Combating Political Religion: How Small Government, Free Market Dogma Fails to Account for Observable Reality

There is growing sense that those interested in finding out what is true of the world are becoming a rarer and rarer breed. Everywhere we look, someone is trumpeting some blatant inanity. Vaccines cause autism. Adding flouride to water is a government conspiracy. Genetically modified organism are dangerous. Organic food is particularly nutritious. Christians are a persecuted minority. The 44th President was a foreign national and communist agent. The 9/11 Terror Attacks were an inside job. The world is only 6000 years old. Humans can’t influence the climate.

Nonsense is everywhere, but the impression that it is more prevalent than ever is mostly a matter of appearances. Humans are innately tuned to focus on the negative aspects of their environment. Good reasons for this abound, easily distilled in the recognition that it is far more consequential for us to spend our time thinking about the things that could be better than it is to spend it thinking about the things that are going just fine. On the landscapes of our ancestors, where decisions about what to pay attention to were a regular matter of life and death, it was vitally important to take note when things were about to turn sour – when herds of prey were about to migrate to a new territory, when seasonal changes were about to reduce the availability of edible fruits, when an unfriendly band of visitors turned up in your neighborhood.

So it is today. We perk up and pay extra attention when our political rivals take office or slow down and drive more carefully after passing an accident on the side of the road. The idea that we live in a world anomalously dominated by halfwits and conspiracy theorists isn’t due to the fact that halfwits and conspiracy theorists are more common than they once were. Rather, it is due to two related facts.  First, that we have access to the knowledge necessary to identify half-witted and conspiratorial thinking. Second, erroneous views about the world are obnoxious at best, dangerous at worst. Because of this, they tend to stand out. It’s unfortunate that only some of us use the knowledge constantly at our fingertips to build a more consistent, reliable understanding of the world. But the larger reality – that any of us have access to any of that information at all – is the real historical aberration.

Ignorance persists despite the proliferation of tools for its easy obliteration. As a consequence, individuals with any amount of expertise in a given subject are likely to take note of the fact that a lot of their peers have firm beliefs about the way things work that are flat-out wrong. The resilience of discernible falsehoods is an unremarkable product of historical inertia. In that, we should rejoice – not that they are still around, but that we now know how to spot them.

Unfortunately, there are situations in which the perpetuation of obviously false views about how the world works can achieve special gravity. This happens when the people who hold the levers of power embrace attitudes that are thoroughly divorced from reason and evidence. Historically, we can point to the woe and misery wrought by efforts to force the square peg of communist fantasy into the round hole of reality as illustrative examples. Men like Mao Zedong and Joseph Stalin held views about the way the world should work that had very little basis in fact. They achieved power and millions of humans suffered and died as a result.

Sadly, this is not a phenomenon that has been consigned to history books. In the United States, this kind of thing pervades government.  Powerful men and women who harbor ill-founded and objectively false ideas about how the world works are currently engaged in the cruel work of hammering Western society into a form that better fits their perverse vision. They are not communists, but like communists they celebrate a vision of society based far more in fantasy than in observable reality. In this, their categorical affinity with communists is striking:  that is, they are ideological fanatics.

Their fanaticism flows from two doctrinaire beliefs. First, that market liberalization results in the best kind of society possible. The fewer restrictions there are on the way people make money, the better off we will all be. This view can be reduced to a simple slogan: “markets produce the best possible distribution of wealth and resources.” Second, that government is the source of all evil. They believe that the only legitimate role for government is to militarily secure and protect an open field for profit generation. This perspective is captured by the old aphorism, “that government which governs least governs best.”

An immediate problem with both views is that they are meaningless tautologies. They don’t produce useful criteria for judging whether or not they are actually true. Instead, they frame things in such a way that any outcome that results from liberalizing markets or decreasing the size of government is granted a priori status as the best possible outcome that could have happened. For an ideologue, this is a useful definition. For anyone concerned with actually evaluating how accurate these prescriptions are and how effectively they produce worthwhile outcomes, these views are entirely useless.

There need to be external, independently verifiable criteria for deciding what does and does not count as effective governance or a desirable distribution of resources. Absent such benchmarks, slogans about the power of markets and the proper role of government are reduced to religious mantras. They don’t gain truth through repetition, but a lot of elected representatives have taken their steady repetition as a sign of truth.

Consider some concrete examples. Below are the mission statements of two influential think tanks.

The mission of The Heritage Foundation is to formulate and promote conservative public policies based on the principles of free enterprise, limited government, individual freedom, traditional American values, and a strong national defense. 

The Brookings Institution is a nonprofit public policy organization based in Washington, DC. Our mission is to conduct in-depth research that leads to new ideas for solving problems facing society at the local, national and global level.

The first is immediately problematic. The Heritage Foundation is intellectually neutered by its interest in finding policy solutions that conform to a pre-established ideological litmus test. They have decided that the solutions to public policy problems involve free enterprise and limited government in advance of evaluating any evidence. The Brookings Institution, on the other hand, places initial emphasis on in-depth research as a tool for solving problems. Usefully, they do so without establishing ideological strictures on what the best solutions ought to look like.

