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Central Liberal Truth: How Politics Can Change a Culture and Save It from Itself Excerpt from Central Liberal Truth: How Politics Can Change a Culture and Save It from Itself

by Lawrence E. Harrison


I am convinced that the luckiest of geographic circumstances and the best of laws cannot maintain a constitution in despite of mores, whereas the latter can turn even the most unfavorable circumstances and the worst laws to advantage. The importance of mores is a universal truth to which study and experience continually bring us back. I find it occupies the central position in my thoughts: all my ideas come back to it in the end.
--Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America

The influence of cultural values, beliefs, and attitudes on the way that societies evolve has been shunned by scholars, politicians, and development experts, notwithstanding the views of Tocqueville, Max Weber, and more recently Francis Fukuyama, Samuel Huntington, David Landes, Robert Putnam, and Lucian Pye, among others. It is much more comfortable for the experts to cite geographic constraints, insufficient resources, bad policies, and weak institutions. That way they avoid the invidious comparisons, political sensitivities, and bruised feelings often engendered by cultural explanations of success and failure. But by avoiding culture, the experts also ignore not only an important part of the explanation of why some societies or ethno-religious groups do better than others with respect to democratic governance, social justice, and prosperity. They also ignore the possibility that progress can be accelerated by (1) analyzing cultural obstacles to it, and (2) addressing cultural change as a remedy.

The influence of culture on the way that societies evolve is central not only to the goal of reducing poverty and injustice around the world. It is also a key factor in foreign policy, with particular relevance to the Bush administration's keystone policy of promoting democracy: "[the] values of freedom are right and true for every person, in every society." If culture matters in making democracy work, as Tocqueville insists, and as the disappointing experience of the United States in promoting democracy (e.g., in Latin America) suggests, then the keystone is likely to crumble under the pressure of cultures averse to democracy, as in the Arab countries, not one of which has yet produced stable democracy.

Some fundamental questions about what drives human progress cannot be answered without considering the role of culture and/or cultural change. For example:

  • Why have democratic institutions failed to take root in any Arab country?
  • Why have the Confucian societies of East Asia experienced transforming rates of economic growth?
  • Why are East Asian immigrants so successful wherever they migrate?
  • Why are Jews so successful wherever they migrate?
  • What explains the "miracle" of Spain's transformation from a traditional autocracy to a modern Western European democracy?
  • Why do the Nordic countries lead the rest of the world in most indicators of progress?
  • Why have Haiti and the Dominican Republic, two countries that share the Caribbean island of Hispaniola, followed such divergent paths?

Other Factors Matter, Too

Culture can be crucial, but it is only one factor, if an important one, in play in human progress. Geography, including climate and resource endowment, also matters, not only in its direct impact on economic development but also through its influence on culture. Jared Diamond makes a compelling case for the powerful influence of environment in his best-selling Guns, Germs, and Steel, but he leaves space for culture: "Among other factors [explaining why some societies have advanced more rapidly than others] cultural factors . . . loom large . . . Human cultural traits vary greatly around the world. Some of that cultural variation is no doubt a product of environmental variation . . . But an important question concerns the possible significance of local cultural factors unrelated to the environment. A minor cultural feature may arise for trivial, temporary local reasons, become fixed, and then predispose a society toward more important cultural choices . . ."

That colder climates forced humans to plan ahead to get through the winter, while humans in tropical zones had no such problem, must surely be relevant in explaining why most poor countries are found in the tropical zones; and it may also be relevant in explaining why the warmer portions of some countries -- for example, the south of Italy, the south of Spain, the south of the United States -- are poorer than the colder portions.

Ideology and governmental policies can also profoundly influence the pace and direction that development takes: toward or away from democracy and social justice, toward or away from sustained rapid economic growth. In contrast with Italy, Spain, and the United States, the northern part of Korea is poor, the southern part rich. This reversal is largely because, in the North, an ideology and the policies that flow from it are hostile to economic development and political pluralism, while the ideology and policies of the South have proven conducive to economic development, which in turn has nurtured democracy. This is a case where ideology and economic policy seem to matter much more than culture. Yet even in such cases, culture is in play. North Korea's authoritarian government is in part a product of the same authoritarian current in Confucianism that produced the autocracies of Mao Zedong and his predecessors and successors in China -- and the progressive authoritarianism of Lee Kuan Yew in Singapore. And, as we shall see, ideological shifts have played a key role in cultural change in several countries.

The role of political leaders with a vision of a better society can also play a crucial role. The Meiji leadership in late-nineteenth-century Japan, Mustafa Kemal in Turkey following World War I, and Franklin Roosevelt in the United States of the 1930s and '40s all brought about transforming change -- in a political and economic sense, to be sure, but in a cultural sense as well. A more recent example is the crucial role played by Mikhail Gorbachev in the demise of the Soviet empire and the movement, rapid in some of its components and slow in others, toward democratic capitalism.

I note in passing that each of these leaderships came to power at a time of national crisis, validating an observation by Samuel Huntington, "Societies . . . may change their culture in response to major trauma." The corresponding crises: Japan's awareness of its technological backwardness and vulnerability in the wake of the arrival of Commodore Perry's flotilla in Tokyo Bay in 1853; the collapse of the Ottoman Empire in World War I; the Great Depression and World War II; the failure of Communism to produce prosperity, and increasing evidence that the West was winning the Cold War.

Generally, however, what I wrote in Underdevelopment Is a State of Mind twenty years ago remains valid: "the cultural environment importantly influences the process through which leaders gain their positions, the priorities they apply in shaping policies, and the people, institutions, and practices they use to execute those policies" -- not to mention culture's influence on the leaders themselves.

Success can also breed cultural change that slows the pace of economic growth. Such has been the case in Japan in the 1990s and the first years of the twenty-first century, and it may also be true of some European countries, too, as symbolized by France's move to a 35-hour work week. The New York Times recently noted that Norway's "bedrock work ethic" is caving in as a result of the country's affluence. These cases evoke the kind of post-industrial culture that Ronald Inglehart has analyzed: "Having attained high levels of economic security, the populations of the first nations to industrialize have gradually come to emphasize . . . values [other than prosperity]; these groups give higher priority to the quality of life than to economic growth." I am reminded of Thomas Mann's early novel of a north German commercial dynasty, Buddenbrooks, in which the dynastic fortune is dissipated through lack of interest in business in third and fourth generation offspring; also a Chinese adage that covers three generations: From rags, to riches, to ruin.

The foregoing is not a full cataloguing of the noncultural factors that influence how societies evolve. But it does address significant factors, some of which, for example, ideology in North Korea (and in East Germany) have trumped culture. Culture is one of several relevant factors. But in many cases, it may be the crucial one.

Copyright 2006 Lawrence E. Harrison