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Slate Star Codex Podcast

Dec 20, 2018

Ribbonfarm likes to talk about refactoring, a conceptual change in how you see the world. I’m not totally sure I understand it, but I think it means things like memetics – where you go from the usual model of people deciding what ideas they want, to a weird and inside-out (but not objectively wrong) model of ideas competing to colonize people.

Here is a refactoring I think about a lot: imagine a world where people considered culture the fourth branch of government. Imagine that civics textbook writers taught high school students that the US government had four branches: executive, legislative, judicial, and cultural.

I think about this because I have a bias to ignore anything that isn’t nailed down and explicit. Culture isn’t nailed down. But if it were in the Constitution in nice calligraphy right beside the Presidency and the Supreme Court, why, then it would be as explicit as it gets.

Like many other people, I was hopeful that nation-building Iraq (or Afghanistan, or…) would quickly turn it into a liberal democracy (in my defense, I was eighteen at the time). Like many other people, I was disappointed and confused when it didn’t. The people in the world that considers culture the fourth branch of government weren’t confused. Bush forgot to nation-build an entire branch of government. If he’d given Iraq a western-style Supreme Court, marble facade and all, but left their executive and legislature exactly how they were before, that would be a recipe for conflict, confusion, and eventually nothing getting done. So why should westernizing their executive, legislature, and courts – but not their culture – work any better?

The world that considers culture the fourth branch of government doesn’t get all confused calling hunter-gatherers or peasant villagers “primitive communism” or “anarchism” or “ruled by elders” or things like that. Those people’s governments have a cultural branch but not much else. Why should we be surprised? Medieval Iceland had onlylegislative and judicial branches; medieval Somalia only had a judiciary; some dictatorships run off just an executive.

Each branch of government enforces rules in its own way. The legislature passes laws. The executive makes executive orders. The judiciary rules on cases. And the culture sets norms. In our hypothetical world, true libertarians are people who want less of all of these. There are people who want less of the first three branches but want to keep strong cultural norms about what is or isn’t acceptable – think Lew Rockwell and other paleoconservatives who hope that the retreat of central government will create strong church-based communities of virtuous citizens. These people aren’t considered libertarians. They might be considered principled constitutionalists, the same way as people who worry about the “imperial presidency” and its use of executive orders. But in the end, what they want to strengthen some branches of government at the expense of others. The real libertarians also believe that cultural norms enforced by shame and ostracism are impositions on freedom, and fight to make these as circumscribed as possible.