An Exploration of Western Values

Could a better understanding of what made us exceptional help us reverse our decline and chart a course for the 21st century?

Matt Harder
6 min readFeb 9, 2023

As I sit down to write this essay, I’m in a cafe listening to a new playlist that Spotify suggested to me last week called .ORG. It’s quite good! I really recommend it. I’ve listened to it about 6 times already. It describes itself as the “Hottest indie sounds and the best new tracks from Asia.” Between this playlist and all the K-Dramas I’m addicted to on Netflix about half of the media I consume these days is Asian.

Media was one of the last great strongholds of American influence and it’s slowly fading away. Everything in this room was already made in Asia — and I mean everything. Now Netflix is actually pumping Korean shows to me through my Vietnamese TV, and Tawainese music through my Chinese speakers. It’s becoming more and more obvious that the American century is ending.

A unique opportunity

I’m old enough to remember the 90’s which was probably the last high water mark for American exceptionalism. We weren’t actually that great, but people were in the habit of thinking that because our culture and innovation from the late 1800’s to the 1970’s really was great. Look back and you notice we invented the lions share of the modern world: electricity, cars, airplanes, the phone, the internet. So although we don’t currently look elite-level, it’s impossible to argue that we never were.

I believe this puts us in a unique position. We are in decline, but we also obviously have something special in our DNA. What is it?

Could a better understanding of what made us exceptional help us decode and reverse our decline?

That’s the question I invite you to consider as we investigate Western Values together.

They’re the philosophical DNA of our country and culture. They guided us as we built this whole country from scratch in a few hundred years, and created a place where more people have immigrated, mixed and prospered than any country in history, without question. They’re also timeless principles that can help you navigate the complexity of a rapidly changing world.

Each value below has a description, origin, and a short list of benefits it’s offered modern society

7 Major Western Values:

1) Individualism

Description — Emphasizes importance of individual autonomy and freedom. Basis for democratic principles of equality and freedom

Origin — The Enlightenment (17th / 18th century) John Locke and Jean-Jacques Rousseau argued for individual freedom, private property and limited government intervention in people’s lives

Supported — Individual initiative, creativity, freedom of speech, freedom of association

2) Secularism

Description — Separation of religion and government promotes freedom of religion

Origin — The Enlightenment

Supported — Religious tolerance, peaceful coexistence, diversity

3) Rule of Law

Description — All individuals, even the powerful are subject to the same rules

Origin — Ancient Greece developed “law.” Continued through Roman and British Common Law until enshrined in US constitution

Supported — Social trust, equality, egalitarianism, reduced corruption, sense that our leaders are equal to us

4 ) Capitalism

Description — The free market drives economic progress. Government or small privileged group shouldn’t dictate how economy functions. Private property. Prosperity for all comes from prosperity of the individual

Origin — Popularized in “Wealth of Nations” — Adam Smith (1776)

Supported — Ballooning of the middle class, innovation, modern technology, freedom of the worker to choose their destiny

5) Rationalism

Description — Emphasizes importance of reason, logic, critical thinking and scientific inquiry in knowledge and understanding. Question authority.

Origin — Ancient Greece and philosophy of Socrates who emphasized learning to think critically over blind acceptance of tradition and authority.

Supported — Science, the Enlightenment, Democracy, freedom, individualism

6) Democracy

Description — Political system based on regular and free elections, rule of law, protection of individual rights and freedoms

Origin — Ancient Greece, specifically city-state of Athens. Furthered by the Enlightenment

Supported — Peaceful transition of power, freedom, representation, government trends toward innovation

7) Human Rights

Description — Emphasizes individual rights and freedoms like freedom of speech, religion, and association and dictates they be protected by governments

Origin — The Enlightenment where Locke, Rousseau and Kant promoted idea that all humans had inalienable rights like life, liberty and property

Supported — freedom, self-expression, legitimate governments must defend its citizens’ rights


Western values are a fabric

Firstly, note how these values mutually reinforce each other like a fabric. Would democracy be legitimate without individualism and rationalism? Can you have capitalism without rule of law? (we’re trying that one out right now, unfortunately) Can we have individualism without human rights?

A tech metaphor might be like Uber — it needs smart phones, GPS, payments, fast processing, a high-trust rating system, legislation that allows for gig-work, etc. Lose any one and the entire thing will fail to work as it does now, perhaps fail totally. As I study Western values, they feel like an operating system, like a bunch of elements that come together that allow us to integrate different members (secularism), trade fairly and efficiently with them (capitalism), adjust the government to adapt to changing conditions (democracy) and so on.

They’re Lindy

The term Lindy refers to the Lindy Effect which means the longer something like and idea or technology has been around, the longer it’s likely to stay. It’s a way of saying a thing has staying power.

Secularism has facilitated harmony in our diverse population for centuries through the practice of religious tolerance. But now we are in a culture war, and there are people saying tolerance isn’t enough, everyone must embrace and affirm everyone else or be a bigot. While many of these people are well intentioned, this way of thinking seems to lead to greater conflict, not less.

Secularism / tolerance are Lindy.

Capitalism is Lindy. Opposing systems like socialism were tried and led to exploded economies (Venezuela, Cuba) or genocide (Soviet Union, China). Meanwhile, although we have issues such as wealth disparity in the US, we’ve never had issues like mass starvation. Which leads me to my final point.

At the very least, being skilled in Western values helps you navigate complexity with timeless principles.

Could Western Values solve our problems?

Back to Capitalism. You saw that it’s about not letting the government and a small group of elites choose how the economy is run. But in the US this is increasingly what is happening. The 1% might be getting richer, but it’s directly correlated to things like the government printing money (not capitalism), policies that pump housing and asset prices (not capitalism), and regulate away competition (not capitalism). And the middle class may be under pressure with healthcare, education and housing costs, but keep in mind all three of those are extraordinarily regulated sectors, all of which are riddled with non-capitalist thinking.

My point is, could it be that if our middle class is getting crushed it’s because we have too little capitalism?

If people are getting too irate and divisive, could it be we’ve drifted too far from rationalism?

If people are selfish and don’t help out their local communities, could it be because we have a poor definition of individualism? After all, early “individualist” Americans were famous for forming associations and solving problems locally, together. Not shirking responsibility for community.

At the very least, being skilled in Western values helps you navigate complexity with timeless principles.

Secularism created one of the most diverse populations in the world. If we’re struggling with our diversity, could it be because we’re actually trying to force our beliefs on others and make the government do the same?

I would love to keep making examples but I have to start another essay tomorrow for a new Writers Cohort we’re doing over at TNS.

I had a good time researching these values and considering how evergreen they are. What if they’re really the core foundation for how to have a massive, innovative, functional society, and the key is just to know them and study them and use them as guideposts while innovating?

Final point that bears mentioning— I do not see Western Values as exclusive. Other cultures have other values and they can be just as good (tolerance!) I’m not just saying that. I truly love other cultures. But we’re not them. Japan for example is a masterpiece of a country, but we cannot be Japan (nor would I want us to try). What we can do is study our proud history and embrace Western values as a way to have more harmony as we become ever more diverse, allocate wealth more fairly, be more rational, and one again be an example of good democratic government in the 21st century.

Matt Harder runs the public engagement firm Civic Trust, where he helps cities strengthen their civic environment by helping residents, civic organizations, and local government work together to create public projects. Follow him on Twitter.



Matt Harder

Exploring ways to improve our democracy via technology, the media, and civics. Editor at Beyond Voting. Founder at