Take any hypothetical problem and it becomes immediately obvious that The Heritage Foundation is going to have a harder time finding a good solution than The Brookings Institution. American students are scoring poorly in math and science. The burning of fossil fuels is having detrimental environmental consequences. Millions of American kids aren’t getting enough to eat. For The Heritage Foundation, the answer is always clear: less government, freer enterprise. If a branch of science worked this way, it would cease to be science. No congress of physicists is going to get together and outline a research program that says all good science must conform to Newtonian mechanics. But this is precisely what The Heritage Foundation has done with issues of public policy.

Yet the views of the Heritage Foundation carry enormous weight. They are endorsed by majorities in both houses of congress. The Speaker of the House, third in line for presidential succession, is a zealous devotee to the a priori assumptions of small government, free market fundamentalism. Conservative bill mills like the American Legislative Exchange Council produce legislature precisely tailored to reflect free market, small government dogma and Republican politicians – at every level of government – work to make that legislation the law of the land. Those willing to dissent do so at considerable risk. Skepticism is likely to be greeted with a well-funded primary challenge from an individual more willing to tow the party line. It is hardly shocking that there is an armada of well-heeled conservative ideologues willing to spend huge sums of money on the project of forcing Western society into the mold of libertarian utopia.

The Dubious Underpinnings of Conservative Economics

The ultimate tragedy in all of this is that the market religion of the modern GOP is provably false. Visions of conservative/libertarian utopia emerge from the logic of neoclassical economics. Starting in the 19th century, men like Leon Walras and Vilfredo Pareto took up the work of turning our understanding of human economic behavior into a respectable science. They turned up lot of powerful insights, but also set in motion a line of thinking that would eventually turn large segments of economics into nothing short of a mathematically sophisticated religion.

By the early 20th century, economics had come to invoke a number of simplifying assumptions in order to produce workable models. These assumptions included:

  1. The belief that economic agents are perfectly rational.
  2. The belief that economic agents work to maximize utility.
  3. The belief that economic agents are entirely self-interested.
  4. The belief that economic agents are infinitely knowledgeable.
  5. The belief that economic agents have consistent, well-ordered preferences.
  6. The belief that all contracts are complete.
  7. The belief that all economic agents are scrupulously honest.
  8. The belief that prices always accurately reflect the costs and benefits of a product.
  9. The belief that economies are closed equilibrium systems.

Deploying these premises, economists produced theories about how people ought to behave in idealized markets. They weren’t wrong. If all of the above assumptions were true, then the best governments could ever do to facilitate happiness and prosperity is get out the market’s way.

Problematic in all of this is that each and every one of those assumptions is false. Not just doubtful or misleading, but an objectively untrue statement about observable reality. Many economists were aware of this fact at the time and many are aware of it today. That’s why economists use fancy terms like “unpriced externality” – this is an implicit acknowledgement of the reality that assumptions four through eight are false.  But there’s no reason to stop there. Observational and experimental evidence also tells us that humans are not perfectly rational, that they aren’t good at maximizing utility, that they aren’t entirely self-interested, and that economic systems are neither closed nor precisely tuned to seek out any equilibrium states.

Yet for some reason, some people began to act as if the aforementioned beliefs were more than just useful assumptions. They didn’t just make it easier to model the exceedingly complex behavior of huge swarms of interacting humans. Rather, they were true reflections of how the world actually operates. If this were the case, the ideological fanatics working for The Heritage Foundation and populating every tier of U.S. Government would be onto something. Indeed, they would hardly deserve being labeled “ideological fanatics”. They would be right to think that all policy solutions ought to involve steps to limit government and deregulate markets.

Or would they?

Notions of market optimality – the belief that unfettered markets produce the best possible outcomes – do not withstand a lot of scrutiny and often fail in their own terms. Consider two examples: scientific research and pollution control.

Much of the technology we take for granted today would be impossible absent scientific breakthroughs from the first half of the twentieth century or latter half of the nineteenth. Some of these discoveries were funded by governments, others through private philanthropy. None of the foundational insights in theoretical and experimental physics that laid the groundwork for global GPS, cellular phones, communication satellites, or the worldwide web emerged from a desire to get rich. At the time, a physicist who displayed a thirst for profit was frequently greeted with scorn and ostracized by his or her community.

Governments across the Western world funded scientific research as an expression of human curiosity and a matter of national prestige. Curiosity-driven scientific research often yields enormous benefits, but the ways in which discoveries will shape futures landscapes are largely unforeseeable. Neils Bohr, Werner Heisenberg, Albert Einstein, Lise Meitner, Marie Curie, Robert Oppenheimer, Alan Turing and their peers didn’t envision a world where Apple and Samsung would make billions producing portable, wireless communication devices connected to a worldwide web, granting hundreds of millions of people perpetual access to virtually all human knowledge. Yet without their discoveries, that world would not exist.

Indeed, a rational, entirely self-interested, utility maximizing agent would never make an investment in a research program that might, in some way or another, decades down the line, turn a profit for someone else. A CEO who sought to divert funds to scientific efforts that might – forty, fifty, sixty, or seventy years in the future – prove foundational to some kind of profit generating enterprise would quickly be removed by shareholders and replaced by someone made business decisions more closely aligned with their interests – that is, making money.

