My cover story "Fragmented Future" in the January 15, 2007 American Conservative is a long one. Here's an excerpt:
As an economics major and libertarian fellow-traveler in the late 1970s, I assumed that individualism made America great. But a couple of trips south of the border raised questions.
Venturing onto a Buenos Aires freeway in 1978, I discovered a carnival of rugged individualists. Back home in Los Angeles, everybody drove between the lane-markers painted on the pavement, but only one out of three Argentineans followed that custom. Another third carefully straddled the stripes, apparently convinced that the idiots driving between the stripes were unleashing vehicular chaos. And the final third ignored the maricón lanes altogether and drove wherever the hell they felt like.
The next year I was sitting on an Acapulco beach with some college friends, trying to shoo away peddlers. When we tried to brush off one especially persistent drug dealer by claiming we had no cash, he whipped out his credit card machine, which was impressively enterprising for the 1970s.
That set me thinking about why we Americans were luxuriating on the Mexicans's beach, instead of vice-versa. Clearly, the individual entrepreneurs pestering us were at least as hard-working and ambitious as we were. Mexico's economic shortcoming had to be its corrupt and feckless large organizations. Mexicans didn't seem to team up well beyond family-scale.
In America, you don't need to belong to a family-based mafia for protection because the state will enforce your contracts with some degree of equality before the law. In Mexico, though, as former New York Times correspondent Alan Riding wrote in his 1984 bestseller Distant Neighbors: A Portrait of the Mexicans, "Public life could be defined as the abuse of power to achieve wealth and the abuse of wealth to achieve power."
Anyone outside the extended family is assumed to have predatory intentions, which explains the famous warmth and solidarity of Mexican families. "Mexicans need few friends," Riding observed, "because they have many relatives."
Mexico is a notoriously low trust culture and a notoriously unequal one. The great traveler Alexander von Humboldt observed two centuries ago, in words that are arguably still true, "Mexico is the country of inequality. Perhaps nowhere in the world is there a more horrendous distribution of wealth, civilization, cultivation of land, and population."
Jorge G. Castañeda, Vicente Fox's first foreign minister, noted the ethnic substratum of Mexico's disparities in 1995: "The business or intellectual elites of the nation tend to be white (there are still exceptions, but they are becoming more scarce with the years)… By the 1980s, Mexico was once again a country of three nations: the criollo minority of elites and the upper-middle class, living in style and affluence; the huge, poor, mestizo majority; and the utterly destitute minority of what in colonial times was called the Republic of Indians …"
Castañeda pointed out, "These divisions partly explain why Mexico is as violent and unruly, as surprising and unfathomable as it has always prided itself on being. … The pervasiveness of the violence was obfuscated for years by the fact that much of it was generally directed by the state and the elites against society and the masses, not the other way around. The current rash of violence by society against the state and elites is … simply a retargeting."
And these deep-rooted Mexican attitudes largely account for why in Harvard professor Robert D. "Bowling Alone" Putnam's "Social Capital Community Benchmark Survey," Los Angeles ended up looking a lot like it did in the Oscar-winning movie "Crash."
Of course, the winner-take-all entertainment industry contributes to Angelenos feeling wary around each other. I once asked a Hollywood agent why there are so many brother acts among filmmakers these days, such as the Coens ("Fargo"), Wachowskis ("The Matrix"), Farrellys ("There's Something About Mary"), and Wayans ("Scary Movie"). "Who else can you trust?" he shrugged.
Still, what primarily drove down LA's rating in Putnam's 130-question survey were the high levels of distrust displayed by Hispanics. While no more than 12 percent of LA's whites said they trusted other races "only a little or not at all," 37 percent of LA's Latinos distrusted whites. And whites were the most reliable in Hispanic eyes. Forty percent of Latinos doubted Asians, 43 percent distrusted other Hispanics, and 54 percent were anxious about blacks.
Some of this white-Hispanic difference stems merely from the Latinos' failure to tell politically correct lies to the researchers about how much they trust other races. Yet, the LA survey results also reflect a very real and deleterious lack of cooperativeness and social capital among Latinos. As op-ed columnist Gregory Rodriguez stated in the LA Times: "In Los Angeles, home to more Mexicans than any other city in the U.S., there is not one ethnic Mexican hospital, college, cemetery, or broad-based charity."
Due to the rapid national growth of the Hispanic population, America as a whole will become, like Los Angeles, a less trusting, less cohesive society, sapping political, economic, and cultural life.