Review of “Burdens of Freedom”

Burdens of Freedom: Cultural Difference and American Power

Burdens of Freedom: Cultural Difference and American Power by Lawrence M Mead

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The premise of the book is simple – American success and power are explained by its individualistic culture. This position fits well within the idea of soft power developed by that Harvard professor and former Assistant Secretary of Defense Joseph Nye.

Culture is defined as a worldview or the assumptions one makes about the world. Because he knew he would be criticized, Mead is very adamant to point out that this is not a matter of race (he repeats this assertion several times as well as making it the focus of a chapter). However, he does say, “The time for assuming sameness among all people is over.” (65) There is a difference among cultures about competition, cooperation, and compliance.

What sets the American (and Western European) culture apart from the rest of the world is that it is defined by the idea of individual responsibility and a set of concrete principles. That makes compliance with societal norms and laws internally motivated. A moralistic culture also means that rights are accompanied by a responsibility to self and society (a position Heinlein presents in STARSHIP TROOPER). Other, less successful cultures are defined by the quality of relations and external policing. Citing Putnam, Mead says this is why failure in those societies are likely to be blamed on ‘the system’ or some external power.

After presenting his argument at the international, he focuses on American domestic policy. He says that the real threat to the US is the shift in culture to one that is more in line with communitarian rather than individualistic values. In this vein, the real threat of immigration is not economic; it is that new immigrants bring with them and maintain the culture that led to failure for the home countries. As they increase in the population, there will be a shift in American culture away from individualism.

Mead supports his argument with specific cases as well as survey data, including Inglehardt’s “World Values Survey.” His position is not unique as it follows the work of Max Weber, Samuel Huntington, Robert Putnam, and Frances Fukuyama.

This book will not be popular with progressives (who he specifically criticizes) or the politically correct ‘woke’ crowd (not that they are likely to read a publication by a conservative scholar). However, it is one that they and everyone should read.

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