Thomas Sowell / June 10, 2009

The Character of Nations

In an age that values cleverness over wisdom, it is not surprising that many superficial but clever books get more attention than a wise book like “The Character of Nations” by Angelo Codevilla, even though the latter has far more serious implications for the changing character of our own nation.

The recently published second edition of Professor Codevilla’s book is remarkable just for its subject, quite aside from the impressive breadth of its scope and the depth of its insights. But clever people among today’s intelligentsia disdain the very idea that there is such a thing as “national character.”

Everything from punctuality to alcohol consumption may vary greatly from one country to another, but the “one world” ideology and the “multicultural” dogma make it obligatory for many among the intelligentsia to act as if none of this has anything to do with the poverty, corruption and violence of much of the Third World or with the low standard of living in the Soviet Union, one of the most richly endowed nations on earth, when it came to natural resources.

“The Character of Nations” is about far more than the fact that there are different behavior patterns in different countries– that, for example, “it is unimaginable to do business in China without paying bribes” but “to offer one in Japan is the greatest of faux pas.”

The real point is to show what kinds of behaviors produce what kinds of consequences– in the economy, in the family, in the government and in other aspects of human life. Nor do the repercussions stop there. Government policies are not only affected by the culture of the country but can in turn have a major impact on that culture, for good or ill.

Written in plain and sometimes blunt words, “The Character of Nations” is nevertheless the product of a man whose knowledge and experience span the globe, extending into economics, philosophy and other fields, as well as encompassing the wisdom of the ancients and the follies of the moderns.

The book is an education in itself, more of an education than many students are likely to get at an Ivy League college. However, its purpose is not academic but to clarify the issues facing us all today when “the character of the American way of life is up for grabs perhaps more than ever before,” as the author puts it.

While nations differ, particular kinds of behavior produce particular kinds of results in country after country. Moreover, American society in recent years has been imitating behavior patterns that have produced negative– and sometimes catastrophic– consequences in many other countries around the world.

Among these patterns have been a concentration of decision-making power in government officials, an undermining of the role of the family, a “non-judgmental” attitude toward behavior and a dissolution of the common bonds that hold a society together, leading to atomistic self-indulgences and group-identity politics that increasingly pits different segments of society against each other.

Those among the intelligentsia who say that we should “learn from other countries” almost invariably mean that we should imitate what other countries have done. Angelo Codevilla argues that we should learn from other countries’ mistakes, especially when those same mistakes have repeatedly produced bad results in many countries and among many very different peoples, living under very different political systems.

Putting ever more economic decisions in the hands of those with political power is just one of those mistakes with a track record of painful repercussions in many countries around the world. These repercussions have included not only serious economic losses but, even more important, a loss of personal freedom and self-respect, as ever wider segments of the population become supplicants and sycophants of those with the power to dispense largess or to make one’s life miserable with legalistic or bureaucratic harassment.

We in America have taken large steps in that direction in recent years, and are accelerating our moves in that direction this year. Getting some clearer sense of what this risks is just one of many reasons to read “The Character of Nations.”


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