The United States is not an Optimal Cultural Area

Arnold Kling is worried that political polarization has gotten so bad that it could lead to a civil war. While I think an actual war is unlikely, life among the culture warriors can get pretty tiresome. At least in a war, the true believers would get killed off, and the rest of us could live in relative peace after it was over. I fear that our fate will instead be to have to continue to live with these people.

This raises an important point: we don’t all have to live together in the same polity, at least in theory. The continued existence of the United States of America, as a political entity, is optional. It is worth at least considering whether we should peacefully go our separate ways instead of continuing to outrage each other. And if we don’t go our separate ways, what is our motivation? Why are we doing this to ourselves and each other?

In international monetary economics, there is the idea of an optimal currency area. The gist is that since the monetary authority controls monetary policy for everyone in the currency union, it is important that the monetary stance it selects is appropriate for everybody. If some regions in the same currency union have very different economies, then there will be a lot of unhappy people one way or the other—either because recessions in some areas are not met with stimulus or inflation in some areas is not met with tightening.

It seems to me that there is an analogy to be made with the culture wars. The United States is not an optimal cultural area. We have empowered the government to make social policy for everybody, but of course different regions and groups have very different cultural values. This ensures that no matter what, some group or other is going to be very unhappy, and this means culture wars.

Consider the multiple levels of absurdity involved in the recent conflict over Todd Akin’s remarks about rape and abortion. First of all, it is absurd that someone who wants to put himself in charge of making social policy would be so woefully misinformed about basic biology. I am obviously not alone in pointing this out.

Second, consider that the question that Akin was responding to was about a “compromise” policy that addresses absolutely no principled person’s concerns, on either side. If you really believe that every embryo is sacred, then an abortion in the case of rape is murdering a child for the sins of its biological father, which is pretty horrific! If you really believe that fetuses are not persons and that legal abortion is part of protecting a woman’s right to autonomy and privacy, then, say, making a recently-raped woman prove to a (probably male) judge that she was raped in order to get permission to have an abortion is similarly horrific. Who exactly thinks this is an attractive compromise?

Third, some accusations of rape are false. This fact might be offensive to some, who apparently believe, out of solidarity with rape victims, that all rape allegations are a priori true. In addition, if accusing someone of rape were the only way to get a legal abortion, would you not expect that the rate of false rape allegations would increase? Whatever the insensitivities of using the phrase “legitimate rape,” people need some way of talking about the false rape allegation problem. Akin probably does not believe that some rape is OK, so lambasting him for such poor phrasing seems a lot like political opportunism, not an attempt to change minds. Although again, lambast away for his poor biological aptitude.

Fourth, here are President Obama’s comments: “What I think these comments do underscore is why we shouldn’t have a bunch of politicians, a majority of whom are men, making health-care decisions on behalf of women.” SAID THE GUY WHO INVENTED OBAMACARE, which politicizes healthcare decisions, such as the kinds of insurance coverage people, including women, must buy.

If I’ve offended anyone with the preceding four paragraphs, I’m mildly sorry, but I have good news: our social values don’t have to remain in conflict. We can choose to live near other like-minded people and ignore the cultural values of non-like-minded people who don’t live near us. Abortions for some, miniature American flags for others.

We can pursue such a strategy either by adopting libertarian attitudes or through a political reconfiguration, such as splitting the USA into five or so regional sovereign governments. I suspect that these solutions are non-starters. People don’t really want to live in peace according to their own values; they want to impose their own values on others. Neither libertarianism nor political dissolution affords people the opportunity to browbeat others into adopting one’s beliefs, and that is why they won’t happen. Which means that we are stuck, unfortunately, in a suboptimal cultural area.

6 replies to “The United States is not an Optimal Cultural Area

  1. Peter Twieg

    The ironic thing is that the very fact that the United States is not an optimal cultural area is often brought up as a reason for why the United States is a (morally?) optimal political area (or at least optimal relative to devolvement along cultural lines) – because we need to protect people in the South from the bad policies that they would democratically enact if devolution were to occur.

  2. Jake


    It would seem then, that the rate of decay of a non-optimal cultural area is far less than that of a non-optimal currency area. It only took the EU approximately 12 to 13 years to basically become completely unworkable, whereas the US has experienced but one civil war in the 223 year period since the constitution went into effect.

    Why do you think that is?

  3. Eli Post author

    Peter: Agreed.

    Jake: Some hypotheses:

    1. A suboptimal cultural area is workable if there is a strong federalism norm. The federalism norm in the US mainly deteriorated in the 1930s and beyond.
    2. We’re getting wealthy enough to begin a transition from agrarian norms to post-agrarian norms. Some US subcultures are further along on this transition, which means that their values conflict with those of the laggards. This implies we are at a uniquely intense time of moral and cultural disagreement.
    3. Technology—the Internet, cable news, etc.—enables us to insult each other more effectively than ever before.

    What do you think?

  4. Jake

    I think you’re right about the strong federalism norm keeping things mostly civil to this point. The US can fall back on national identity, where for the EU that breaks in the other direction.

    To add to the list though,

    (4) War is a high cost method of dispute resolution. I don’t think our cultural subareas are going resort to war until all other avenues have been exhausted. Instead, we mostly get cultural segregation privately and a loud game of chicken publicly–where the different groups “pre-commit” to avoiding serious physical violence. If they’re playing a mixed strategy though, we’d expect some unlucky results and ultimately we do see isolated incidents of tragedy.

    (5) We don’t belong to easily identifiable cultural groups. Sure, I could go around and attack blacks or Hispanics if I wanted to, but suppose I wanted to attack the pro-life crowd or the “legitimate rape” crowd. How would I spot them on the street?

    (5A) We belong to multiple cultural subgroups that overlap. You might be my enemy on cultural issue X, but we both belong to the coalition that agrees on Y. My want to fight you probably depends on how strongly I feel about X compared to Y, among other concerns.

    Circling back to your point #3, technology could be increasing the vitriol with which we play the game of chicken–so we could expect the variance of the isolated tragedies to increase, but I don’t know if that effect would be enough to spark civil war.

  5. Nicholas Weininger

    I agree completely with the main point of your argument, but this bit detracts from it:

    “This fact might be offensive to some, who apparently believe, out of solidarity with rape victims, that all rape allegations are a priori true.”

    Caricaturing your opponents, especially on understandably sensitive issues like this, seems like a bad way of persuading people, and gives fuel to those who would use those caricatures for worse purposes.

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