There is a fine line to be walked between democracy and tradition. They appear distinct from one another from a bird’s eye view of the West’s last half millennium, as it was the death of tradition which brought about Democracy’s ascendency. However, the epistemological roots of the two are entangled, with those of Democracy short in comparison.
What we want is a politic which can separate truth from falsity, good ideas from bad; something which interacts with the sieve of history, through which the sands of poor ideas fall through. Think of it as (somewhat) Darwinian. The culture which stumbles into a range not conducive to survival will fail, while those which avoid those ranges will survive. If they avoid those ranges for long enough, the spaces in which those cultural traits persist become traditions.
Above are about 26 random walks with 460 data points. To illustrate the point about non-conducive ranges, say these random walks are cultures which sprung from the same parent culture, where some basket of cultural traits is represented by the vertical axis. Above the value of 3, whatever basket of traits that number represents, is not viable for the culture’s survival, and it dies out. Here we stick to a one dimensional plot of culture, but you can easily imagine it on the planes drawn up in part 2. Naturally, the average value of this basket of cultural traits will move downwards over time as the variance of the traits is allowed to increase downwards, but not up.
Now imagine these cultures splitting up, spawning new cultures which separate and spread apart over time:
Of the sub-cultures spawned, you still see some culture death, but not as frequently as before. More importantly, there is a new mean for these cultures which spawned, a new constant in their cultural equation. Here I merely ended all the series on graph except for the new one which spawned the new generation of cultures, but the same pattern would occur if I had subcultures spawn from all of the surviving ones.
(What I should do is give each surviving culture a percentage chance of spawning a sub-culture in each period, but that is more complicated an Excel task than I want to take on here.)
Traditions log these constants. Cultures persisted in a particular way, and they survived because of it. Because they survived, they spawned child cultures, which persisted similarly. This long standing persistence around a constant is what we call upholding traditions.
Note that the people do not need to be aware of the origin of these traditions for the traditions to be useful. Animals are not aware of why they exists as they do, why they evolved as they did; yet they survive and reproduce (or don’t, as environments change) because of their nature, because it was and, perhaps is, viable. Similarly, cultures persist as they do because they have persisted as they have.
From whence comes these unviable ranges for baskets of cultural traits? As with the evolution of species, we will say the environment. But there is a caveat, in that there is an endogeneity issue with respect to culture and environment. Culture affects, indeed it may intersect/subset, the environment. The environment affects, intersects and/or supersets the culture. Further, culture can build upon itself, and become dependent upon parts of itself which are a result of the environment.
The further clause above is the case with Catholic morality. Take the sexual ethics of the Catholic Church: supremely practical in an age where most are poor and food is scarce, a bastard child can give you an impossible extra mouth to feed, along with leaving your daughter unweddable due to her loose morals being widely known. This practicality breaks down when birth control is cheap, and there is an abundance of wealth provided by the state for single mothers. But structures built upon sexual prudence, such as marriage, deteriorate once practicality of their underpinnings become less immediate. So say in the above graphs that the vertical axis is some bundle of sexual vice tolerances by a culture; if historically the cultures which had too much an abundance of sexual vice died off (too many bastard children, perhaps?), the cultures which gravitated downwards, more prudish, are less likely to face that unviable zone, more persist. Then the constants of cultures (point 1 of new culture walks as they spawn off of their parent cultures) around this attribute will migrate downwards. But if the cap on sexual ethic viability is removed, and a culture walks upwards towards it, many people will chafe at the traditional sexuality of the past, which feels to them restrictive once their culture stumbles into that previously unviable zone. This is just a brief example, I am sure you can raise objections to this case in particular, but you should be able to see the point being illustrated.
Again, we want a politic which can separate good ideas from bad ideas. Good directions for baskets of cultural traits to trend, from bad directions. Even in economics, which we do not distinguish from culture, how can we tell what economic directions are healthy, which are not? We should not expect a politic which guides great stretches of history, though it may happen from time to time. What we want is one with the social memory to stick to what works, and shun what does not.
Without exploring the issues of present day, Western, liberal democracy: the competing interests of groups in heterogeneous societies, the lack of an incentive structure for conveying truth in the media, and that the best interest of elected officials rarely coincides with the best interest of those they represent; why at its essence does democracy, la volonté générale, fail? Maybe there is no better way to read the tide gauge of tradition than by taking a poll of the population. Sure, individual voters may be unlikely to have an explicit understanding of social/economic healthy policies, and could have an effectively non-existent connection to the traditions of their culture; but if you can’t get the full panel data, a cross section is better than nothing, right?
Let’s do a thought experiment. Consider some basket of cultural traits which relate to the ability of members of a culture to communicate and cooperate with one another; call this the Basket of Harmony. Imagine what cultural traits may exist in this basket: things like the nature of the legal code around social interactions, or the level of trust between those within that culture. There is going to be some cut off point on our plot of culture walks at which a culture can no longer function, where the members of the society are so disharmonious that the essential social relationships which are required for that society to survive are impossible to maintain; call this a Disharmonious Basket. What traits would be in a disharmonious basket?
The members of a country/culture type entity need to be able to communicate clearly; it is not controversial to say a group which communicates within itself well is more harmonious than one which communicates poorly. The members of said entity need to have established rules of conduct; a group with ambiguous or underdeveloped laws, or even laws which are harmful to parts of the population within that entity, is less harmonious than one with more developed, more just laws. The polity which lacks trust between its members, due to things like high crime or social/religious antagonisms, will be less harmonious than one without.
Going back to our epistemological/political/cultural-etcetera cross section, how is it that we try and take this sample? We have a measurement problem, where the act of trying to get our cross section of cultural sentiments across the population actually changes the population itself. Recall the huge swings in voter polls in the 2016 election; I linked to this in part one, but here is a snip of it from RCP:
Here is the one from 2012:
There are many criticisms about polling methodologies; however, independent of the accuracy of the polls, the huge swings in public opinion exist. On what basis are voters deciding who the most powerful man in the world should be? I cannot concoct an argument linking public opinion and the underlying ideals a candidate represents. These are not polls on how closely a candidate aligns with a voter’s understanding of the world. What drives these swings? The propaganda, obviously. This isn’t a bold claim. Political parties spend hundreds of millions (billions) of dollars to elect their candidates, pundits shill for their candidates on news networks, politicians give speeches, and so on.
This is the measurement problem: the possible epistemological value of democracy is lost when the sentiments of the masses are perturbed by the democratic process itself.
Putting together an empirical argument to piece together how the measurement problem necessarily exists in a democratic society, and how this ultimately results in a Disharmonious Basket of cultural traits, is a job for another day.