June 17, 2006


EXCERPT: Introduction from The Central Liberal Truth 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.

Defining "Culture"

What do we mean by "culture"? "It has been defined in myriad ways," as a recent World Bank study observes. We commonly hear references to "popular culture," which includes food, entertainment, and clothing styles, among other dimensions. And "culture" often brings to mind literature, art, and music -- "high" culture. But for our purposes, culture is the body of values, beliefs, and attitudes that members of a society share; values, beliefs, and attitudes shaped chiefly by environment, religion, and the vagaries of history that are passed on from generation to generation chiefly through child rearing practices, religious practice, the education system, the media, and peer relationships. Those values, beliefs, and attitudes are disaggregated in a 25-factor typology of progress-prone and progress-resistant societies presented in chapter 2.

Culture is powerfully influenced by religion, and the cultures discussed in this book are defined, at a broad level of generalization, by the predominant religion or ethical code: Protestant, Catholic, Orthodox Christian, Jewish, Islamic, Confucian, Hindu, and Buddhist. These are roughly comparable to the "civilizations" that Samuel Huntington analyzes in The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order, although he groups together the European Protestant and Catholic countries and the British offspring countries (the United States, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand) as "the West." However, our analysis will go beyond these general categories to specific countries within "civilizations," and even to some provinces, cities, towns, and ethnic groups.

Over the generations, culture develops a powerful momentum, but it is susceptible to change. Attitudes and beliefs are more susceptible than values: examples are the transformation of attitudes on race in the United States in recent decades, and the not uncommon shifting of political beliefs, or ideologies, from one political party to another. Values, on the other hand, are the bedrock of culture, and they usually change more slowly than attitudes and beliefs. An example is the central Confucian value of filial piety -- the responsibility of the child to honor, respect, and obey the father. But rapid modernization in Japan, South Korea, Hong Kong, Singapore, and now China itself has shaken even that bedrock value.

How does culture influence the way that societies progress? Cultures can be thought of as overlays on a universal human nature, overlays that go a long way toward explaining the behavioral differences that are reflected in the divergent political, social, and economic evolution of societies, for example of Western Europe and the Arab countries. Relevant is an observation from the widely read Arab Human Development Report 2002, commissioned by the United Nations Development Program and Arab Fund for Economic and Social Development:

Culture and values are the soul of development. They provide its impetus, facilitate the means needed to further it, and substantially define people's vision of its purposes and ends. Culture and values are instrumental in the sense that they help to shape people's hopes, fears, ambitions, attitudes and actions, but they are also formative because they mould people's ideals and inspire their dreams for a fulfilling life for themselves and future generations. There is some debate in Arab countries about whether culture and values promote or retard development. Ultimately, however, values are not the servants of development; they are its wellspring . . .

Governments -- Arab or otherwise -- cannot decree their people's values; indeed, governments and their actions are partly formed by national cultures and values. Governments can, however, influence culture through leadership and example, and by shaping education and pedagogy, incentive structures in society, and use of the media. Moreover, by influencing values, they can affect the path of development.

Throughout this book, I will be generalizing about cultures and religions. That is inevitable in a project that seeks a deeper understanding of what constitutes "culture," how it influences behavior, and what might be done to modify it. But one must be mindful that cultures are not homogeneous; that all cultures have, in Robert Hefner's words, "their own internal pluralism, variety, or rival 'streams."' Moreover, individual variation exists in all cultures: progress-prone people will surely be found in progress-resistant cultures, and vice versa. Nevertheless, there is compelling evidence, for example from Geert Hofstede's comparative analyses of cultural differences in IBM offices around the world, and the World Values Survey, which assesses values and value change in some 65 countries, that meaningful patterns exist in the values, beliefs, and attitudes of nations, and even "civilizations," that make generalizations both valid and useful.