The same logic bears out in the realm of pollution control. Some types of business are environmentally costly. The processes they use to manufacture products for commercial use also produce byproducts with harmful downstream consequences. According to the strict logic of neoclassical economics, businesses should only respond to the costs of pollution and mitigate the effects of harmful byproducts of production under a narrow range of circumstances.

If the costs of pollution are immediately obvious to customers, they can and will (under the assumption of rational choice) respond by sanctioning the company, who will in turn work to remedy the problem in order to placate their customer base. But any time the costs of pollution are not sufficiently large or localized to be immediately discernible to customers, the logic of the market demands that the business do nothing about it. In fact, being rational and self-interested, they should actually make efforts to conceal their harmful behavior anytime the costs of deception are lower than the costs of mitigation (one of the ways in which the founding premises of market optimality are inherently contradictory).

That means a factory that manufactures paper plates in Mississippi will have little incentive to clean up any harmful byproducts if most of those paper plates are sold in China. Likewise, pollutants that accrue gradually, such that their ill-effects are only exerted decades down the line, are invisible to corrective mechanisms internal to the market itself. Such is the case with anthropogenic climate change, where the costs of burning hydrocarbons aren’t necessarily felt until decades after the fact.

Suffice it to say, there are numerous conditions under which the reasoning behind the modern conservative ethos – the ruling dogma of billionaire oligarchs like Charles and David Koch and ambitious political zealots like Ted Cruz – crumbles under its own weight. This was widely known and commonly accepted in the first decades after World War 2. Economists and politicians alike recognized that market were only sensitive to a narrow range of inputs and entirely blind to many of the downstream costs that might accrue for any given method of production. Recognition that third-party intervention would sometimes be necessary to secure good outcomes was bipartisan. That’s why the EPA was founded under Richard Nixon and his signature graced the first iterations of the Clean Air and Water Acts.

The antipathy toward government now common on the political right emerged as part of a deliberate campaign undertaken by fanatical millionaires to peel back what they perceived as the creeping threat of socialism. They founded think-tanks like the Heritage Foundation and launched an intellectually caustic propaganda war against any and all barriers to the generation of wealth – in particular, their wealth. In this, they have been enormously successful, managing to shift their fringe views so far into the mainstream that they are openly espoused as true and irrefutable on the most widely viewed cable news network in the United States.

Now, congress is populated by zealots oblivious to the dubious intellectual underpinnings of their ruling philosophy. Their worldview is the direct progeny of a set of premises adopted for instrumental utility, otherwise entirely lacking in reality. Based on their behavior, it is safe to assume that they are true believers – they really think that eradicating every piece of government that doesn’t relate to national defense is the best thing to do for everyone. They are simply blind to the fact that their core beliefs are so flimsy that they often fail in their own terms and crumple when measured against external benchmarks of success.

But there is no reason why we should confine ourselves to discussing such a spurious worldview strictly in its own terms. Few of the founding premises of modern conservative socioeconomic philosophy happen to be true. Shifting the dogma of the modern conservative movement into natural light reveals an edifice held together by tape and glue.

Humans are frequently irrational. And markets are made of humans. Those inclined to root their understanding of human systems in verifiable reality are rarely surprised to learn that market behavior is riddled with error. Investors sometimes value a parent company at millions of dollars less than its subsidiary, clearly falsifying the neoclassical prediction that the price set by the market is always right. Football teams sometimes trade multiple later round draft picks for the chance to pick up a star up front and win fewer games as a result. People take out loans they can’t afford, buy items they don’t need on credit, and don’t save enough for retirement.

Let’s reconsider those nine premises I listed a few paragraphs back.

  1. The belief that economic agents are perfectly rational.
  2. The belief that economic agents work to maximize utility.
  3. The belief that economic agents are entirely self-interested.
  4. The belief that economic agents are infinitely knowledgeable.
  5. The belief that economic agents have consistent, well-ordered preferences.
  6. The belief that all contracts are complete.
  7. The belief that all economic agents are scrupulously honest.
  8. The belief that prices always accurately reflect the costs and benefits of a product.
  9. The belief that economies are closed equilibrium systems.

Recall that the smaller government, freer markets at any cost emerges from taking these premises as reliable, high fidelity distillations of observable reality. They are instrumental to substantiating the mindset of men like Charles Koch and Ted Cruz. And every single one of them is undeniably false.

This is not a secret. It is widely known and easily discoverable. This is why it is impossible to take people like Paul Ryan or Mitch McConnell or Ted Cruz seriously as thoughtful stewards of American wellbeing. These people are not principled statesmen. They are ideological fanatics. They subscribe to a worldview that has been repeatedly and consistently refuted by the very nature of reality. Insofar as their policy prescriptions have any merit, it is largely a result of coincidence. They have not, I suspect, invented a remarkable method for reasoning from false premises to sound conclusions.

And yet they persist in these beliefs. Their belligerent insistence on clinging to a misguided vision of how the world ought to be, independent of any and all evidence of how the world actually is, makes them incredibly dangerous men. Though they have yet to scratch lowest rung of the anguish unleashed by the likes of Mao and Stalin, the fact remains that their ideology lives in the same epistemological neighborhood as communism. It is a vision of what the world could be if a number of important facts about what the world is actually like were otherwise. Their efforts to force the world to conform to their ideological prescriptions will only result in conflict and pain. Powerful solutions to pressing social, economic, and ecological problems will escape them, willfully hidden behind a veil of dogma. Even if compelling policy initiatives that violate their worldview are brought to their attention, they will be prohibited from adopting them by a blind commitment to ideological purity. As the mission statement of the Heritage Foundation clearly states, only solutions that embrace limited government and free enterprise are on the table.


