The Cultural Prerequisites of Freedom and Prosperity

By Harrison, Lawrence E. | The American Spectator, December/January 2006 | Go to article overview

The Cultural Prerequisites of Freedom and Prosperity


Harrison, Lawrence E., The American Spectator


American exporters of democracy should never ignore them.

The central conservative truth is that it is culture, not politics, that determines the success of a society. The central liberal truth is that politics can change a culture and save it from ifself.-DANIEL PATRICK MOYNIHAN

CULTURAL VALUES, BELIEFS, AND ATTITUDES powerfully influence human behavior, and since those cultural attributes are widely shared in a society, they also powerfully influence the political, social, and economic evolution of the society, of the nation. Foreign and domestic policy makers, academics, and World Hank (among other) development specialists are reluctant to confront culture. But the failure to do so can he enormously costly for foreign policy, be it in the abortive imposition of democracy in Iraq or in efforts to accelerate the agonizingly slow pace of development in Africa, much of Latin America, and the Islamic world.

Virtually all the most successful countries in the world today, including those in Western Europe, North America, and East Asia, and Australia and New Zealand, practicedemocratic capitalism. All these countries have benefited from religions or ethical codes that nurture democratic politics or economic development, or both: Christianity, particularly the Protestant sects; Judaism; and Confucianism. The three share, among other values, the belief that people can influence their destinies and a related emphasis on the future: a high priority for education; the belief that work is good; and celebration of achievement and merit.

These values do not receive comparable emphasis in other religions/cultures, for example Islam and, to some extent, Catholicism and Orthodox Christianity. Such cultures tend more toward fatalism and focus on the present or the past. They attach lower priority to education-in the case of the Islamic countries, particularly for women; are ambivalent about the value of work and achievement: and often award status based on family, clan, or class rather than merit. The lag in the movement of these societies toward the goals of democratic governance, social justice, and prosperity enshrined in the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights is in large measure the consequence of their progress-averse value systems.

MOYNIHAN'S OFT-REPEATED APHORISM, which underscores the mutability of culture (it's not in the genes), challenges a concept that is at the root of the failure to confront culture: cultural relativism, an anthropological theory popular in the academic world that argues that one culture is not better or worse than any other-it is merely different. The theory may make people feel good, particularly if they live in poor, misgoverned, unjust countries-or egalitarian and righteous if they are First World anthropologists who adopt, in whole or in part, a poor, misgoverned, unjust country. But the theory is patently erroneous, at least when it comes to political, economic, and social progress.

Some cultures are prone to democratic politics, while others resist it. In his classic Democracy in America, Alexis de Tocqueville made an observation in the 1830s that is relevant today: "Mexico, as happily situated [geographically] as the Anglo-American Union, adopted these same laws but cannot get used to democratic government. So there must be some other reason, apart from geography and laws, which makes it possible for democracy to rule the United States." For Tocqueville, that reason is culture: "...the habits of the heart... the different notions possessed by men, the various opinions current among them and the sum of ideas that shape mental habits."

Many economists would like to ignore culture. As the former World Hank economist William Easterly, author of The White Man's Burden, wrote in reviewing my 1992 book Who Prospers?, "Maybe there is a lot to be said for the old-fashioned economist's view that people are the same everywhere and will respond to the right economic opportunities and incentives. …

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