On the cultural roots of prosperity

Although history, technology, and local ecology all play crucial roles in determining how prosperous a nation is, those factors paint only part of the picture.

The quietly held assumptions and attitudes that make up the core values of a society are what ultimately determine the degree of economic and cultural vitality that the society will enjoy.

In particular, the distinguishing characteristic that determines whether a society prospers or not is how dedicated it is to building or making things of beauty and value.

What the society builds or makes does not need to be based on industrial technology for that society to be prosperous.

Prosperity is actually tied more closely to psychological health than to material accumulation. Activities that involve building are psychologically healthful, especially when they involve building things through cooperation with other groups or individuals.

The word "ethics", which comes from Greek ethos, meaning "behavior" or "habit", has an old-fashioned flavor. In fact, few subjects are more contemporary and immediately relevant.

The broader problem facing the world today is that no force strong enough to make a difference takes the role of consistently advocating the development of the health and prosperity of the human race as a whole.

The degree to which a society is oriented toward building and creativity is a key indicator of how healthy is its ethical core.

If the ethical core of a society is not healthy, then no economic or military policies can keep it from declining into poverty and despair, no matter how prosperous or powerful it was at the start.

On the other hand, if a society has a healthy ethical core, as may be shown by its orientation toward building and creativity, even calamities or periodic policy errors will probably not bring about a pernicious decline.

There are many more ways to die than to stay alive. Staying alive demands intelligent struggle. To go beyond mere survival and to thrive requires coordinated, creative intelligence.

The natural goal of individuals and societies is to thrive, yet often the behavior and policies (the "ethics") of individuals or societies do not lead to healthful thriving. Why do societies undo themselves and follow policies that lead to their own demise?

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Building means, first of all, taking responsibility to make sure those things get finished that are necessary to wellbeing. The determination to bring projects to completion, and not merely to start them or to talk about them, is a crucial trait of a prosperous society.

Prosperity depends on being able to act decisively and collaboratively to mend the roof promptly, before the timber starts to rot.

As an example, the failure to take responsible action with regard to issues of climate change and the environment means that the whole world now faces the potentially impoverishing effects of that negligence (to say the least).

As a matter of first order, a prosperous society must be willing to build its human resources infrastructure, which includes education, health care, and public safety (including among other things, effective law enforcement that cannot be corrupted).

Again, this need not be done exclusively in the Western way; various societies will have their own ways of approaching this.

For a constructivist culture (a culture based on building) to take hold, the individuals and groups in a society have to be confident that they will see the fruits of their labor. For that, the rule of law is necessary.

Arbitrary despotism, oligarchy, and cronyism are all symptoms of prosperity-impairing cultural traits in a society.

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Consider what an unreservedly constructivist society would be like. The presence of the following major principles serve as solid predictors of whether or not a society will grow and maintain its prosperity.

Few societies could ever have all these qualities, but to the extent that they had such qualities, the societies would probably be more prosperous than their neighbors.

A crucial characteristic of thriving societies is that individuals and groups can safely trust their fellow citizens and their institutions.

If that trust is damaged, the society begins to descend into poverty, because the society will lose the qualities mentioned below.

#1   A constructivist society tends to place a high value on beauty and on living things.

People who are accustomed to spending their lives building things of value appreciate valuable things in their environment, including living things (the fruit of nature's creativity).

In contrast, people who spend their lives only consuming what others have made rarely appreciate the effort needed to create quality. Such people will often resent what they cannot have, because consumption leads to an unquenchable thirst for more consumption.

An important part of prosperity is the creation and enjoyment of beautiful things, without which a civilization becomes nothing but a sterile economic machine.

#2   People in a constructivist society tend to form alliances and cooperate willingly with others to fulfill projects that would otherwise be beyond their scope.

People who practice constructivist ethics quickly realize that most projects are larger than what they can do as individuals or in a single lifetime.

Indeed, most worthwhile projects, such as building an architecturally rich city, or building a body of artistic or scientific experience, can stretch for generations.

Consider the constructivist thinking that led to the centuries-long building of cathedrals in Europe (and how unlikely it is that they would be built in a contemporary capitalist economy with an unfortunate emphasis on short-term gain).

The drive to be creative encourages people to set aside differences and to work together with groups that have distinct backgrounds or viewpoints. Constructivist ethics lead to a practical climate of tolerance.

