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Day January 7, 2006

More on Charles Taylor and the causes behind the “success” of the Western world

From an historical and political perspective, I also found Charles Taylor’s Modern Social Imaginaries very interesting.  His central aim, of course, is to identify those "deep" elements of "modernity" which represent the core elements around which "multiple modernities" cluster and ramify.  As noted in my previous post (which may have been less than intelligible for readers who haven’t been talking with me for years about culture and evolution — and all five of you know who you are!), this is one of the most attractive parts of Taylor’s argument to me. 

Taylor’s notion is that societies feel "modern" to us once they begin to have three basal elements:  a notion of the economy as a first-level concept (in Taylor and Polanyi’s terminology – "disembedded") separate from "society" or "us as a people", a notion of a public sphere of discourse as privileged and separate from either politics or the household, and a notion of "popular sovereignty" which provides legitmacy only to forms of governance that (theoretically) derive from the consent of the governed.  Given these basal elements, England began to be "modern" in this sense in the late seventeenth through the eighteenth centuries, giving rise to the United States as the first "from scratch" modern nation.  By contrast, Spain and Portugal (as I’ve written before on EP) continued to lack the robust public sphere and popular sovereignty which would have helped them "catch up" in terms of economic and social development.

Which brings up an important point about the comparative success or "fitness" of the so-called "modern" societies, starting in the seventeenth and leading up to the early twentieth centuries.  It has become something of an orthodoxy that "democracy" and "capitalism" were the major factors in creating the primacy of the most "modern" of societies clustered around the Atlantic rim.  Certainly this has been the view of American economic conservatives in the tradition of Milton Friedman, and with the collapse of the Soviet Union and most "communist" autocracies in 1989 it became the orthodoxy of former-leftists-turned-neoconservatives, leading to poorly theorized but spectacular pronouncements like Francis Fukuyama’s "End of History" thesis.  But if we were to approach the subject without the self-congratulation, without the destructive reification of categories like "democracy" and "markets" into meaningless slogans — in short, if we were to approach understanding our success as if we were studying a colony of, say, particularly successful ants rather than ourselves, to what would we really attribute our success?  How would we go about determining the factors which led directly to this success, as opposed to those factors which are merely correlated with our success, as against those factors which are actively detrimental to that success but are not strong enough to stop our momentum? 

One place to start is to note how Taylor’s schematic dovetails nicely with accounts of Western economic success like North and Thomas’s classic The Rise of the Western World: A New Economic History.  Taken together, these accounts suggest that Taylor’s modern "imaginary" provided the cultural and intellectual framework within which politics could alter long-standing notions of economic relations towards a now-familiar concept of "property rights."  The latter — in essence, a legalistic rather than moral notion of economic "ownership" — is the factor which generates sustained growth in economic activity by the late seventeenth century, which leads to the accelerated spread of the control of selected Western nations over larger areas in the 18th and 19th centuries, which leads to the spread and near-ubiquity of the Western "social imaginary" by the late twentieth century.  Landes makes a similiar point in his fascinating The Wealth and Poverty of Nations, essentially crediting the successful spread of Western hegemony to property rights and what Taylor calls the "public sphere" element of the social imaginary.

A nice story, and interestingly one that does not rely on the absolute "moral" superiority of democracy, capitalism, or any other "ism" to explain the eventual dominance of Western societies.  The real question, if we trying to be accurate rather than self-congratulatory, is how we test such notions?  Answering that question brings us back to the subject matter of the last couple of posts, and to the work of folks like Samuel Bowles, Herbert Gintis, Joshua Epstein, Robert Axtell, and my friend and colleague, Carl Lipo, bridging the natural and social sciences in both theory and method.  I’m hoping this post explains a bit more about why and how I’ve been interested lately in Taylor’s work, and how that dovetails with me playing around again with simulation models of economic and social actors.