This proposal is primarily for sabbatical funding to complete a book titled “Why Culture Matters Most” (under contract with Oxford University Press). This book will explain why culture – not genes, geography, institutions, or policies – is the key to maximizing general prosperity and freedom, and therefore best explains the differential success of societies. Broadly, I show how culture – and only culture – can address the most fundamental of all obstacles to human flourishing and advancement: the problem of individual self-interest undermining the common good.

More specifically, societies that best support human flourishing are the most successful in the long-run. My central claim is that the key to maximizing human flourishing is culture in the form of moral beliefs that produce a high trust society. This is because a high trust society is required for the development of crucial free market and democratic institutions.

A key element of high trust societies is trust in the system. Trust in the system is having confidence that society’s “rules of the game” will not be changed in arbitrary or self-serving ways. I explain why in a free market democracy trust in the system becomes increasingly harder to sustain the more successful a society becomes. This is because the democratic process becomes increasingly prone to facilitating redistributive and regulatory favoritism. Both destroy many of the incentives that animate capitalism and can ultimately undermine faith in democracy itself.

This book is important because there is increasing evidence that many of the free market and democratic institutions we take for granted in the West are weakening. Just as markets and democracy rest on institutional foundations, institutions rest on cultural ones. This book sheds light on the danger of presuming that our prior success will inevitably lead to future success. It also demonstrates how modern approaches to moral education are likely making matters worse.