Constructivist societies are willing to accept differences as a source of strength and new thinking, but they also work toward embracing unity.

Diversity in culture is a strength as long as all segments contribute to and share some sort of common identity. A multicultural society can be as parochial, segregated, and sterile as a monocultural one if participating cultures do not share a tangible set of values and interests that bond one other together.

#3   A constructivist society tends to invest in building infrastructure and institutions for the long term.

This principle is similar to the previous one, but this one emphasizes society working as a whole.

People who are committed to building, and building for its own sake, clearly tend to accept longer term bets than those who live for immediate gratification or fulfillment of basic needs.

Ethically constructive people are willing to sacrifice short-term gain or certainty in hope of long-term benefit.

Without a firm commitment to building for the future, spending on the present becomes irresistibly exaggerated. Consumption is precisely the opposite of investment. Societies on the rise emphasize investment; those in decline emphasize consumption.

Healthy, vigorous societies are "civic-minded"; that is, individuals are personally committed to building stronger, healthier communities.

#4   A constructivist society tends to permit any activity that is not clearly destructive.

People who practice constructivist ethics are interested in prohibiting only what degrades or interferes with building up.

What is not otherwise specifically forbidden is allowed, and what does no harm to others is not forbidden.

Much of the world is under the curse of moralism, fundamentalism, or superstitious thinking. In constrast to constructivism, those habits of mind generally prohibit everything except what is specifically allowed. Only that which is enumerated or sanctified by the religion is allowed.

Constructivist societies prefer to "live and let live" as long as no harm is being done to others. They create restrictions only when one person's or group's actions might intrude unacceptably on another's, and then only as a last resort. Prosperity depends on a reflexively libertarian social bias.

Prosperous societies are usually those that give latitude to individuals and groups to pursue their own destinies with minimal interference from any central authority.

#5   Constructivist societies are habitually committed to the free and undistorted distribution of information.

This last point is perhaps the most crucial, because the free, undistorted spread of information is needed for ensuring the effectiveness of adversarial processes.

A close look at the physical world shows that everything is in the process of becoming. Only process exists, not substance. The illusion of substance occurs when processes are too subtle to be easily perceived.

At the level of human societies, an important set of processes are what we might call adversarial processes, or processes that maintain themselves by balancing conflicting forces.

Examples of adversarial processes are fair markets, the legal system (wherever there is an advocate for both the prosecution and the defense), peer-reviewed scientific research, and refereed sporting events.

Competition can bring dynamism and creativity, or it can lead to destructive exploitation. Adversarial processes themselves are neither intrinsically good nor bad.

The search for solutions to many complex problems for which there is no single correct solution or for which a solution is difficult to discover will benefit from adversarial processes.

Prosperity depends on being able to act decisively and collaboratively to mend the roof promptly, before the timber starts to rot.

Those processes can lead to emergent results that exceed the expectations of any of the competing parties, by solving problems too complex to solve through more direct means.

They can also have significant residual side effects that benefit people other than the immediate winners of the contest.

For the side effects to be beneficial, a necessary but not sufficient requirement is that the information gained as a result of the outcome be accurate and as complete as possible.

When adversarial processes work well they can yield valuable information. Willing buyers and sellers in a balanced and open market can help work out useful prices so that trade can take place. Well trained and impartial attorneys can help decide subtle points of justice.

Of course, adversarial processes can break down for many reasons. An adversarial process can work well only if the relative strengths of players are roughly in balance.

If one side has overwhelming power the process loses its information-creating effectiveness.

For similar reasons, transparency is critical to maintaining the information-creating effectiveness of adversarial processes. Transparency can only be enforced if all participants understand its importance and insist on its maintenance.

Unfortunately, adversarial processes tend to degrade, as tolerance grows for players who use deception to win. When winning the game only, rather than excellence in competition, is seen as the supreme good, then the adversarial process will lose many of its beneficial side effects.

Those who stand to lose the most when competitions are corrupted are not necessarily the competitors themselves, but rather those who seek the side benefits that adversarial processes yield.

One common form of corruption is "spin", or the practice of withholding unfavorable information or casting a situation in a light that makes oneself look better than one would look if all points of view were taken into consideration. The justification for practicing spin is generally that "if we don't do it, our competitors will."

The widespread use of spin in politics means the emergent winner does not necessarily win based on overall merit but instead on the mere ability to manipulate media and create superficial impressions.

