The Primacy Of Culture

PROGRESS HAS BECOME PUZZLING. WHEN HISTORY WAS thought to be cyclical, progress seemed impossible. However, a few centuries ago there was an outbreak of cheerfulness: progress seemed not only possible but inevitable. At least it would be if governments applied social learning, which is cumulative, through wise policies.

But recently the prerequisites of progress have become less clear. Consider the United States, which is flourishing, and Russia, which is (literally) sickening. The trajectories of both nations underscore the importance of culture--customs, mores, traditions, values, institutionalized ideas--rather than just legal institutions and economic policies as agents of progress.

Russia is remarkably resistant to progress, material and moral. Its imploding economy is now smaller than Denmark's, and public health is calamitous. Demographer Murray Feshbach reports in The Atlantic Monthly that radioactive and chemical contamination is rife. Russia's government reports that 76.5 percent of the children in one town are mentally retarded because of lead emissions, which nationwide are 50 times those in the European Union. Tuberculosis is widespread, and even basic pharmaceuticals are scarce. Some analysts expect mortality from this disease to increase 70-fold in the next few years--90-fold among children--and to exceed Russia's toll for heart disease and cancer.

AIDS and other infectious diseases (there has been a 30-fold increase in syphilis cases among girls 14 and younger), parasitic diseases, malnutrition, alcohol and violence continue to produce a horrifying anomaly in the industrial age: declining adult life expectancy. In America, says Feshbach, 83 percent of 16-year-old males will live to the age of 60. Only 54 percent will in Russia. One hundred years ago in European Russia the figure was 56 percent.

Can Russia take heart from Western Europe's--and America's--rapid progress from 19th-century conditions that today seem astonishingly primitive? Not necessarily.

Charles Dickens was, and still is, criticized for the number of children's deaths in his novels. Well. Dickens's biographer Peter Ackroyd notes that in 1839 almost half of London's funerals were for children under 10. The average age of death in London was 27--22 in the working class. London's air reeked of the putrescence of decomposing bodies erupting through the surface of overcrowded graveyards, and the stench of human excrement. It puddled in gutters in the middle of muddy streets, and in""cess lakes'' scattered through congested neighborhoods, such as the one where 2,850 people lived in 95 dilapidated houses. Families of eight in a single room were not unusual. Brown water, for washing and cooking, came unfiltered from the Thames. In November and December 1847 half a million of London's 2.1 million residents had typhus fever.

In late-19th-century France, milk, when not diluted by polluted water, was cut by plaster, lime, chalk, white lead and dried ground brains, according to historian Eugen Weber. In ""France: Fin de Siecle'' he writes that even among the middle and upper classes, ""washing was rare and bathing rarer,'' partly because of the cost of getting water above ground floors. Those who could afford to, bathed once a month. Toothbrushes were rarer than watches. Outside Paris, living was less refined. Rennes (population 70,000) had 30 tubs and two homes with private bathrooms. Clothes were cleaned rarely and people who wore underwear changed it rarely. ""No wonder pretty ladies carried posies,'' writes Weber of the days before deodorants.

Material betterment came in a rush, produced by economic and moral advances that were related in complex ways. However, as early as 1800 the economic welfare of Western Europe and North America was improving much faster than that of Eastern Europe, Russia or Latin America. The reason, argues Christopher DeMuth, head of the American Enterprise Institute, can be put in one word: culture.

Much meaning must be unpacked from that word, but the conclusion is: The spread of democracy, free markets, technology and information is not enough to rescue Russia, and many other nations, from the consequences of their cultural deficits. Such deficits, although not incurable, are intractable. Representative and limited government, freedoms of press, association and religion, all protected by an independent judiciary--these are necessary for rapid, sustained material and moral progress. But they are not sufficient.

DeMuth argues that any culture is the product of lengthy social evolution, and its ""gross and essential characteristics'' cannot be successfully modified by government interventions. However, the history of 19th-century Britain and America is replete with examples of social movements, often religious, that improved marriage, child rearing and schooling practices and promoted temperance, all of which contributed to cultural vitality.

In 1990 Herb Stein, drawing on 50 years' experience making and analyzing economic policy, told some visiting--and probably perplexed--Russians that ""the basic reason for our prosperity is that 120 million Americans get up in the morning and go to work to do the best they can for themselves and their families and previous millions did the same thing for two centuries.'' Which is why DeMuth believes that, in spite of the current talk about compassion as the saving social value, and all the recommendations of a feminized conservatism, ""the hard, competitive, masculine virtues--assertiveness, willingness to take risk, stoicism, cussed determination to prevail--are receiving much less attention than they should.''

""Conservatives,'' says DeMuth, ""should not be afraid to say of compassion what liberals say of passion: that it should be kept largely a private matter.'' And there is another lesson to be drawn, one pertinent to the current unpleasantness in Washington:

Government cannot revise culture, wholesale, but government has--it cannot help but have--cultural consequences. Thus those people who say government should be judged solely by its laws and economic policies, and not at all by its embodiment of morality and its example of personal conduct, do not understand the primacy of culture as a determinant of social health.