is the relation between merit and value?
Today’s cultural values and assumptions are as different from those of the mid-20th century as a modern container port is from the harbor in On the Waterfront or a contemporary coffeehouse is from a midcentury diner.
Classical liberals whose intellectual roots are in the mid-20th century often refer to themselves as individualists because, in the middle of the 20th century, their focus on the value, freedom, and agency of the individual made them distinctive.
By the last quarter of the 20th century, that distinctiveness had disappeared. Individualism was no longer a dissenting view. It was the cultural norm, expressed in phrases like “do your own thing” and “follow your bliss.” Social critics began fretting about “expressive individualism” and “bowling alone.”
In both markets and culture, the blue-collar values of loyalty, solidarity, security, and physical production, have largely given way to the creative-class values of creativity, self-expression, risk-taking, and brains. It’s the revenge of the nerds. The winners are symbolic analysts. The losers are guys good with their hands. For those who adhere to the old values, the shift can be infuriating. Many people suddenly feel not merely economically insecure but culturally disrespected.
In The Constitution of Liberty, Friedrich Hayek made the important point that we should not confuse what the market values at a given point in time with what is meritorious. Market value is strictly a matter of relative scarcity—of supply and demand, of the technologies and production functions of the moment. Commanding a higher salary doesn’t demonstrate your intrinsic superiority. Your economic value is historically contingent and separate from your merit.
Naturally people who think their merit should command higher pay don’t appreciate such cold analysis. And economically successful people absolutely hate the idea. I once interviewed a Harvard professor about his experience teaching Hayek.2 Of all Hayek’s ideas, he told me, the merit-value distinction was the one his students found least congenial. “Hard-working, successful, achievement-oriented Harvard students don’t like that idea,” he said. “They’re troubled with the idea that there’s a lot of luck.” So are many libertarians.
As a moral and intellectual point, the merit-value argument is tremendously important. For starters, it is empirically correct. The circumstances of your time and place do determine the potential rewards of your efforts and native gifts. But in treating merit and value as separate phenomena, Hayek’s distinction may be missing how culture (merit) and the economy (value) actually interact. Where do our ideas of merit come from anyway, and how do they relate to economic conditions?
In her account of the Great Enrichment, Deirdre McCloskey argues that a shift in cultural norms about merit led to a vast increase in wealth.3 If she’s right, how did that change come about? The merit ascribed to bourgeois commercial venturing has had its ups and downs over the centuries. Do they track at all with economic value?
Might merit, like value, flow to what is productive but scarce? My husband Steven Postrel argues that “merit tracks value with a lag.” In this formulation, when the economy rewards certain qualities, over time people come to praise those attributes and honor those who exhibit them. I’m not sure Steve’s right, but you can certainly find examples to support his theory.
In 1956, defying the era’s powerful norms of corporate loyalty, a group of engineers dubbed “The Traitorous Eight” left Shockley Semiconductor to start their own company, Fairchild Semiconductor. That startup gave rise to a second generation of companies, including Intel, which gave rise to still others, and on and on. As Silicon Valley grew, employee behavior once deemed traitorous became the new, much-admired norm of high-tech entrepreneurship. Would we admire that behavior if it didn’t produce wealth?
When does value shape ideas of merit or vice versa? Are there any patterns, or these cultural and economic qualities as separate as Hayek suggested?
How does the concept of creative destruction apply to culture?
Economic dynamism’s trial-and-error learning can look pretty ugly when you’re in the middle of it. Startups fail. Long-standing companies go out of business. People lose their jobs. Cities, regions, or countries decline even as others rise. Investors lose money. Skills developed over a lifetime suddenly become worthless. In the short term, the costs and benefits fall unevenly. In the long run the world is better off—dramatically so, as McCloskey’s work demonstrates.
Is the same thing true of culture? The transitions to new norms can certainly be ugly. We need only look at the emotionally charged hearings on U.S. Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh’s alleged sexual misconduct as a teenager. Pull back from the specifics of this case and you see cultural dynamism at work. Norms are shifting.
Looking back at the coming-of-age movies popular in the early and mid-1980s, the Scottish journalist Alex Massie observes4:
- At precisely the time when Brett Kavanaugh was a senior at Georgetown Prep and an undergraduate at Yale, movies such as Revenge of the Nerds, Fast Times at Ridgemont High, and Sixteen Candles routinely treated date rape and statutory rape as vehicles for laughs. The kind of boorish, frat-boy behaviour Kavanaugh is accused of was entirely typical of the time and the culture…. None of this means Kavanaugh is guilty. Nor, of course, does it absolve him. But what was more or less mainstream then—particularly in the elite milieu in which he moved—is not considered acceptable now.
The culture is groping toward new standards of behavior. People are trying to find a way to combine sexual liberation and gender equality with gentlemanly propriety and skepticism about drunkenness. It’s the 1970s meets the 1870s, with unpredictable results.
The risk of moral panic and false charges is high. As someone who worries about such things, I’m not entirely comfortable with viewing this process as a cultural dynamic driven by criticism, competition, and feedback. But that’s what’s happening. We’re in the middle of a trial-and-error process, and mistakes are inevitable. The previous equilibrium was unstable and unjust. Finding an alternative is hard.
If classical liberals better understood—or simply were more interested in—how culture evolves, we might have more constructive insights to contribute to the process. What can a liberal analysis tell us about cultural change? Do institutions of experimentation and feedback work to correct errors in cultural systems as they do in economics? Are there significant differences that might affect outcomes? Are the time scales similar or different? Are there institutions that might limit the collateral damage—a worthwhile question in the case of economic dynamism as well?
Each of these three big questions could supply a lifetime’s research agenda for many different people—and they are only a few of the myriad cultural topics that deserve the attention of thinkers who care about the open society. My own work on culture, in fact, largely deals with other topics.
Cultural analysis is psychologically more challenging than economic analysis. We live inside our cultures. Whether we accept or reject prevailing norms, they influence how we think. We have rooting interests. It’s hard to be objective. But it’s worth trying, if only because cultural reality has a way of carrying the day.
 See, for example, “The Kavanaugh hearings mark a low point in a low era of American politics”, by Alex Massie. CapX.co, September 28, 2018.
*Virginia Postrel is an author, columnist, and speaker whose work spans a broad range of topics, from social science to fashion, concentrating on the intersection of culture, commerce, and technology. Postrel is the author most recently of The Power of Glamour: Longing and the Art of Visual Persuasion, published by Simon & Schuster. Her previous books are The Substance of Style (2003) and The Future and Its Enemies (1998). She is a regular columnist for Bloomberg View and writes a bimonthly column on history and material culture for Reason Magazine, of which Postrel was the editor from July 1989 to January 2000. Under her leadership, Reason was a finalist for the National Magazine Awards, the industry’s highest honor, for essays in 1993 and public interest journalism in 1996 and in 1998, when Reason had two finalist articles. She founded Reason.com in 1995, establishing Reason as an online pioneer.