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While many of the past challenges to survival long faced by human beings have come from nature, today's challenges come from life-insulting practices arising within human societies themselves.

Those practices usually have to do ultimately with placing some principle higher than life or health: that could be political power, religiously or racially based teachings, or an untempered obsession with corporate-industrial profit.

Any practice that hinders individuals or groups from flourishing and growing to their full potential is life-demoting.

Fundamentalist Muslims and Christians, for example, place their ideas about moral behavior above the needs all humans have to grow and explore. No matter how seemingly noble the cause, if the cause is elevated above health and life, it impairs the economic development of a society.

Unhealthy societies are generally societies in decline. One trait of societies in decline is that they become excessively individualistic, and adversarial processes break down as players gain overwhelming force over each other.

In contrast, vigorous societies are generally "tomorrow-minded". They encourage investment in human capital.

In industrialized economies, that may be through formal education, public safety, sanitation, health care, and an uncorrupted legal process.

Investment in human capital is the basis of vigorous, efficient capitalism.

Together with willingness to invest in shared infrastructure is the expectation that each individual or group will contribute as much as or more than they take. Those principles go hand in hand. A society cannot at once build up the common good while also spending it down.

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Interestingly, the United States, which became the most powerful nation ever, is now in full decline, because it is shifting from being a constructivist society to increasingly become instead an uncompromisingly individualistic, consumption-obsessed society intent on finding easy answers.

The declining fortunes of the United States will grow more obvious during the next decade.

That decline began just as the United States reached its greatest military supremacy. Ironically, the voices of so-called "patriotism" are driving the nation to weaken itself by overreaching its power and squandering its advantages, just as many earlier empires also have done, before finally exhausting themselves.

Unhealthy societies are susceptible to disease, as unfit bodies are. Extremist politics are an example of societal disease, and in recent years the government of the United States has been marching briskly toward fascism with a Christian fundamentalist face.

Constructivist thinking led to the building up of middle-class prosperity in the United States. Fascism is based on the adoration of power. The influence of those who wish to see all wealth concentrated in the hands of a powerful elite is rising sharply in the United States.

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The broader problem facing the world today is that no force strong enough to make a difference takes the role of consistently advocating the development of the health and prosperity of the human race as a whole.

Nations advocate their own interests, and in particular the interests of their ruling elites. Every group advocates its own interest above those of the nation, and every individual pushes his or her interests above those of any other unrelated person.

In part, that is a natural outworking of adversarial processes. However, if it is not done constructively, with transparency, tolerance, and an eye to cooperation for the purpose of building a greater advantage for all, the result will waste human creative potential.

To a great extent, the fortunes of a nation depend on the degree to which its most influential people understand the importance of constructivist ethics and cultivate those ethics in the general population.

Clearly, the interests of powerful individuals and groups will shape the ethics of a society. If influential people are constructivist, then the society will progress quickly toward prosperity, but if influential people defend their own interests alone, then the society will stay mired in poverty.

When influential people are enlightened, they understand that their own interests will likely also benefit from a prosperous society.

A nation whose ruling class has an "adult" mentality, taking responsibility for building the future of the nation, will grow much more prosperous over the long term than a nation whose rulers squander the national potential on their own indulgence.

Likewise, in nations whose leaders contrive to appropriate or steal the public commonwealth, such as public lands or funds set aside for developing the health, education, or safety of the people, the growth of the nation will suffer as a result.

What can be done to make sure that influential people become enlightened enough to promote constructivist ethics?

Probably there is no simple answer to that question, and that is in part why the fortunes of nations rise and fall, according to how dedicated their leaders are to creativity.

Actually, there are three answers that go a long way toward meeting the challenge.

They are "education, education, and education": broad education for the general population, deep education for academic specialists, and practical education for technicians and business administrators.

While education alone is probably not sufficient (take Cuba and Argentina as examples to the contrary), it is arguably as effective a starting point as any. Investing heavily in education for all citizens, especially the less well off, will yield the most likely returns in terms of prosperity. Post-secondary education should be free of charge but academically rigorous.

Experience has shown clearly in less developed countries that improving access to education for women, as well as winning equal rights for women, is the most effective path to economic development, self-sufficiency, and population control in those countries.

Let us learn and prosper.

Michael Webb, 2005

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