What or who gives a nation its sacred values?

Saturday, April 12th, 2014

What — or who — gives a nation its sacred values?

A moment’s reflection should tell us that, in fact, they emerge from political discussions within each nation. It is natural to wonder, then, whether powerful interests cannot steer those discussions towards certain desired ends. If they can, aren’t these so-called ‘sacred’ values really just the inventions of manipulative elites?

In a sense, that’s exactly what they are. Yet the process as a whole remains a matter of blind evolution, in which no party can be certain of the outcome. Suppose a particular interest group – a band of ideological entrepreneurs – were to introduce an ideological ‘meme’ into the public discourse (think of Cato the Elder’s catchphrase, ‘Carthage must be destroyed’). These memes compete against others. Some become popular and are internalised by a majority of the population; others remain niche preoccupations or fall by the wayside altogether. In time, popular memes come to exert an influence over the behaviour of the state. Then natural selection, acting through international conflict, eliminates those states that have internalised ‘bad’ memes.

This is a long-term dynamic involving multiple generations. In the short term, it’s true that ruling elites can whip up nationalistic fervour. External events (an attack, for example) can trigger it. But it still depends on the existence of certain bedrock attitudes that have evolved over many years. That means it isn’t always the elites who manipulate the wider population; popular attitudes also constrain elite choices and actions. And this suggests a further corollary: states in which the elites and the general population share the same bedrock values will tend to be much more effective in the international arena, committing to their course without demur.

Leave a Reply