Combating Political Religion

The arc of recent history bends toward insight and discovery. Anti-vaxxers, conspiracy theorists, and religious fundamentalist receive a lot of well-deserved public derision. This sometimes makes it look as though society has become infected by an unprecedented strain of ignorance. But the larger reality is that people have easier and easier access to better and better information about the world in which they live. It’s easy to feel disheartened when a poll shows that 40% of U.S. adults think the world was made, as is, by some divine power within the last 10,000 years. Every available strain of evidence says this view is false, yet people persist in maintaining it. Taking a wider view brightens things a bit. Sure, it’s a bummer that a bunch of adults are so enamored of a childish fairytale that they deny the fundamental nature of reality. But a couple centuries ago, we didn’t even have access to the information that exposed those beliefs as farcical. The vast majority of people held views about the age of the earth and the nature of reality with absolutely no basis in reality.

This rosy outlook is tainted when people who cling to superstitious or ideologically clouded thinking achieve political power. It is easier today than at any other point in human history to find out when we hold false views about the way the world works. Yet a glaring majority of the elected officials in the U.S. Federal Government passionately subscribe to a view of human behavior and the role of government that is provably false. Not only do they hold these beliefs, they are using them to guide policy formation.

The GOP has held control of two out three branches of government for a little over two months. Already, they have taken steps to roll back vital environmental regulations and decrease funding for curiosity driven science. These, as mentioned, are two of the areas where their one-size-fits-all belief in smaller government, freer markets fails in its own terms. Unchecked, they stand to implement a campaign of ideological extremism unlike anything the nation has ever seen. That this is done in service of unchecked greed is largely incidental. The fact that very wealthy people stand to become even wealthier while the poor are left to wither as a result of the conservative agenda disguises the fact that that agenda is an expression of fervent religious devotion. I

Some scholars have made the mistake of using communism to point up the dangers of secularism. This ignores the fact that communism itself, as expressed in the regimes of Pol Pot, Mao, and Stalin, cannot be derived from secular thinking. Secular thinking is an expression of reason, guided by evidence. It gives us things like an expanding circle of human rights and cures for dangerous infectious diseases. Communism, like exaggerated notions of libertarian capitalism, falls apart when subjected to evidentiary checks. And libertarian capitalism, like communism, is a form of political religion. Both are utopian visions that exist in obstinate indifference to the hard nature of reality.

Huge swaths of political thinking run afoul of this single, crippling fallacy – the mistaken belief that there is one right answer. Sometimes governments grow too large and run inefficiently. Sometimes free markets generate undesirable outcomes. Neither point can be used for the wholesale dismissal of either.

This is precisely why we need external, universally recognizable criteria for recognizing success and failure. What do we want governments and markets to achieve? If we want markets to achieve an optimal allocation of resources, we need a definition for “optimal allocation of resources” that is external to the market itself. Moreover, we need to recognize that the motivations required to thrive in markets foist on people a certain level of myopia – markets are incapable of planning for the distant future or taking into account all the potential costs a given business strategy might incur. That’s why we need both government regulation and government investment in curiosity-driven science.

The goal of government should be to make it easier and easier for larger and larger portions of the population to thrive. In this, it should be a democratic instrument. The goal of economic systems should be similar. They should not exist to generate wealth as an end unto itself. Rather, their purpose is generating the wealth necessary to pursue the end of human thriving. From these simple premises, we can derive a number of hallmarks for identifying success and failure.

By accepting these aims and jettisoning the fallacious dogmas that drive intransigent anti-government sentiment and fuel blind market liberalization campaigns, it is possible to achieve ground ripe for bipartisan collaboration. History teaches us that liberalized markets tend to be correlated with prosperity and peace. Together with democratic governance, they seem to make people generally better off. It is clearly desirable for people to have as much leeway for free economic choice as possible. That is where the reasoning of the market fundamentalists stops, thereby failing to recognize that the more apt and justifiable expression is that people should have a much leeway for free economic choice as possible, given the larger, perpetually shifting aims of society.

It should be recognized, as a matter of incontrovertible fact, that markets sometimes generate undesirable outcomes. They produce entrenched inequality and unfairly discount the wellbeing of future generations in favor of current wealth. Nor do they include any discernible mechanism instituting ideals higher than “make money”. There is no room for curiosity and the quest for knowledge as ends unto themselves in a world ruled by smaller government, freer markets at any cost ideologues. In that world, a human animal invested in aspirations above and beyond the accumulation of wealth would be a creature bent on extinction. The utopia of the libertarian capitalist is just as bleak and gray as they utopia of the hard-line communist.

