walter williams

Britain’s 2011 aircraft-carrier debacle may seem to have little in common with a 1940s Philadelphia ghetto and a modern French electricity company, but looks can be deceiving.

Two new carriers, contracted at $6.5 billion in 2008, may cost $16.5 billion when completed by the end of this decade and cash-strapped Britons are furious. Beneath all the military techno-babble about adding allegedly essential and undoubtedly costly new components hides a culture among brass-hats and contractors that they can get away with it. Behind that culture lurks, well, culture, which is affected by economics but which also drives economics itself.

Flashback to the Richard Allen Housing Project in the North Philly ghetto, where young Walter Williams (now a distinguished professor of economics at George Mason University and national columnist) grew up in the 1930s-1940s alongside of his neighbour, Dr. Bill Cosby, and presumably soon thereafter his cousin, the basketball immortal Julius Irving. If all of this achievement had something to do with the ghetto water-supply it would be bottled and on sale by now, but Dr. Williams recalls that his step-father simply told him to work hard, “show up early and stay late.”

Fast-forward to France, when a decade ago I crossed the Channel to an English friend’s summer house in Boulogne where we found the electricity cut off. Kindly Parisian neighbours on holiday brought candles and advice and the next morning, full of dread, we drove 20 miles to the electricity company which was state-owned, un-privatised — and French no less, so we feared the worst. Yet, in 15 minutes delightful young people solved the problem, processed the credit card and phoned Jean-Jacques, the lineman who had the power switched on before we got home. “Au revoir!” they chirped merrily, waving as we left. In pre-privatisation Britain it could have taken geologic time, and even post-privatisation we’d have faced the listless and condescending slatterns and dullards for whom British customer service is justifiably renowned.

What elevated Dr. Williams and his neighbours to greatness is what made the French bureaucrats act with such surprising elan and joie de vivre, namely a culture of commitment.

Dr. Williams’ newest book, Race and Economics: How Much Can Be Blamed on Discrimination?, promises to be as controversial, entertaining and insightful as everything else that he writes. My copy awaits my holiday from Kabul, and he apparently mixes his own experiences with unassailable data on how minimum-wage laws, the Davis-Bacon Act, trade unionism and the welfare state have sapped black Americans of competitive achievements that they enjoyed compared to whites 70 years ago and more. No stranger to bigotry himself, the intrepid Dr. Williams was nearly court-martialled out of the US Amy for opposing racism there, but he argues that economic barriers and disincentives can be the more harmful. Only the brave, fool-hardy and incurably ideological dare to disagree.

While not even a modern Leftist would tell Adam Smith and Walter Williams that economic incentives do not matter considerably, and while the same spend-thrift state ethos that discourages black American achievement hamstrings British defence procurement, something else is afoot here. Namely, why do the market-oriented economic reforms of the Anglo-Sphere so often fail to bring levels of initiative and service visible in state-owned entities in, say, France or Singapore where state-owned Changi Airport may be the best in the world?

It is unlikely to be Christianity for few Singaporeans are Christian and few French people are even remotely devout anymore. They may be coasting along on their religious (and for Singapore, post-colonial) antecedents, but in the mighty Asian city-state the civic cult of Confucianism seems the more likely influence, and French electricity bureaucrats enjoy no more inherited religious values than do their Anglophonic counterparts. The lesson seems to be that economic incentives are not enough and that religion is insufficient: deeply Christian Africa is not known for customer service, as charming as their people are behind the counter.

Nor, one suspects, is diligence a function of community: semi-rural France seems no more socially integrated than its English equivalent, and Singapore is a metropolis just shy of 5 million people, as populous as Atlanta but far more ethnically diverse.

It is not the desire to escape poverty: the French bureaucrats do not go home at night to an urban ghetto.

The answer may lay in Philadelphia where Dr. Williams’ parents taught him to promote his own career indirectly by serving others directly. The opposing perspective is ‘me first,’ usually without any required self-discipline or self-improvement with which to defend it. Call it decadence.

If one travels, one sees the enormous diligence and thirst for self-improvement that define multitudes across the so-called developing world, juxtaposed against the self-satisfaction and lassitude that seems increasingly commonplace in the West. Granted that endemically bad governance and ancient enmities deter people in poorer countries and that the French private or public sectors are no consumer heaven. But there are Western micro-cultures that shatter the market-oriented ideologies.

Granted, too, that America still excels at customer-service generally, but the trajectories seem clear. The American students filling the engineering and medical faculties tend to be named Wong or Chaudhary or Mohammad, whereas the devotees of Women’s Literature and Media Studies are called Smith or Schmidt, LeClerc or Giovanni. In America and abroad, the ambitious and enterprising come from vastly different, usually non-Western, cultures that have little else in common beyond those two virtues and an inspiring shortage of decadence.

When American conservatives insist that the prescription for national renewal is revivifying religion, or reading more about the Founding Fathers, or getting involved with their neighbours, or in boosting enterprise and rolling back the state, one wonders if this is nice but quite insufficient. When they trumpet American exceptionalism, why are today’s most engaged and diligent people from somewhere else? Something elusive is missing, but one hopes that it survives in American enclaves including an ugly housing project in Philadelphia.

Ultimately, it may be that the rest of us just had it all too easy for too long and our time has passed, victims of our forefathers’ economic success. That may explain the end of Rome better than Christianity, slavery, empire or the other leading theories: “Throw another dormouse on the grill, Septimus, and let someone else worry about washing the dishes.”

Books on the people and topics discussed in this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore

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