August 16, 2004

Success: Memes or Materials?

In the midst of a post about the battle in Najaf, blogger Wretchard made a remarkable statement:

Civilization does not principally consist of bricks and mortar, but in a set of commonly accepted values and restraints. If the inhabitants of the sub-Saharan Africa and the United States could be exchanged instanteously; the one materializing in suburban homes and the other in wattle huts, the material imbalance would be reversed again within ten years, because the technology and civilization of Americans is carried in their heads and not in their possessions. There would be nothing Americans could not rebuild in Africa; and there would be nothing Africans could repair or replace in America.

This is an interesting thought experiment. What would happen if we Americans magically switched places with the population of part of the third world? The speed at which we could get things "up and running" if we found ourselves in Arabia would depend I think on how we were dispersed. If we were still together as families, and communities were still roughly intact, we could be back up and going very quickly. If we were dispersed randomly – my next door neighbor on the opposite side of the country - my wife and kids who-knows-where – it would take much longer. The Herculean task of getting families reunited would be second in priority only to basic necessities.

Assuming though that communities were moved basically intact (as much as the new geography allows), what would be our priorities?

  • Basic necessities
  • Defense
  • Economy
  • Retaking of portions or all of our old homeland

…in that order. These tasks would overlap, but this would be the rough order of our priorities.

Those that would disagree with Wretchard's conclusion – that the material imbalance would be reversed again quickly – no doubt believe that much of our success is due to our national resources. We do have abundant resources, but success hardly requires it. Japan is a good example of success based upon people rather than resources. And the Arab countries give us some evidence that material resources can actually get in the way of advancement by empowering an elite ruling class.

Ralph Peters has said that "national success is eccentric. But national failure is programmed and predictable."

Even assuming that our population could never return home (that pesky magic again) we would find a way to succeed. It would be a much different country than we live in now, but we would create another eccentric success.

North America, on the other hand, would become the same economic and intellectual pit that Arabia is now. Peters' seven failure factors would travel with the population:

  1. Restrictions on the free flow of information.
  2. The subjugation of women.
  3. Inability to accept responsibility for individual or collective failure.
  4. The extended family or clan as the basic unit of social organization.
  5. Domination by a restrictive religion.
  6. A low valuation of education.
  7. Low prestige assigned to work.

Many Muslims seem to believe that we succeed in order to humilate them. That we might pursue happiness independent of our feelings of the Muslim world has apparently not occurred to them.

We succeed because we carry with us certain "commonly accepted values and restraints" that cull for success. A good example comes from one of our worst leaders – Nixon.

Nixon fought the release of his tapes all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court arguing Presidential privilege. The court's final decision was that such a privilege does exist, but found that Nixon's tapes fell within an exception to the privilege. In discussing his options with his attorneys it is said that Nixon was reminded that he had command of the military, and that the court has no army.

As weird and as corrupt as he was, Nixon didn't go there. His decision to dutifully obey the Court's order and turn over the incriminating tapes may have been the best and most important thing Nixon did as President. Whether he had a pardon deal with Ford or not, he still felt the "values and restraints" of our history.

Another Nixon anecdote: at some point after the crime one of the Watergate burglars, G. Gordon Liddy, reported that he went to the President and told him that he was Catholic and would, therefore, have to tell the truth if placed under oath and was also unable to commit suicide. He would, however, follow the President's order to be at a particular place at a particular time if need be. Nixon's response, according to Liddy, was "we'll not do that."

If this really happened like Liddy recounts, Nixon's response might have been closer to, "get out of my office you melodramatic kook." I guess we'll never know. Can you imagine this scene being repeated in Saddam's Iraq? "Why thank you Mr. Liddy. Does right now work for you?" BAMM!

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Phil comments:

Very interesting. I have a feeling that it might take more than 10 years for America to get back on its feet if we were to be transplanted to such an environment -- not for lack of resources, but for lack of infrastructure. We're several generations in now on expecting clean water and electricity to be givens. Throw us into the wilds and the path from point A to point B might not be as easy as it once was.

I guess I'm saying we're spoiled. But we would turn it around in time.

Posted by Stephen Gordon at August 16, 2004 01:59 PM | TrackBack