In This Review
The Character of Nations: How Politics Makes and Breaks Prosperity, Family, and Civility

The Character of Nations: How Politics Makes and Breaks Prosperity, Family, and Civility

By Angelo M. Codevilla

Basic Books, 1997, 340 pp.

This book begins from the now-forgotten premise of Plato and Aristotle that different regimes produce different types of human beings; indeed, that regimes ought to be judged by the character of their citizens. The author surveys a number of contemporary societies and notes how, particularly in Europe, the growth of an interventionist welfare state has done damage to habits of entrepreneurship, fostered dependence, undermined families, and promoted values at odds with those of traditional religious teachings. The same is happening, he fears, with the rise of the welfare state in the United States.

Codevilla does a good job of demonstrating the social effects of policy, noting, for example, that egalitarian Swedish policies toward women have virtually destroyed the Swedish family. He fails, however, to distinguish between the underlying regime and the liberal policies that have been enacted by particular administrations. It is not clear that the American regime or American political culture have changed that much since the New Deal: Americans remain far more religious and individualistic than their European counterparts, and hence have been much quicker to rein in and even dismantle parts of the postwar welfare state in the 1980s and 1990s. Moreover, many of the trends that Codevilla dislikes -- promotion of individual choice over the communal authority of families, workplaces, and military organizations -- are deeply embedded in the Lockean liberalism on which the American state was based. The book's emphasis on the failings of liberal policies paradoxically overstates the power of social engineering to overcome these broader cultural trends.