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20220212 – Burdens of Freedom



The author briefly describes the central theme of this book as: “The contrast between Western and non-Western ways of life is the great division in the world today, both within and between countries. On one side of that great divide, America—due chiefly to the world’s most individualist culture—has leapt to wealth and power. In such a society, particularly, power grows from the bottom up. It begins with ordinary people who take action toward their own goals and, in so doing, enrich and empower the nation.” On the other side is contemporary China, the country with deep collectivistic culture and history that seemingly presents an alternative when the power goes from the top down, forcing everybody to subordinate their lives to the vision and wishes of leaders at the top.


Chapter One Introduction
The chapter presents the key points and overall structure of the book. It also discusses overall cultural differences between the western and non-western people, resources availability, which primarily derived from these differences, and the balance of economic and other forms of national power between two prominent representatives: America as quintessential individualistic and China as collectivistic societies.  

Part One: History and Culture
This part discusses how history led to the development of the specific culture and points out that Western and especially American individualism largely explains the primacy of this part of the world.

Chapter Two: History
This chapter looks at the history of both Europe and the non-western world, dividing it into static vs. dynamic civilizations. The author presents it as competition between control and Freedom and reviews how this competition developed over time in different cultures. Until recently, this competition has increasingly demonstrated the superiority of the Western ways in all areas of human activities. Still, the new challenge from collectivistic cultures of Asia shows that high levels of development could be achieved when suppression of individual Freedom continues unabated in some areas, mainly political and cultural, but alleviated in the economy.   

Chapter Three: The End of History
This chapter initially discusses ideas of “the end of history” popular at the end of the Cold War and makes the case that it did not end but became much more complicated. Then, it provides side by side graphic representation of politics before and after:

It also makes the point that the old assumption of sameness of all people regardless of their cultural background proved wrong and should be tossed away. Here is the author’s suggestion:” The Western political tradition, in fact, is antiquated. It explicates the issues that have been resolved in history, but not the deepest struggles that confront us after history. To address them, we need a new intellectual tradition. It must focus on cultural difference, not sameness; on human nature, not Freedom or equality. It will inevitably give greater place to values of order and authority, and a lesser place to Freedom or autonomy, than intellectuals favor. To reinterpret individualism as a culture of obligation rather than Freedom, as I do in this book, is already a step down that road.”

Chapter Four: Cultural Difference
The chapter first points out that the main differences between cultures are not binary but graduate: the West is somewhat more individualistic than the non-west. The chapter then discusses the variances of three critical attributes:

  • Individualism vs. Collectivism
  • Moralism vs. Situational Ethics
  • Theory vs. Experience

The chapter then provides two graphic models of variations:

The conclusion points out differences in approach and assertiveness between cultures, making it very difficult to understand each other.

Chapter Five: The Origins of Difference
This chapter discusses the origin of differences, which it assigns to various factors from economic and social conditions to demography, history, religion, and philosophy. Finally, it looks at Europe and its most prominent countries with its culture: America and Britain. The conclusion is that typical western attitude that people in other countries want to be like them. In reality, this attitude is entirely out of the base.

Part Two: Other Roots of Power
In this part, the author looks outside the culture at other features of existence and systematically goes through the most important of them, such as:

Chapter Six: Geography;

Chapter Seven: The Market;

Chapter Eight: Good Government
However, all these factors are strongly linked to the culture, creating a kind of feedback loop. For example, with its relative independence of individuals and availability of multiple choices, the market makes a very different morality than living within some collective that imposes strict compliance on others with little if any alternatives. Correspondingly, the western understanding of good government features the interaction of more or less independent agents when people outside of government perceive themselves as customers or even bosses who theoretically could fire all government leaders and bureaucrats. On the other hand, non-western understanding features a nearly opposite approach when people outside of government are dependent on the government for their wellbeing and therefore do whatever they can to be in good graces of whatever bureaucrat they are dealing with. The author also discusses an important topic of reconciliation between Freedom and order, the challenge relevant mainly to western societies. The overall conclusion is that all these features that make the West into what it is are not easily transferrable to other cultures.

Part Three: Challenges at Home

This part looks at the Western burdens of Freedom, which come from the internal drive to pursue one’s own goals in contrast to the burdens of non-freedom imposed on individuals from outside. Sometimes these burdens are too much for some individuals, who would rather be cared for by others.  
Chapter Nine: Freedom as Obligation
This chapter goes more deeply into why Freedom requires obligations, first in theory and then more concretely. Finally, it defines that the current threat to American Freedom comes mainly not from any foreign country but from the decline of individualism within America.

Chapter Ten: Social Problems; Chapter Eleven: Immigration
Chapters 10 and 11 analyze the decline, which is apparent in the recent demoralization of the working class and also in the long-standing problem of entrenched poverty. Recent immigration is also weakening the individualist character of American society. Non-Western newcomers bring valuable assets to America, just as past immigrants did, but they must also join a mainstream culture that still shoulders the burdens of Freedom. An ideal America is a multicultural society that remains individualistic.

Part Four: Future Challenges
Chapter Twelve: The Future of Primacy; Chapter Thirteen: Policy Directions

In the two final chapters, the author considers the implications of this cultural perspective for American policy both at home and abroad. He contrasts the United States with other centers of power, especially Asia:” American primacy seems likely to continue; Asian culture is too cautious and too centered on immediate interests for these countries to lead the world as the West and America have done. Against all its rivals, only the United States possesses both the will and the capacity to lead. That potential, however, depends on the maintenance of an individualist way of life at home.”


I think that the idea of Freedom requiring hard work, sometimes fighting, and always imposing obligation is not new and even maybe somewhat trivial. However, the author’s stress on the individualism of American culture and its consequences in the form of better economic outcome, less corruption, and higher quality of life, while basically correct, is not sufficiently explanatory. What is missing, in my opinion, is a more comprehensive look at the circumstances of American life, which are different from other countries by the availability of resources under individual control. The American typically owns individually both material property and their own human capital. At the same time, in other places, it is often the family or some hierarchical structure that has the power to direct individuals and suppress any external competition. For example, an American not happy with a job or living location or any other life parameters can change these parameters much easier than people in different cultures.

Moreover, an American typically has more access to other people’s resources, mainly because these resources are widely distributed among the population rather than concentrated in the hands of some government hierarchy. Finally, the cost of a failure is much smaller in America than in other places because the culture is formed in circumstances of the open frontier, so one could overcome the failure by “going West”. As to competition from Asian culture, I guess meaning China, I also optimistic because whatever errors America will make, whatever failures she endures due to incompetence and corruption of its elite, the incompetence and corruption of China’s communist elite would easily double or triple American levels of corruption and incompetence. One also had to add that rigid hierarchical structure would stick to an error much longer and cause much more damage than a flexible network of individuals controlling distributed resources that compete against each other. Only conversion of America into a quasi-socialist society by the elite could cause it to fail. Still, this process seems to encounter fast-growing resistance, so it will probably stop well before the damage becomes existential.    

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