Saturday, August 4, 2012

Culture Matters

A few weeks ago, in responding to a comment to my post on the coming civil war in Afghanistan, I wrote, in part:
I disagree with the premise asserted by Jared Diamond in his book, "Guns, Germs and Steel," which bases the success of certain cultures on geographic advantages. I can see why he would arrive at that conclusion by comparing New Guinea to Europe as a whole, but it doesn't explain why those areas that produced successful civilizations thousands of years ago, such as Egypt and Iran, are less vibrant and successful now; or why resource poor countries like Israel, Japan and England, or poorly positioned countries like Sweden and Finland, have been successful. I believe that, instead, there are certain cultural, social, and legal traits that make certain nations successful, or fail, or both. These can be gained or lost over time.
So, it was with interest that I read this post at Powerline Blog:
Whatever one believes about Israel and the Palestinians, the general proposition that culture strongly influences economic performance should not be controversial. Romney likes to cite The Wealth and Poverty of Nations by former Harvard professor David Landes, which makes that case. The work of economist Mancur Olson also supports Romney’s view.

Reaching further back, Romney could have cited Max Weber’s The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism and R. H.Tawney’s Religion and the Rise of Capitalism (though heaven help him if he had).

Perhaps the best statement by a politician in support of Romney’s general point came in (or around) 1850 during a Senate debate on the extension of slavery into U.S. territories in the West. John C. Calhoun had delivered a speech in which he complained about the unequal economic development between the North and the South, citing among other things his standard beef about certain tariffs.

Thomas Hart Benton responded with a brilliant address in which he explained that the existence of slavery, which Calhoun wanted to extend, was one of the reasons the South was lagging economically.

Southerners didn’t like hearing this, any more than Palestinians appreciated Romney’s remarks. But Benton was right, and the South did not truly begin to “rise again” economically until its culture, especially as it related to race, began dramatically to change about 120 years after Benton spoke.
Here, here.

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