Thankfully, we don’t live in an either/or world. Continuing the historical embrace of reason that has been underway since the Enlightenment, we can build an understanding of economic systems and political order based on scientific evidence. Already it is clear that unfettered freedom of expression is unambiguously good and that economic liberty is often a powerful tool for making humans happier, healthier, and more prosperous. Eschewing one-size-fits all political religion can help us take these insights and put them to better use in a piecemeal engagement with the endless parade of political problems that are bound to emerge whenever humans live together in large numbers. Indeed, it is immediately obvious that government can play a vital role in encouraging markets to behave as if those nine assumptions about market optimality were true. For instance, they can make sure the prices of products reflect all of the unforeseen costs of production and ensure that consumers have access to all the information they need to make smart economic choices.

There may be other ways to solve these dilemmas. Discovering them will demand abandoning ideologically motivated, one-size-fits-all policy prescriptions. The point here is not to make the case that government is the solution to all of the world’s problems. Examples where precisely the opposite is true – where government interference in market behavior has produced undesirable outcomes – are plentiful. Sometimes the best solution will be market liberalization. Often, however, markets will generate unexpected and undesirable outcomes. It can never be a foregone conclusion that government is not the answer. Unless someone comes up with a better form of third-party enforcement than democratic governance, there will be many circumstances in which it is the best alternative we have.


An addendum in light of a comment.

Conservative Non-Profits Use Disturbing Scare Tactics to Influence Voters

This is disturbing. It was produced by a group called People United for Privacy, who are funded by the State Policy Network (SPN). The SPN is a 501(c)(3) non-profit funded by conservative billionaires and millionaires who work to keep the electorate in the dark about their political influence.

Of course, having information about who is influencing policy decisions and political campaigns is essential to the democratic process. Regardless of how much they donate. But New Mexico SB 96, which this targets, doesn’t demand disclosure unless you spend more than $1000. In 2016, only 0.52% of donors gave more than $200 dollars to a political campaign.

This video is a naked attempt to scare average citizens into remaining in the dark about which organizations and individuals are spending huge sums of money to influence U.S. politics. The very fact that they don’t want you to know what they are up to is telling.

There is debate about the constitutionality of unlimited political spending. The First Amendment is actually fairly ambiguous on this point.

But the fact that Republicans and the conservative/libertarians who fund their political efforts want voters to remain blind to the forces shaping electoral outcomes and policy decisions is a clear violation of the intentions of the men who framed the U.S. Constitution. They wanted a government shaped by an informed electorate.

The modern Republican Party and the organizations that support them are against that. In word and deed, they work to keep the electorate ignorant. By defunding public schools, engaging in blatant historical revisionism, and, in this instance, working to disguise the influence of right-wing oligarchs, the modern GOP works against the principles of democratic self-governance.

Regardless of your ideological leanings, that should give you a pretty clear indication that the GOP is basically an anti-democratic front group for a political philosophy that boils down to “rule by the rich, for the rich.”

In Defense of Cultural Appropriation

Stripped to its core, cultural appropriation is a matter of one culture borrowing from another. But recently, it has morphed into an altogether more nebulous construct. At once a righteous denunciation of exploitation – capitalist and colonialist alike – and a strident clarion call asserting a bizarre provincialism of the oppressed, it’s difficult to nail down precisely. Yet concerns over cultural appropriation are motivating increasingly censorious campaigns.

By some accounts, cultural appropriation is universally onerous. By others, its propriety is conditional, depending explicitly on the power relationships between the appropriator and the appropriated. What is and is not permissible is a question of whether a member of a historically privileged group is coopting the cultural artifacts of the historically marginalized. Often, the bounds of propriety are marked by racial ascriptions, and are thus dependent on the maintenance and perpetuation of social constructions that only loosely track actual patterns of genetic variation and cultural inheritance.

Too frequently, concerns over cultural appropriation reflect legitimate grievances. It’s hard to fault the black pioneers of American blues – who often died penniless – and their descendants for harboring some resentment toward the white British and American artists who got rich borrowing heavily from their craft. Likewise for Native Americans, who see caricatures of their ceremonial garb suddenly populate suburban landscapes on Halloween, sexualized and commercialized in abject indifference to their traditional significance.

Other times, the apparent abuses are decidedly more banal. There are those who claim that it is inappropriate for white students to eat bad sushi at their university cafeteria. Recently, members of a student government were berated and disciplined for wearing sombreros – a hat with no particular significance beyond its capacity to shield the wearer from the sun – to a party. Annually, celebrities are berated for the choice of Halloween costume. More ominously, activists have begun to suggest that it is wrong – even criminal – for white novelists to portray the experiences of minority groups in their fiction.

In these latter cases, social justice warriors ostensibly clamoring for fairness and equality are inadvertently giving voice to a divisive program of artificially imposed ethnic purity. Foundational to their argument is the suggestion that people with the right kind of heritage can and should exercise absolute and exclusive dominion over specific cultural artifacts, setting the terms of exchange and expression for anyone who doesn’t meet the appropriate stipulations.

In this sense, much of the recent clamor over cultural appropriations should strike a profoundly unsettling note to anyone dedicated to the preservation of liberal values like freedom of thought and – more pointedly – freedom of expression. It suggests one person’s identity, however fluidly construed, can be used to establish limits on another person’s behavior. This is a perversely leftward retreat to tribalism, explicitly granting the erroneous claim that the differences between humans with different ethnic backgrounds, economic prospects, gender identities (and so forth) are not variations on a theme, but unbridgeable chasms. To accept that premise is to reject the larger enterprise of progressive humanism, abandoning hope for a global community in favor of insular patrimonialism.

