8. Culture & values

Updated: 1 April 2015



In the context of systems analysis culture is the structure which provides stability, because it maintains the fundamental patterns of a people's world view and social behavior. All great civilizations were ultimately based on a consistent culture - from the ancient Egyptians to the Romans. However, some great powers of our time, particularly the United States of America, seem to exist without a clear cultural identity, but flourish as a multi-cultural society. Europe too is in a process of loosing some of its cultural identity - to American styles of diet, entertainment, and, more importantly, work ethic and business philosophy. Europe's cultural identity is also being changed (some would say enriched) by immigration from Northern Africa and the Muslim world. Even China, with its distinctive, millennial-old cultural traditions, appears to have opened-up for "Western" values, ideas, economic principles and lifestyles. Will the super-power of the 21st century depend on a multitude of cultural traits? Or will those countries or regions dominate that are relatively homogenous in their fundamental cultural patterns?

In this analysis we also assume that not all cultural values, religious believes and social traditions are equally suitable for a modern society and economy. Certain norms and traditions are simply incompatible with advanced, technology-based economic and social systems. For instance, the belief that women are inferior to men is not acceptable in a democracy, and the religious belief that the world was created in precisely seven days is incompatible with science - which are both essential elements of any modern economy and society.

We also assume that there is a worldwide progression of cultural systems - a humanistic transformation of civilizations that increases individual freedom and empowerment. As evidence from the World Values Surveys has shown, "people have never voiced their desires for freedoms so frequently and powerfully as today. They do so not only inside but even outside democracies." (Link)

The question of cultural superiority is a touchy subject. Each country, region, religion, race, or ethnic group, by default, considers its own culture as superior or at least as equivalent to any other way of life. From an ethical, philosophical, or ethnological point of view each cultural system may, in fact, be of equal value to any other - from a political and strategic point of view, there are certainly differences. For instance, in secular Jewish culture, for centuries, education was considered highly important - partly as a means to compensate widespread discrimination and hostility against Jews. Not surprisingly, we can find an exceptionally high percentage of Jews among the world's top scientists and scholars. Discipline and respect for hierarchy is a deep cultural value in the Japanese society, which is also an essential part of Japan's work ethic and economic success after World War II (but maybe also the reason for a remarkable deficit of true technological and social innovation). Of course, the impact of cultural values on economic performance and political vision is difficult (or maybe even impossible) to measure; but it would be a mistake to simply ignore it. We therefore hypothesize that - whatever culture or mixture of cultures may dominate in a country - the population must widely share at least three cultural traits if they ever want to become a dominating economic and global political force:


Without an element of competitiveness no cultural system can hope to become the foundation of a country or region that will dominate the 21st century. A lassies-fair society, where everyone is just languishing happily with whatever they have got, lacks an essential driver for social, economic, technical and scientific innovation. Without a desire of people to improve their life, win the game, move up in society, become rich or famous, or be the one to make a scientific discovery or invention, a society can never generate outstanding achievements. Widespread competitiveness is the breeding ground for entrepreneurs and strong political leaders. These, however, are a precondition of global dominance.


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Fischer - Made in America Fiorina - Culture War Prow - Governing to Win Webb - Born Fighting

Claude S. Fischer (2011)
Made in America. A social history of American culture and character. University of Chicago Press

Morris P. Fiorina et al. (2010)Culture War? The myth of a polarized America. Longman

Fiorina is professor of Political Science at Stanford University and senior fellow at the Hoover Institution

Charles Prow (Ed.) (2012)
Governing to Win. Enhancing national competitiveness through new policy and operating approaches. Rowman & Littlefield Publishers

Jim Webb (2005)
Born Fighting. How the Scots-Irish shaped America. Broadway Books

Webb served as US Senator from Virginia and as Secretary of the US Navy

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It was the Greek philosopher Plato, who developed the idea of a state run by philosophers. His ideal state was governed by scholars, who were not interested in pragmatic solutions to the day-to-day problems of ordinary people. Instead they governed the state on the basis of principles and philosophical insights. China's mandarins during the Tang dynasty, came perhaps closest to this ideal of scholarly administration and government. But the idea of philosophers running a state on the basis of principles can easily turn into a nightmare, when the philosophy is in fact an inhumane ideology that is implemented against common sense with terror and suppression.

