The Volokh Conspiracy

Mostly law professors | Sometimes contrarian | Often libertarian | Always independent


The 'bourgeois culture' controversy


Professors Amy Wax and Larry Alexander wrote an op-ed condemning the decline of "bourgeois culture" and suggesting that this decline helps explain many of the problems afflicting America today. In the process, they wrote:

[Bourgeois culture of the late 1940s to the mid-1960s] laid out the script we all were supposed to follow: Get married before you have children and strive to stay married for their sake. Get the education you need for gainful employment, work hard, and avoid idleness. Go the extra mile for your employer or client. Be a patriot, ready to serve the country. Be neighborly, civic-minded, and charitable. Avoid coarse language in public. Be respectful of authority. Eschew substance abuse and crime….

All cultures are not equal. Or at least they are not equal in preparing people to be productive in an advanced economy. The culture of the Plains Indians was designed for nomadic hunters, but is not suited to a First World, 21st-century environment. Nor are the single-parent, antisocial habits, prevalent among some working-class whites; the anti-"acting white" rap culture of inner-city blacks; the anti-assimilation ideas gaining ground among some Hispanic immigrants. These cultural orientations are not only incompatible with what an advanced free-market economy and a viable democracy require, they are also destructive of a sense of solidarity and reciprocity among Americans. If the bourgeois cultural script—which the upper-middle class still largely observes but now hesitates to preach—cannot be widely reinstated, things are likely to get worse for us all.

This predictably drew not just criticism but mischaracterization and calls for suppression; Heather Mac Donald has details on that in the National Review, which I won't repeat here (but which I urge you to read about).

My thinking: My parents brought me from a place—Soviet Russia—that had not just an oppressive political system and a failed economic system, but also (largely as a result but perhaps partly a cause of) a destructive culture, a culture characterized (much more than American culture) by cheating, shirking and distrust. They brought me to a country that thrived because of its superior cultural assets (which is not to deny that it had cultural weaknesses as well).

It seems to me indubitably clear that certain cultural traits, including the ones that Wax and Alexander note, are more conducive to societal success and long-term individual happiness and others are not. (The norm of raising children in stable, married two-parent families is one well-documented example.) Indeed, my sense is that most on the left actually believe that some cultural traits and some cultures are superior, just as most on the right do: It's just that they often praise different kinds of cultural traits, and different kinds of cultures and subcultures. Indeed, openness to other cultures is itself a cultural trait, one that different cultures possess to different extents and in different ways; so are, for instance, aversion to race discrimination, support for sexual equality and embrace of sexual freedom.

And of course there is nothing racially exclusive about positive cultural traits. All racial groups can benefit from adopting them (or from the good fortune of having been born into them), just as they can benefit from adopting successful political and economic systems (most reliably, by moving to places that have such beneficial political and economic systems and cultures, and raising their children to adopt those cultures). Indeed, many people of all racial groups, in the United States and elsewhere, eagerly seek to acculturate their children to the bourgeois traits that Wax and Alexander pointed to. Some nonwhites are actually likelier than whites to adopt—or not to abandon—the bourgeois values that Wax and Alexander note: For instance, the birth rate to unmarried mothers in the United States among Asians (16 percent) is about half that for non-Hispanic whites (29 percent).

Likewise, all racial groups can be harmed by adopting or being born into cultures with worse traits, just as they can be harmed from adopting failed political and economic systems. Indeed, the history of the second half of the 20th century well illustrates how both predominantly white and nonwhite societies have both thrived and suffered depending on which political, economic and cultural systems they have adopted or preserved (or had thrust upon them).

There is no doubt that there is a natural human tendency to overvalue one's own culture and to confuse the familiar with the superior. (There is also a tendency among some to do the opposite, but I think on balance that tendency is generally the weaker one.) Even Rudyard Kipling, who surely cannot be accused of "prais[ing], with enthusiastic tone, All centuries but this, and every country but his own," recognized this (which indeed was a great part of his literary quality and success):

Father, Mother, and Me
Sister and Auntie say
All the people like us are We,
And every one else is They.
And They live over the sea,
While We live over the way,
But—would you believe it?—They look upon We
As only a sort of They!

People who fall prey to this tendency can lose, and lose big. Let your prejudices against a foreign culture keep you from recognizing them as formidable competitors, and you'll find yourself lagging behind. Open your doors to productive immigrants, who can enrich your culture while assimilating to its key aspects, and you can profit immeasurably. How might the arms race in World War II have turned out if (a deeply counterfactual question, of course) the Nazis and their allies hadn't chased away many great European scientists but instead drew them in?

But it is equally unsound to reject the possibility that your own culture has great strengths that need to be preserved, renewed and returned to—or to reject talk of the superiority of various cultural traits altogether, or assume that such talk (which goes on, implicitly or explicitly, in many households of all races) is somehow just cover for claims of racial superiority.