Of course, it doesn’t help that many of the worries over cultural appropriation are implicitly rooted in an abject misunderstanding of what culture is and how it forms. For those interested in using the notion of cultural appropriation to establish limits on other people’s expression or consumption, the fact that most (if not all) cultural artifacts, from musical traditions to sacred religious icons, are forged at the interface between cultures is dismissed as ideologically inconvenient. Cultures are fluid and permeable – their only universal features are plasticity and change.  Cultural appropriation isn’t an assault on identity. It’s at the core of what culture is: people sharing information, learning from one another, borrowing and trading ideas.


Defining culture is almost as thorny a problem as defining cultural appropriation. In the late 19th century, the English anthropologist E. B. Tylor offered a comprehensive definition, writing that “Culture, or civilization, taken in its broad, ethnographic sense, is that complex whole which includes knowledge, belief, art, morals, law, custom, and any other capabilities and habits acquired by man as a member of society.” Recently, researchers have opted for a more parsimonious approach, defining culture as the non-genetic information people create and share with each other throughout their lifetimes and across generations, often embodied in artifacts (tools, art) and rituals. More simply still, culture is the trait that sets humans apart from other animals – it’s what has allowed a species of primate that evolved primarily in the African tropics to occupy nearly every ecological niche on the planet, along the way inventing everything from bows and arrows and iPods to algebra and Catholicism.

Regardless of how we choose to define it, one characteristic of culture remains obvious: it is not inert. A culture in stasis is a culture on the way to extinction. All cultures present today exist because of their capacity to evolve and change, incorporating new ideas about the world and new strategies for living in it according to the exigencies of human psychology and the vicissitudes of the natural world. Our decision to associate certain features of culture with specific geographic regions, nationalities, or ethnic divisions is largely a product of parochialism. Rare are the cuisines or religious traditions that can’t be traced to patterns of intergroup interaction and borrowing at some point in their history. That we think otherwise is due to the myopia foisted on us by minds selected to process time on the scale of weeks, months, or years instead of decades, centuries, and millenia.

Consider, for the sake of illustration, all the problems of creating a reliable definition of separate species in biology. One of the most widely accepted axioms is reproductive isolation – organisms are part of distinct species if they can’t successfully hybridize and produce fertile offspring. This seems reasonable, but it presents problems. For instance, transient and resident killer whales can produce fertile offspring, but in the wild they do not breed or commingle. Likewise, despite being separated by thousands of years of artificial selection, dogs and wolves can still breed – chihuahuas and wolves are members of the same species. In both killer whales and canines, there is a good case to be made that a broadly useful definition for what does and does not count as a particular species is insufficient. The factors that govern reproductive isolation can be both functional and facultative.

These problems intensify when we take a deeper view of animal relationships. Obviously humans can’t have babies with chimpanzees. But somewhere between six and seven millions years ago, we were both part of the same species – a common ancestor to both modern chimps and modern humans. A gap that is today unbridgeable is composed of hundreds of thousands of tiny steps, mothers and offspring that were essentially indistinguishable from one another. The process worked slowly, but at some point the creatures that would lead to modern humans and the creatures that would lead to modern chimps crossed an irrevocable frontier, beyond which hybridization was impossible.

This situation is much the same for human culture. At some point in our prehistory, it’s reasonable to say that there was so little variation in human culture that the distinctions between cultural groups would be difficult to recognize. The toolkit was simple, comprised of traditions for making chipped stone tools, processing food, and managing – if not outright creating – fire. Over time, these traditions were diversified and elaborated, becoming increasingly sophisticated and more highly specialized as the cognitive capacities of hominids increased, people migrated to new environments, and spent time developing in relative isolation. With the human migration out of Africa, cultural diversity exploded: In an exponentially accelerating curve, the cultural repertoire of humans has expanded to include thousands of diverse religious traditions, mutually exotic cuisines, strategies for living and thriving in disparate ecosystems like the high arctic and the tropical rainforest, and a cornucopia of technological innovations.

As with humans and chimps, the relationships between cultures can be characterized as part of a process of descent with modification. Pluck native, unilingual English and Hindi speakers from their homes in Omaha and New Delhi and put them in a room together. Very likely, verbal communication between the two would be extremely limited. But carefully trace the development of those languages back through the centuries and you arrive at Proto-IndoEuropean, a language ancestral to both Hindi and English – along with thousands of other languages and dialects.

But under close scrutiny, the similarities between cultural and biological change begin to break down. Significantly, biological change is a one way street. Genetic information passes from parents to offspring, but not from offspring to parents or offspring to offspring. That is, in most sexually reproducing organisms, genetic transmission is strictly vertical. This is why the boundaries between species eventually become irreversible: once you’re a chimp ancestor that can’t produce a fertile child with a human ancestor, there’s no going back.

Culture doesn’t work that way. Sure, a lot of cultural information gets passed down from parents to offspring. But it also gets passed around among friends and siblings, or from grandchildren to grandparents. Cultural information can even pass group boundaries marked by intense mutual antipathy. Social learning is the cornerstone of cultural evolution – the only essential requirement necessary for one person to acquire a cultural trait from another human. Consequently, in cultural evolution, the lines of transmission can be vertical, horizontal,  or oblique. They aren’t dependent on the strictures of genetic kinship. Those Hindi and English speakers are separated by vast geographical distances, thousands of years of unique history, and lifetimes of personal experience. But with a bit of effort, the native English speaker can learn Hindi (or vice versa) and they can begin to understand each other incredibly well.