Only a culture where a broad majority of the population favors pragmatic solutions in every sphere of life, can resist the mass hysteria of political (and economic) ideology that has lead to some of the most monstrous political regimes in history. Fortunately, the "1000-year empire" of Nazi-Germany, the terror regime of Stalin, or the communist utopia of Mao only lasted a few years or decades - non of these empires based on a political utopia could gain global dominance. Without the pragmatist Deng Xiaoping, China would never have reached its current status as one of the worlds leading nations.


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James - Pragmatism Posner - Law, Pragmatism, and Democracy Zhao - Chinese Foreign Policy Yavlinsky - Realeconomik

William James (1995)
Pragmatism. Dover Publications. First published in 1907.

Richard A. Posner (2003)
Law, Pragmatism, and Democracy. Harvard University Press.

Posner is Circuit Judge, the United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit, and a senior lecturer at the University of Chicago Law School.

Suisheng Zhao (2004)
Chinese Foreign Policy. Pragmatism and strategic behavior. Routledge

Zhao is a professor of Chinese politics and foreign policy at the University of Denver's Josef Korbel School of International Studies.

Grigory Yavlinsky (2011)
Realeconomik. The hidden cause of the Great Recession (and how to avert the next one) . Yale University Press

Yavlinsky is a Russian economist and founder of the Russian United Democratic Party. As deputy prime minister of Russia in 1990, he wrote the first Russian economic program for transition to a free-market economy, "500 Days".

 In Association with Amazon.com


Integrative strength

Many sociologists have pointed out that integration is one of the core requirements of every social system. Without sufficient integration a society can easily been torn up in internal conflict and civil war - not the best condition for global dominance! Certain cultural values and characteristics are highly integrative, for instance a common language. One may consider this rather obvious, if not trivial, but there are many countries, in which the population does not share a common language. It is estimated that a rapidly increasing number of several dozen million people in the US do not speak any English (but Spanish or Mandarin). The great majority of people in Europe can not understand each other, because the continent is sliced up in dozens of language provinces. Even in relatively language-homogenous countries such as Germany city quarters exist, where people only speak Turkish in everyday life - and a growing number of them doesn't understand any German.

Apart from shared language there are many other cultural values, which can promote cohesion within a population. A shared religion is one example, but also various forms of national pride, historical legends or shared political and social concepts, such as freedom and democracy. 


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Gallie - Economic Crisis Hartman - War for the Soul of America Ho - Institutions in Transition Bawer - While Europe Slept

Duncan Gallie (Ed.) (2013)
Economic Crisis, Quality of Work, and Social Integration. The European Experience. Oxford University Press

Gallie is an Official Fellow of Nuffield College, Oxford and Professor of Sociology in the University of Oxford.

Andrew Hartman (2015)
A War for the Soul of America. A history of the culture wars. University of Chicago Press.

Hartman is associate professor of history at Illinois State University.

Peter Ho (2005)
Institutions in Transition. Land ownership, property rights and social conflict in China. Oxford University Press.

Ho is Professor of International Development Studies and Director of the Centre for Development Studies at the University of Groningen.

Bruce Bawer (2007)
While Europe Slept. How radical Islam is destroying the West from within. Anchor

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Links to comparative analyses

In these analyses we will compare China, Europe, and the USA and ask, which of them has a culture that has strong traits of competitiveness and pragmatism, and promotes social, political and economic integration. These will be our criteria to asses each country's or region's comparative cultural advantage:



Integrative strength

Links to online articles and statistics

Below are links for further reading. Attention was given to include a wide spectrum of opinions and academic positions:

Christian Welzel (2003): Freedom Rising. Human empowerment and the quest for emancipation. Cambridge University Press


Creative Commons License "China-Europe-USA - Culture & Values" by Gerhard K. Heilig is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License. Published: 2004; Revised: 2015