Culture Matters: How Values Shape Human Progress

Article excerpt

Edited by Lawrence E. Harrison & Samuel P. Huntington Basic Books, 2000

348 pages Culture Matters is a collection of 22 papers concerning the role of culture in human life. The papers were submitted at a symposium, "Cultural Values and Human Progress," which took place at the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in Cambridge, MA, in April 1999. The symposium was sponsored by the Harvard Academy for International and Area Studies. The purpose was to explore the link between culture and political, economic, and social developments.

The presentations focused on five major issues: 1). The link between values and progress; 2). The universality of values and Western "cultural imperialism;" 3). Geography and culture; 4). The relationship between culture and institutions; and 5). Cultural change.

Several papers focus on the work of Max Weber and his seminal book, The Protestant Ethic and The Spirit of Capitalism. Weber's thesis was that Protestantism promoted the rise of modern capitalism because it embraced an ethic of everyday behavior tied to economic success. He further stated that opening up the Bible to the masses greatly enhanced literacy, and the Protestants' preoccupation with time further supported their adaptability to capitalism. Weber stated that religion supported the deep values of society which either hinder or enhance economic growth. Societies which provide opportunities for the rich, which he termed "pharisaic," are more likely to promote economic growth than those which favor the poor, which he termed "publican."

Economists would argue that good policy can override cultural values. This thesis appears to be readily disproved by the current state of the Russian economy. Anthropologists reject the evaluation of another society's culture on the basis of cultural relativism. Yet others state that secularism, individualism, and science may not be as useful in the 21 century as they have in the 20th. Such institutions as religions, tribes, and cultures persist in their shaping of individual values and desires.

There is a consensus among the papers that attitudes, values, and beliefs shape culture, which in turn shapes human behavior and has a major impact on economic progress. Ethics and values can give a society motivation to forgo instant gratification for long-term goals, including economic growth. Trust and shared values are a precondition for sustained growth. Religion can determine the level of corruption in a society. A society ruled by justice and the rule of law is much more likely to produce sustained growth than one is which does not share such values.

Following Weber's thesis, there are cultures, including our own, where many sincerely believe that technology, economic wealth, and growth are deemed to produce the best life, the most natural life, and indeed even the seeds of personal salvation. Such a virtuous cycle should indeed provide the preconditions to support economic growth, but it is also the source for Third World antagonism and provokes the obvious reaction from "publican" religions. In recent years many groups, (including those organized by the Dalai Lama, Hans Kung, the United Nations, and various business institutions), have come together to attempt to frame a positive global ethic which would provide a moral value system for economic growth.

One of the papers lists 10 values which distinguish cultures that foster economic growth. They are:

1. An orientation on the future as against the present or past;

2. A positive attitude toward work as against work as a burden;

3. A propensity to save and invest as against income equality;

4. Mass availability of education, as against education for the elite;

5. Fairness in advancement as against cronyism and connections;

6. Trust in a broad range of extended communities as against trust primarily in the family;

7. …