The nature of human learning and cultural transmission make culture an incredibly dynamic force. It also makes establishing good definitions for particular cultures exceptionally difficult, strictly dependent on narrow frames of time and space. The bounds of culture are largely relative, constructed on the fluid substrate of human relationships and historical contingency. Any emblem considered diagnostic of a certain culture is often a product of perspective and perception. From the inside looking out, there are plenty of people who would confidently proclaim that the United States has no national culture (save perhaps consumerism) but there are plenty of people from other nationalities who would beg to disagree. Moreover, that national culture – whatever it is – emerges from the interaction of countless subcultures that can’t, no matter how hard anyone tries, be meaningfully dissected into discrete, universally recognizable units.

Look back to the embarrassing huff over bad sushi. Consider the absurd generalization at its core: that Japanese culture is a monothetic entity, coherently symbolized by a specific cuisine. This view conflates nationality with ethnicity, and both nationality and ethnicity with culture. Both are part of culture, but neither is entirely constitutive of it. Moreover, it disregards any internal variation within the Japanese nation-state and the complex historical processes that have shaped it. The implication is that being Japanese can be reduced to and signified by consumption of raw fish and rice of a certain style and quality.

The example is reductive, but it does get to the core of the issue. If we try to define a broad racial category like “Caucasian”, what we are dealing with is something like a normal curve that significantly overlaps with the curves defining other racial categories. In this definition, there might be a certain range of skin pigments that reliably track patterns of genetic variation and inheritance at high latitudes among populations with diets poor in vitamin D. But at the edges, where the tails begin to taper and overlap, things get tricky – there is no sharp partition between the variation that defines one “race” or another. And within the coarse boundaries of “people who descended from European populations living above a certain latitude”, there are dozens – even hundreds – of racial subcategories. These divisions are invisible to some, intensely meaningful to others, and all constructed from the shifting, malleable scaffolds of cultural change. Racial categories are post hoc constructions, selectively targeting physical features and treating them like essential characteristics.

These distinctions are further complicated when we attempt to dissect the world along cultural boundaries, which are more often than not only connected to underlying patterns in superficial physical characteristics and genetic variation in loose and complicated ways. Compared with other species, humans exhibit both very little genetic variation – most of it within, rather than between ethnic groupings – and huge extremes of behavioral variation, largely attributable to culture. Cultures are molded by patterns of diffusion and acculturation (fancy anthropological terms for the spread and sharing of culture) as ideas leap across the barriers that limit genetic transmission, tweaked and mutated and shared (or stolen) again and again and again. Talk of this or that culture is more a matter of convention, an imprecise reference to the blurry peak of a broad and shifting curve. This presents definitional problems, but as a reflection of the reality of human culture, it’s worth celebrating. It means the obstacles that divide us are surmountable, and the frontiers of human innovation and learning are virtually limitless.

The most dire anxieties about cultural appropriation are a product Platonic essentialism applied to culture and identity, as if a given culture is something discrete, bounded, and easily definable: “Japanese culture is the culture in which people eat sushi” or “African-American culture is the culture in which people listen to and create hip-hop”. Nothing could be farther from reality. Like race, most notions of culture – and the bounds between them – are social constructions. They rarely reflect the actual patterns of information transmission and inheritance that have shaped them into the forms we currently observe. Though talk of Japanese culture or Southern culture or Native American or dominant/mainstream American culture is convenient, the idea that these things exist as sharply defined entities is simply false. The boundaries between them are fuzzy.

Yet even if we are permissive in our assessment, granting that the cultural boundaries people see reliably track the patterns of divergent evolution and historical contingency that have shaped observable differences in belief, cuisine, and attire, we’re still left with a vexing quandary. Cultural appropriation is a matter of privileging our position in space and time. It says that the cultural differences we see to today are the ones that matter and we should make deliberate efforts to freeze them in place. And, when you take the time to recognize that cultural differences are really the only things that divide us, this impulse morphs from a kind of social sensitivity into a disheartening initiative to cement cultural divisions into the fabric of human experience.


All this discussion of the ambiguity of culture deserves a caveat. Taken to an extreme, these considerations could lead to some spurious conclusions. For example, one might conclude that culture is entirely a matter of perception – that it is, more or less, all in our heads. This is nonsense.The bounds of culture are both porous and flexible, responsive to the position and experience of observers. What does and does not count as a valid appropriation of a cultural artifact looks differently to those within the bounds of a given culture than it does to those without. More counterintuitively, what does and does not count as a reliable diagnostic feature of a given culture changes over time. But that does not mean that culture doesn’t exist as a measurable, affective part of the real world.

