America's Cultural Endowment

by Conor Friedersdorf

Will Wilkinson writes:

There is no form of libertarianism that simply falls out of our cultural endowment, as American moral culture has never been remotely libertarian. The average Tea Partier is, like the average voter, a collection of reflexes, prejudices, resentments, and demands that add up to no coherent philosophy at all. The heritage of the progressive managerial social insurance state is no less an authentically American one than is the heritage of Jim Crow apartheid, the heritage of utopian collectivist frontier communes, or the heritage of founding-era republican liberty for propertied males. It is the business of conservative elites to fabricate a narrative and ideology of authentic Americanism, and to convince the right-leaning public that this is what their particular concatenation of impulses really comes to, in order to give it some strategically useful partisan shape and motivation. Reasoned public deliberation, passionate rhetorical jousting, and bullshit heritage mongering are all among the selection pressures that shape the course of cultural evolution.

I largely agree with this, but for an important caveat: America's longstanding political institutions, and its Founding values, are political endowments with cultural components. The average voter, while he or she isn't remotely libertarian in moral culture, does subscribe to certain institutionally embedded, culturally influenced beliefs: for example, due to our Constitution, rights like free speech, religious freedom, and the right to bear arms are embraced here relatively more than in other liberal democracies.

In a lot of ways, the impulse to build America's cultural landscape around our Founding values is a healthy project, even though it's a myth that past generations lived in better accordance with those values than we do now.