Scott Alexander on liberalism and universal culture

On liberalism

Liberalism is a technology for preventing civil war. It was forged in the fires of Hell — the horrors of the endless seventeenth century religious wars. For a hundred years, Europe tore itself apart in some of the most brutal ways imaginable — until finally, from the burning wreckage, we drew forth this amazing piece of alien machinery. A machine that, when tuned just right, let people live together peacefully without doing the kill people for being Protestant” thing. Popular historical strategies for dealing with differences have included: brutally enforced conformity, brutally efficient genocide, and making sure to keep the alien machine tuned really really carefully.

On Western” culture vs universal culture

I am pretty sure there was, at one point, such a thing as western civilization. I think it included things like dancing around maypoles and copying Latin manuscripts. At some point Thor might have been involved. That civilization is dead. It summoned an alien entity from beyond the void which devoured its summoner and is proceeding to eat the rest of the world.


Western medicine” is just medicine that works. It happens to be western because the West had a technological head start, and so discovered most of the medicine that works first. But there’s nothing culturally western about it; there’s nothing Christian or Greco-Roman about using penicillin to deal with a bacterial infection. Indeed, western medicine” replaced the traditional medicine of Europe — Hippocrates’ four humors — before it started threatening the traditional medicines of China or India. So-called western medicine” is an inhuman perfect construct from beyond the void, summoned by Westerners, which ate traditional Western medicine first and is now proceeding to eat the rest of the world.


If western medicine is just medicine that works, soda pop is just refreshment that works.


Sushi has spread almost as rapidly as Coke. But in what sense has sushi been westernized”? Yes, Europe has adopted sushi. But so have China, India, and Africa. Sushi is [just] another refreshment that works.

Here’s what I think is going on. Maybe every culture is the gradual accumulation of useful environmental adaptations combined with random memetic drift. But this is usually a slow process with plenty of room for everybody to adjust and local peculiarities to seep in. The Industrial Revolution caused such rapid change that the process become qualitatively different, a frantic search for better adaptations to an environment that was itself changing almost as fast as people could understand it.

The Industrial Revolution also changed the way culture was spatially distributed. When the fastest mode of transportation is the horse, and the postal system is frequently ambushed by Huns, almost all culture is local culture. England develops a culture, France develops a culture, Spain develops a culture. Geographic, language, and political barriers keep these from intermixing too much. Add rapid communication — even at the level of a good postal service — and the equation begins to change. In the 17th century, philosophers were remarking (in Latin, the universal language!) about how Descartes from France had more in common with Leibniz from Germany than either of them did with the average Frenchman or German. Nowadays I certainly have more in common with SSC readers in Finland than I do with my next-door neighbor whom I’ve never met.

Improved trade and communication networks created a rapid flow of ideas from one big commercial center to another. Things that worked — western medicine, Coca-Cola, egalitarian gender norms, sushi — spread along the trade networks and started outcompeting things that didn’t. It happened in the west first, but not in any kind of a black-and-white way. Places were inducted into the universal culture in proportion to their participation in global trade; Shanghai was infected before West Kerry; Dubai is further gone than Alabama. The great financial capitals became a single cultural region in the same way that England” or France” had been a cultural region in the olden times, gradually converging on more and more ideas that worked in their new economic situation.

Let me say again that this universal culture, though it started in the West, was western only in the most cosmetic ways. If China or the Caliphate had industrialized first, they would have been the ones who developed it, and it would have been much the same. The new sodas and medicines and gender norms invented in Beijing or Baghdad would have spread throughout the world, and they would have looked very familiar. The best way to industrialize is the best way to industrialize.

Universal culture is the collection of the most competitive ideas and products. Coca-Cola spreads because it tastes better than whatever people were drinking before. Egalitarian gender norms spread because they’re more popular and likeable than their predecessors. If there was something that outcompeted Coca-Cola, then that would be the official soda of universal culture and Coca-Cola would be consigned to the scrapheap of history. 

The only reason universal culture doesn’t outcompete everything else instantly and achieve fixation around the globe is barriers to communication. Some of those barriers are natural — Tibet survived universalization for a long time because nobody could get to it. Sometimes the barrier is time — universal culture can’t assimilate every little hill and valley instantly. Other times there are no natural barriers, and then your choice is to either accept assimilation into universal culture, or put up some form of censorship.

Quote evolution pragmatism liberalism scott alexander