Culture and Policy

One of the most fascinating things that I have been able to see on this study abroad trip across Europe learning about the European Union and various policy areas has been the intricate intersections between culture and policy.

Culture.

Culture is absolutely fascinating and so incredibly influential. If there is one thing that I have learned from speaking to various officials and traveling to different places across Europe, it is to not underestimate the magnitude of culture. It literally shapes the country, the way that it operates, and the policies that it passes. The most common example of this is the typical joke that the far-left liberals in America are seen as the center left in Europe. While this is obviously a generalization, it highlights a key characteristic of culture – it has the ability to control what policies are seen as normal, and therefore are widely accepted, or what policies have a stigma of being “too much”. For example, because it is a part of European culture, many social programs and benefits (like a free/reduced college education) are able to exist and be passed without creating the same sort of uproar that it would cause in a place like the United Sates that does not have a similar culture.

The influence of culture can even be seen in climate policy. When it comes to reducing emissions, one of the things that we learned is that there are three main approaches that governments can take: “command and control” or direct regulation, a carbon tax, or a carbon market. The command and control method as well as the carbon tax have both been tried by the EU and US and received much backlash because of a hate for more taxes as well as a common view that the government is encroaching upon the free market. The reaction to the carbon market was a different story. The way the carbon market works is that it takes one ton of a carbon dioxide emissions and turns it into a commodity. Essentially, it gives companies a certain allowance of “carbon credit” or an amount of pollution they can emit based off their present polluting trends and then lets them sell this allowance if they emit under their allocated amount (creating a profit incentive), while making them buy more credit if they go over. When you think about what the carbon market is doing and what its implications are, it can seem slightly problematic – usually value necessitates some sort of asset or an actual thing, to put it bluntly. However, what the carbon market is experimenting with is putting a value on the absence of a thing. Initially, when the cap and trade carbon market was being used in California, many Europeans saw this as an absurd invention. However, the carbon market system was later adopted by the EU and has actually had much success. A major part of what has allowed the carbon market system to work, despite its somewhat absurd attempt to put a value on not doing something, is culture. In many of the places, like the EU and the US, what has allowed this carbon market approach to catch on is the prevalence of a free market culture. While taxes and regulations on emissions are seen as the government reducing innovation and hurting companies, when you create a market out of it – the burden is suddenly put on the companies to learn how to “play the game” and make a profit. If you lose out, it’s no longer the government’s fault, it’s because the company wasn’t smart enough. That also explains why this carbon market has not been able to work in its same exact form everywhere. In Japan for example, the free market carbon exchange was not able to work because of differences culturally and economically.

Policy.

Policy is also a huge contributor to culture. It is what shapes the everyday life of a person and therefore contributes to what their obstacles and expectations are. For example, in Belgium, people are given an annual road tax based on the engine size of their car. As a result, big Fords and trucks are not as common. This shows how influential economic policy can be on culture – just the object that you choose to tax can influence what then becomes the norms for cars. When you decide to tax engines as opposed to gas, it incentivizes cars to be made to have better and smaller engines as opposed to better mileage. It in turn influences what is seen as normal, and as a result, it helps to shape culture. For instance, now, whenever we see someone driving a truck on the street, it is seen as abnormal.

In addition, in a country with a marginal tax rate that goes as high as 54% like Belgium, taxes are definitely a topic that makes many of the people grumble; however, it is because of that very high tax policy that the government is able to provide extremely cheap (in comparison to American standards) college educations, a fairly good public transportation system, and other social benefits that has turned into something that the culture now expects and still wants to exist. Policy is often what controls the discussion – and this reminds me of a concept I learned in my Ethics and International Affairs class: Genealogy.

Genealogy is a concept that was introduced by the philosopher Foucault and to my limited understanding, is about investigating history as a way of understanding the present. It emphasizes seeing what is being discussed, but more importantly, what is not being discussed in debates throughout history as a way of showing the limits on what we thought was possible and therefore revealing changes that we can still make. For example, if you look back at the debates that were occurring in times of empires and monarchies, individual freedom was hardly something that was mentioned, because the debates were being held with different underlying assumptions and a different context than debates that are being held today. In the same manner, policy seems to influence the context and therefore the assumptions with which discussions are had. It is what influences culture and establishes the norm – whether it’s really high taxes or small cars.

All in all, this intersection between culture and policy has been fascinating to follow – as culture influences policy and policy shapes culture.

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