The Healthy Society

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British Prime Minister David Cameron, speaking on February 5, deplored “state multiculturalism,” a failed doctrine of “encourag[ing] different cultures to live separate lives, apart from each other and the mainstream.” Immigrants should feel, rather, that they were living in an inclusive society, sharing a national identity, culture, curriculum, and language. Lacking such a sense of belonging and experiencing, instead, segregation and separatism, some young Muslims in Britain had turned to extreme Islamism. Cameron cited the “horror” of forced marriage in some immigrant communities. He proposed “a two-month programme to show sixteen-year-olds from different backgrounds how to live and work together.”

Earlier, on October 16, Chancellor Angela Merkel had expressed similar worries for Germany, home to some four million Muslims. The idea of people from different cultural backgrounds living happily "side by side" without a common culture did not work, she indicated: "This [multicultural] approach has failed, utterly failed." French President Sarkozy has said similar things.

Such remarks might be code words for anti-Islamism, but I am not cynical enough to think so. The worry of Cameron and others seems plausible, but it requires nuancing. It is perhaps soundest for a situation with two aspects. First, only one substantial immigrant culture, rather than several, confronts the local culture. Second, the authorities work to preserve the distinction — as, for instance, through year-by-year, not just transitional, public-school instruction in the immigrant language.

But this scenario does not necessarily recommend the opposite: different cultures melted into a homogeneous dominant one. A good society, true enough, does require consensus on ethical norms such as treating other people honestly and honorably, respecting their rights and property — not cheating, stealing, or committing aggression. Such consensus can accommodate differences in details of etiquette and lifestyles (arguably extending to same-sex and even polygamous marriages). Furthermore, a good society requires acceptance of a common legal system, without special privileges or burdens for particular groups. Consensus on the political system also rules out seeking change by violence, but it admits advocating even radical change by constitutional means.

While rejecting militaristic and imperialistic nationalism, Ludwig von Mises welcomed liberal nationalism, including movements for liberation and unity of populations speaking a common language (Nation, State, and Economy, 1919/1983). Liberal nationalism can be a bulwark of peace. Different nations should be able to respect and — to interpret a bit — even share in each one’s pride in its own culture and history. By extension, such mutual respect and celebration can extend to members of different national heritages within a single country. A healthy multiculturalism welcomes a diversity of interests and heritages without official favor or disfavor for any.

A diversity of national heritages can enrich a country’s overall culture. Quasi-native speakers of heritage languages, especially with their own publications and broadcasts, can promote language-learning and can be useful in diplomacy and in war. Diversity even of national restaurants and foods — Chinese, Mexican, Greek, German, French, and so on — multiplies options for work and for leisure. Cultural diversity can bolster a general awareness of history.

Diverse national heritages can scarcely offer benefits as great as those of the occupational division of labor and of domestic and international trade. They can, however, multiply the variety of niches in life in which a person or a family can feel comfortable and important. They can help avoid the dismal opposite, a society in which individuals must feel superior or inferior in competition on a single scale of overriding significance (money being the most obvious metric). A diverse society includes all sorts of (decent) persons, including, yes, entrepreneurs and investors obsessed with creating wealth and making money. Few people, however, can realistically expect outstanding success on the monetary scale. Pursuing an unattainable material equality would foster attitudes and politics incompatible with a quasi-equality of a more humane and more nearly attainable type.

A healthy society — to continue my amateur psychologizing — comprises many “noncomparing groups” (so called by analogy with the noncompeting groups recognized by the 19th-century economist John Elliott Cairnes). People should not be ranked according to the fields in which their accomplishments lie. Each person should have a chance to excel in something, whether craftsmanship, business, scholarship, athletics, a hobby such as collecting classic cars or rare coins, a religious group, travel and adventure, conviviality, or self-effacing service to mankind.

And, yes, cultivating a national heritage. Many kinds of excellence should be as respectable as the amassing of fortunes. A teacher could continue associating without embarrassment with former colleagues or students who had become business tycoons, not because progressive taxation had lopped off their huge incomes but because scholarly values and monetary values were regarded as incommensurate yet of equal dignity. While the approach to equality sought by left-liberal egalitarians implies measurement, true liberals need to follow Herbert W. Schneider (Three Dimensions of Public Morality, 1956, p. 97; cf. pp. 100, 118) in emphasizing "the incommensurability of human beings.”

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