Culture, Society, and Freedom of Association

The U.S. is truly a nation of immigrants.
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The right to be let alone in a world of cultural diversity

The right to be let alone, as Justice Louis Brandeis famously put it in “Olmstead v. United States”, is commonly associated with the right to privacy in the Fourth Amendment. The constitutional “[…] right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures […]” critically separates the spheres of life and wards off many dangers from the government. However, in a society so culturally diverse as ours, the right to be let alone takes on much greater significance than just separating the spheres between the individual and the state.

Bridges are not built overnight

A recent poll shows that Americans are divided on the role of culture in their society. Coming from Europe, the U.S. is undoubtedly a much more culturally diverse nation than most European countries, if not all. Unlike Switzerland, for example, Americans cannot rely on ethnic kinship for a shared identity. The U.S. is truly a nation of immigrants. The more surprising are the results of that poll showing that conservative and social-democratic opinions diverge in terms of fundamental cultural values.

Culture is a delicate issue. F.A. Hayek argued that culture matters and that it shouldn’t be denied in the political processes of a constitutional democracy, unless one wants to question the stability of a society. However, culture isn’t a rigid phenomenon either. The basic values of a society can change, and quite obviously, have done so significantly. Slavery, for example, once a shared value among many Americans and Europeans, was abolished in a justified fight against unjust values.

If we accept the fact that culture matters, we also have to concede that foreign culture should have a place in our society. This doesn’t mean, though, that people native to a country have to give up on their own values. Quite naturally, the burden of responsibility must rest on those who immigrate to a foreign culture. However, we shouldn’t expect that everyone is willing to assimilate entirely. And this is where the crux begins.

The “great society”, not government is the solution

Many bureaucrats think that seamless integration is simply a question of the right laws and forceful state mediation between two cultures. They assume that by designing sophisticated programs immigrants will necessarily start feeling as members of society. This is wrong, though. Hayek made clear that culture doesn’t work that way:

“[…] the extended order resulted not from human design or intention but spontaneously: it arose from unintentionally conforming to certain traditional and largely moral practices, many of which men tend to dislike, whose significance they usually fail to understand, whose validity they cannot prove, and which have nonetheless fairly rapidly spread by means of an evolutionary selection – the comparative increase of population and wealth – of those groups that happened to follow them.”

(F. A. Hayek, in: W. W. Bartley, III (ed.), The Fatal Conceit, Vol. 1 of The Collected Works of F. A. Hayek, Chicago 1988, 6)

To put it in a nutshell, culture is omnipresent, it possesses a formative role in life like no other informal social institution. Cultural values are deeply embedded in social relations, parenting, education, and so forth, which is why we should never expect perfect assimilation from top-down integration programs, as sophisticated as they may be.

However, the market, unlike any other institution, has the power to create peaceful cooperation among people of different cultures. It creates opportunities for those who are willing to integrate and to accept the traditions of the local population. Even more importantly, the market discourages people from thinking in entitlements. The culture of dependency, created by the welfare state, has not only made millions of individuals depending but has also evoked antipathy for foreigners and their diverse values with which they arrive at our borders. As Donald Trump’s presidential campaign platform impressively showed, once the state has created the feeling of being left behind, politics quickly becomes an outlet for racial slurs and cultural defamation.

A government siding with one group of its population is highly problematic. In doing so, it does not only sow a lot of mistrust and resentment among those people with conflicting opinions but also conveys the belief that government is able to solve the problem, if necessary using force.

What remains for us to do then?

What then are the ideal conditions for the peaceful coexistence of people of a different cultural background? The German classical liberal economist and philosopher, Roland Baader, once said that there exists only one human right, the right to be let alone (“Das einzig wahre Menschenrecht ist das Recht, in Ruhe gelassen zu werden […]”). This is in fact how every human tribe started off before becoming part of a more involved society. Well, some groups, like the Amish people in the U.S. and Canada, believe in the fulfilled existence of remaining unaffected by unfamiliar values till this day.

Oftentimes, however, foregoing the opportunities of cooperation will cost those people dear. In his book “Living Economics”, Peter Boettke shows that there exist myriad institutions that allow people to engage actively with each other, while living peacefully side by side. It is these “organic” institutions of self-governance that have proven themselves valuable throughout the world and that have supported people in coming together and starting exchanging not only goods but eventually ideas and their cultural heritage.

In a very biological sense, the right to be let alone gives us the time needed to prepare ourselves for the world outside of our “cultural backyard”. It is true that we will always have to accept that some people are not willing to become part of a more heterogenous society. As I said, this is their very right. And sometimes, we’ll even have to defend the principles of an open society against violent aggressors. However, to concede that culture matters, that of immigrants as much as ours, is the first step to recognize that peaceful community relies on everyone’s right to be let alone if he or she wishes to do so.

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