If you want to have your strongest and most positive impact on your culture, the way to do it is to live with integrity – meaning that you know your principles and you live by them and speak from them.
There are solitary creatures like pandas and bumblebees and there are social animals like wolves and wildebeests but we are the only living creatures on Earth who have culture. Culture is created when your knowledge, wisdom and innovations can be transmitted and have an impact over time and space, beyond your immediate influence.
With culture, when a problem is solved by one person, it has the possibility of being solved forever, and throughout the entire culture, which means that the culture can change in significant ways over time. While our human nature has not fundamentally changed over the millennia, our human culture has.
A culture contains and expresses the qualities that are common to groups of people living and working together; it is the capacity that we as human beings have to engage one another in creating a more complex and more advantageous way of life.
Our human culture has developed differently in different places, and within different groups of people. (Even the prehistoric culture of the San Bushmen that I wrote about in The San People of the Kalahari have a different culture than they did many years ago, incorporating bits of metal in their toolmaking, for example.)
If a culture values integrity and trust, the people within that culture are supported and encouraged by that culture to behave with integrity and in ways that engender trust. If a culture values violence and irrationality, the people within that culture are supported and encouraged to be violent and irrational.
In America, we often talk about how our culture is going to hell in a handbasket. This is not a new development; I would venture to say this sentiment is one of the defining features of our culture.
Look at the '50s and how disturbed many people were with the likes of Elvis Presley, or the Roaring Twenties with the flappers. Go back further and read Mark Twain or HL Menken or Herman Melville or Alexis de Tocqueville and you will find profound and grand critiques and concerns for America's culture.
I believe that this is actually an expression of a degree of self-consciousness and self-examination that flows from a society that values individualism and independent thought – rather than one whose values and identity are imposed from the top down, from a monarch or dictator or powerful leader or central authority.
We look to actively change and improve our culture in America, and that involves defining what's wrong and what we would have different. In America, we all engage in this noble pursuit.
That said, there is much to be legitimately concerned about today in terms of our American culture but I want to distinguish between style and principle. The "metal" music that my kids like to listen to is a matter of style. People's views about aesthetics or personal issues such as drugs or sexuality are a matter of style, meaning that one person may like any of these, another may not, but they both could share the same general guiding principles.
Those guiding cultural principles are much more important.
Does an individual have a right to own his own life or does the collective or the majority or Rousseau's "general will" hold a higher value? Is commerce considered a noble or a base undertaking? Are all men created equal or are some legally superior to others based upon birth or endowed privilege?
Do we as a country, and as a culture, have the right to defend ourselves from threats to our nation and to our culture? Do we each, as individuals, have the right to our personal security and our property, and do we have the right to defend our person and property?
Is what we earn our own or does it belong to the state first? Does the law of the land limit the scope of government or the scope of our individual liberty? Do we desire a culture based upon individual liberty and personal responsibility or do we prefer a culture that is based on coercion and entitlement in the name of some greater good?
These are cultural principles. It is these principles that are at war today, much as they were during Woodrow Wilson's presidency, or FDR's, and to one degree or another ever since the European principles of progressivism/socialism/fascism began their ascent over a hundred years ago. But the conflict is palpable and inescapable today.
This war has been played out in violently dramatic fashion at the capitals of Michigan and Wisconsin, where Union thugs and leftist activists sought to use violence and intimidation to overthrow the legislation that served to weaken those unions' coercive power. In each case, men and women of principle stood their ground and prevailed.
This war is being shamelessly promoted by a media whose members and culture have chosen to firmly advocate for the leftist end of this cultural conflict.
This conflict has escalated not because people are not willing to work together, reaching across the aisle to compromise on legislation to "move this country forward"; this conflict has escalated because the cultural differences between America's founding principles and the principles of the progressive movement are antithetical – they are opposites; they contradict one another. This conflict cannot be resolved through compromise.
This escalation of our cultural conflict makes it very difficult to sit on the sidelines and avoid engaging in the conflict. To live with integrity is to know what your principles are and to actively live by those principles. To act and speak from your principles is the most effective way to impact the culture in which you live.
When you are at a dinner party where everybody seems to be in agreement that the government should take more of what certain people earn and should continue to expand entitlements for an ever larger percentage of the population and such a stance is in conflict with your deeply held principles, what impact do you have on the culture if you say nothing? What impact do you have if you become irate and begin calling people names?
I would venture to say that the answer would be either no impact in the former, or a negative impact in the latter.
What if you expressed your beliefs in terms of style, claiming that today's music is bad or getting caught up in the minutiae of personal preferences or specific opinions regarding drugs or contraceptives or which politician is more caring? I think you'd find yourself frustratingly tangled in the weeds of political talking points.
In contrast, what impact could you have if you expressed your beliefs in the form of fundamental principles? I think you might find that you have a much deeper impact than you would expect because such argument is actually pretty rare, and I have found that not many people on the left – or right – have much grasp of them.
When you understand the principles of individual liberty, of self-ownership, of self-government and of the hugely benevolent win/win dynamic of the free market – as opposed to the win/lose mechanism of crony capitalist fascism – you are on much more solid ground. Understanding such fundamental principles gives you a moral compass that allows you to integrate deeper values, and to speak from a more grounded, deeply rooted position.
This kind of integrity with your principles can be a very powerful and positive influence on our culture.
In Stanley Milgram's well known "Obedience to Authority" experiments, he found a horrifying degree of compliance with authority among his subjects – 67 percent were willing to administer what they believed were potentially lethal doses of electric shock to others when they were told by a person in a lab coat, simply, "The experiment requires that you continue."
But what was much more interesting – and much more hopeful – was that when subjects witnessed another subject defy that authority, those people were dramatically more likely to defy that authority themselves – the compliance rate dropped from 67 percent to 10 percent.
One person acting with integrity to his or her deeply held principles can have a huge impact on the culture – a much greater impact even than scores of people going along with the status quo.
If you want to preserve and expand America's culture of freedom, if you want to steer this conflict toward personal responsibility and limited government, know your principles, study our founding documents and history, read Adam Smith, Milton Friedman and Ludwig von Mises – read Mark Skousen's Economics on Trial for a good overview of the different schools, particularly that of John Maynard Keynes, whose theory is what the left is counting on to make things work.
Understand your fundamental principles and why you hold them and then live and speak from those principles. Your integrity will make a difference. It is how we can improve our culture from the roots on up. America is unique in that it is a country founded on clearly stated, powerful, and deeply good and true principles. These principles, and the political foundation they bequeathed, are what make America unique, what has enabled her to alter the culture of the entire world for the better.
The more we understand these principles, the more we actively and assertively live and act from these principles, the stronger the chances are that our culture of freedom will endure and grow.