Black American culture is different today than it was fifty or a hundred years ago. It will be different fifty or a hundred years in the future. Yet it still makes sense to speak of that culture as something with continuity and coherence. It exists because patterns of human interaction have produced ideas and traditions that are reliably correlated with a broad group of people at a certain point in time. Those traditions and ideas and the people who share them change with time, but they are connected by discernible lines of history and heritage. That doesn’t mean black culture in the United States can be decomposed into a precise set of elements that will allow anyone to inerrantly spot a part or product of that culture when they encounter it. Instead, it means that culture is a thing that exists and, however difficult it is to pin down, exerts a real influence on the behavior of individuals and the shape of society.

Consequently, concern over cultural appropriation can’t be dismissed with a hand-wave. Most of the ruckus does entail some faulty assumptions about the nature of culture, but that doesn’t mean that cultural artifacts can’t be deployed in ways insulting either to their originators or to a group that has chosen to ascribe them with special significance. But because it’s impossible to assign any cultural artifact a fixed and universal meaning, the nature and degree of offense remain subjective.

For example, I see some room for offense if a white, upper middle-class kid dresses like a Sexy Indian on Halloween, dismissively treating hamfisted reconstructions of Native American ritual outfits like a Batman or Frankenstein costume. At the same time, I’m not the least bit bothered by a Satanist or atheist who wants to make a statement by wearing the Christian cross upside-down. Likewise, it doesn’t bother me that Christians annually decorate their homes with coniferous trees, a practice attributable to the pagans of northern Europe who medieval Christians routinely slaughtered. In each case, we are a dealing with a situation where an item held sacred by one group is being appropriated (and perhaps mistreated) by others. Only one of them bothers me (and only when I really put effort into being bothered by it), and though I can think of a number of justifications for ire, I can’t think of a consistent set of criteria for reliably distinguishing between permissible and unacceptable forms of appropriation.

The impulse is to set the litmus at relationships of dominance and oppression, but this isn’t as clear cut as it seems. It takes all the definitional problems of culture and heaps them on individuals, basically positing that a foolish and insensitive suburban kid is culpable for the entire history of oppression Native Americans have faced at the hands European colonists. This pushes aside the important work of educating someone about the historical and social facts that make some choices rude or reprehensible in favor of establishing a crude heuristic whereby people are taught to just avoid experimenting with unfamiliar cultural artifacts.

Defining valid or invalid cultural appropriation is ultimately a matter of how individual people feel about various forms of cultural expression. One can point to relationships of power, privilege, oppression, and exploitation as a guideline, but that doesn’t eliminate any of the problems inherent in any initiative that seeks to use cultural appropriation to construct limits on expression and consumption. Inarguably, cultural appropriation happens. Uncontroversially, some forms of cultural appropriation are thoughtless, crass, hurtful, and bigoted. Responding to them is a matter of vociferous criticism and serious debate, not a retreat to delicate cultural provincialism.

Taken seriously, the most strident attacks on cultural appropriation can be taken to advocate ethnic tribalism and cultural stasis. No one should be permitted to write a book that contains a character whose arc involves elements that trespass the frontiers of personal experience: a white, able-bodied, cisgender woman can’t write a story involving a character who is a transgender Australian aboriginal paraplegic. Suitable meals for breakfast, lunch, and dinner should be restricted to those involving recipes and ingredients directly attributable to your personal heritage (historical cutoff yet to be defined): no tacos or tikka masala for the Irish. Appropriate attire should scrupulously avoid incorporating elements invented or commonly used by people who don’t look like you: if you’re not a direct descendant of a horse-culture from the Eurasian steppes, probably best to avoid wearing pants.  

Given the general ideological inclinations of the people most vocally protesting cultural appropriation, this is a perplexingly conservative impulse, effectively sacralizing parochial snapshots of culture by establishing rigid strictures on its appropriate use. It ignores the hazy edges and dynamic nature of culture as a force for sculpting and expanding the human behavioral repertoire. Cultural appropriations can make people upset – with varying degrees of legitimacy – but they do not do any measurable harm. That puts efforts to constrict them on a dangerously slippery slope. If you’re not convinced, consider the following: an activist arguing for limitations on the use of a Native American headdress as inspiration for a Halloween costume is employing the same reasoning as a fundamentalist Christian arguing for limitations on the rights of gay men to marry. In both cases, the grievance boils down to a sense of offense rooted in a subjective, historically contingent definition of propriety. In neither case is anyone demonstrably harmed – gay marriage has never actually hurt a Christian family, nor has an ill-conceived choice of Halloween costume inflicted more than emotional harm on a cultural subgroup – but people nonetheless claim to have had their traditional values violated.

It’s important to be clear and precise about the argument I’m advocating. It is perfectly acceptable, even sometimes laudable, for people to feel outraged by the appropriation and perceived misuse of whatever they take to be their cultural heritage. Thus aggrieved, they should express themselves, and – especially in the case of historically marginalized or oppressed groups – have platforms for doing so. At no point, however, is it justifiable for one person or group’s sense of offense to motivate the establishment of boundaries on another person or group’s capacity to express themselves. One can point to specific injustices to validate this or that claim of cultural misappropriation, but in the end, it all reduces to one thing: a plea for humans to respect one another’s points of view. That endeavor can never involve placing restrictions on the realm of permissible expression. Indeed, if we accept that respect and understanding as praiseworthy aims, we must grant the corollary – that they are best served by allowing everyone as much room as possible to engage in the fraught business of exploring other people’s experiences.

For a comedic take: