The best political book published recently in the English-speaking world has one of the worst titles: U.K. Tory MP David Willetts’ The Pinch: How the Baby Boomers Took Their Children’s Future—And Why They Should Give it Back.
By this point, American Baby Boomers have so endlessly (and insufferably) navel-gazed that it’s almost impossible to force yourself to read further once you reach the words “Baby Boomers” in a title. The smaller U.K. baby boom hasn’t been so relentlessly rehashed—but that’s not the reason to read this book by the Universities and Science minister in the new coalition British government. …The Pinch provides an intellectual framework for thinking about far more than just the debt-related issues raised in Willetts’s lengthy subtitle—timely as those are in this era when the debts piled up during the Bush-Blair “in hock to the world” era are rapidly coming come due. For example, without Willetts spelling it out much, his analysis of the foundations of Anglo-Saxon culture helps explain why the same tendencies that make our societies successful also make them peculiarly vulnerable to immigration. I’ll extrapolate on his insights below.
What made possible the Anglo-American heritage of self-governing liberty under law?
Although The Pinch is about England, it’s eminently relevant to American readers. As Willetts says: “England and America share a similar civil society because we share the same (rather unusual) family structure.”
To Willetts, the key to Anglo-Saxon exceptionalism is the nuclear family structure. “When it comes to families, England was the first nuclear power,” Willetts quips.
In his important first chapter, to which he gives the unapologetic title “Who We Are,” Willetts explains the “deep features” that have distinguished England, and its overseas offshoots, from the rest of the world.
England has been “not just different from Papua New Guinea or Pakistan; it is also quite different from France and Italy and most of Continental Europe,” except for Holland and Denmark.
And this difference dates to at least 1250—and perhaps back to (or beyond) the Dark Age days of King Canute.
Following Cambridge anthropologist Alan Macfarlane, Willetts attributes this northwestern European model to the folkways of the ancient Germanic tribes. As Ben Franklin noted, “Britain was formerly the America of the Germans.”
The Anglo-Saxons managed to hit the sweet spot between the kind of cut-throat individualism seen in a handful of cultures (most notoriously the Pushtuns of Afghanistan, who subscribe to the extraordinary proverb “When the floodwaters reach your chin, put your son beneath your feet”) and the more workable extended family cultures seen in, say, Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet.
These broad and loyal extended families do make for cultures of good restaurants. But they aren’t so good at paying their honest share of taxes, as the Greek government’s tax evasion-driven financial crisis is pointing out once again.
In his engaging non-academic style, Willetts outlines the deep structure of Englishness:
“Instead, think of England as being like this for at least 750 years. We live in small families. We buy and sell houses. … Our parents expect us to leave home for paid work …You try to save up some money from your wages so that you can afford to get married. … You can choose your spouse … It takes a long time to build up some savings from your work and find the right person with whom to settle down, so marriage comes quite lately, possibly in your late twenties.“
… This distinction between extended and nuclear family structures has profound political implications according to Willetts. In the lands of extended families, “Helping relatives with contracts and jobs is not seen as corruption but as a moral obligation”. Moreover, “It means that voting is by clans: it is hard to have neutral contracts enforced by an independent judiciary when family obligations are so wide-ranging and so strong”.
… There are clear advantages to extended families: “Big clan-style families are better than nuclear ones at spreading advantage and pooling risk …” Extended families serve as miniature welfare states. If one kinsman strikes it rich, he’ll employ his relatives who need jobs.
Without all this, the English had to dream up self-regulating institutions because “Small families need civil society more:”
“But it was not just voluntary societies which provided mutual support. … Instead of the mutual exchange of the extended family, small families must buy services. For example, insurance schemes, annuities, and savings help protect you when there is no wider family with such obligations.”
Thus, the English were among the pioneers of complex capitalist contracts.
In turn, this early “capitalism without factories” prepared the British to make perhaps the greatest contribution to humanity or recent centuries: the Industrial Revolution, which freed humanity from the Malthusian Trap in which population grows as fast as the food supply, leaving the lower half of society hungry:
“That the Industrial Revolution began in England is a crucial piece of evidence in support of the argument that we have a distinctive economic and social structure.”
In Willetts’s depiction, the English resemble my 2006 description of white Americans:
“They believe on the whole in individualism rather than tribalism, national patriotism rather than ethnic loyalty, meritocracy rather than nepotism, nuclear families rather than extended clans, law and fair play rather than privilege, corporations of strangers rather than mafias of relatives, and true love rather than the arranged marriages necessary to keep ethnic categories clear-cut.”
The Anglo-Saxon nuclear family has greatly benefited humanity. Still, it has its disadvantages.
The nuclear family is expensive. Each small family wants its own place to live—ideally, a house with a garden. Not surprisingly, the crowded British Isles were long the emigration capital of the world, as people headed out for the emptier lands of America, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand.
Why don’t Anglo-Saxons like to live in large, noisy My Big Fat Greek Wedding-style homes? Unfortunately, Willetts doesn’t address this. Personally, I don’t see much evidence that people from other cultures get along better with their relatives. They just don’t seem to mind screaming at their cousin-in-laws as much as Anglos would mind.
Perhaps the kind of civil personality cultivated by civil society (and the English became famously polite) is more pained by domestic discord. Civil society seems to breed more polite personalities who can get along with strangers. You can shout abuse at your loved ones because they are stuck with you, but non-relatives have to want to deal with you.
(Or maybe civil personalities enable civil societies? What’s chicken and what’s egg is seldom clear in these virtuous circles of feedback.)
This relative lack of nepotism and ethnocentrism makes Anglos simultaneously both successful and at risk of being out-maneuvered by less idealistic groups.
… One increasing problem with civil Anglo personalities is that they tend to value fair play and neutrality so much that they can blind themselves to the interests of their own descendants.