Defining "Progress"

Any attempt to define "progress" is likely to collide with the views of people who subscribe to cultural relativism, the theory that each society or culture must define its own ideas "about what is true, good, beautiful and efficient" and that cultures are neither better nor worse, simply different. Cultural relativism was at the root of the American Anthropological Association's opposition to the 1948 United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights on the grounds that it was an ethnocentric imposition of the West on the rest of the world. Yet the declaration today provides us with a definition of progress that is substantially accepted well beyond the boundaries of "the West":

* The right to life, liberty, and security of person
* Equality before the law
* Freedom of thought, conscience, and religion
* The right to take part in . . . government . . . directly or through chosen representatives
* [The right to assure that] the will of the people [is] the basis of the authority of government
* The right to an [adequate] standard of living
* [The right to] adequate medical care and necessary social services
* The right to education

No one can argue that the UN Declaration is fully "universal." Surely, there are individuals and groups who would disagree with one or more of the components of progress. However, a majority of the world's people surely would agree with the following assertions, which are a restatement of the declaration:

Life is better than death.
Health is better than sickness.
Liberty is better than slavery.
Prosperity is better than poverty.
Education is better than ignorance.
Justice is better than injustice.

*Thanks to the folks at FSB Associates for permission to reprint the excerpt.

Posted by Orrin Judd at June 17, 2006 8:23 PM

Culture:Religion = Chicken:Egg ?

No doubt you believe religion to be superordinate. I think the relationship is more interactive and (ahem) evolutionary.

Posted by: ghostcat at June 17, 2006 10:05 PM

A lot of ink spilled and trees killed to revisit 19th Century thought concerning the evolution of culture.

The little bit we have been presented today may whet out appitire for the rest of the book, if only to discover how the author confronts the two elephants in the Spencerian living room.

Religion is one elephant, being crucial in attaining the crucial balance betreen creativity and discipline.

The other is military virtue. Cato may have favored the conquered cause, but the gods did not. After you have achieved material wealth and weight of numbers, you still have to do something with them.

This factor is the flaw in the Jared Diamond "luck" thesis. Peoples migrate. They might have myths of being autochthonous, but they came from somewhere. Military virtue enabled Voelkerbewanderungen.

It is well that Harison alludes to multicultural squeamishness as the cause of the neglect of this subject. It remains to be seen if he had the nerve to follow through.

Posted by: Lou Gots at June 17, 2006 10:11 PM


The weakness of the book, visible in the PC favor currying title, is that he doesn't. Even after presenting all the evidence in favor of certain cultures and gainst the others he doesn't take the obvious next step.

Posted by: oj at June 17, 2006 10:52 PM


Yes, but you're obviously wrong in this case. The religions that matter were revealed and when societies are evangelized or even just Reformed the culture changes quite rapidly for the better. America is a perfect case in point.

Posted by: oj at June 17, 2006 10:55 PM

Interactive and evolving it is, then.

Lou, are you really a Manifest Destiny kind of guy?

Posted by: ghostcat at June 17, 2006 11:09 PM

I'm about halfway thru "Albion's Seed", David H. Fisher's great '89 introduction to the folkways of America's founding.
There can be no understanding of "The Central Liberal Truth" without an understanding of the truths contained in "Albion's Seed"!
Mr Harrison, or is it Dr., doesn't seem to be aware of this.


Posted by: Mike Daley at June 17, 2006 11:37 PM

Sure he is--even cites the book.

Posted by: oj at June 17, 2006 11:50 PM

Ghostcat: Not only am I a Manifest Destiny kind of guy, I am a Great Commission kind of guy. What is more, I reconcile the two completely.

Posted by: Lou Gots at June 18, 2006 8:00 AM

Might makes right, and conquer we must, because God is on our side.

Religions become dominant because the cultures which ascribe to them dominate. The victors cite their holy books as they write the history books. All very predatory, i.e. natural, for patriarchs.

And every upside has its downside.

Posted by: ghostcat at June 18, 2006 2:32 PM

The culture is created by the religion.

Posted by: oj at June 18, 2006 3:34 PM

Ghostcat: "Ye holy Patriarchs and Prophets, Pray for us," we say in the Litany of the Saints.

Ah, yes, the upside and the downside. The downside comes when the culture fails to adapt to changing conditions, is surpassed, and goes under. Byzantium fell in 2196 A.U.C., by a quick count, so we may have a while to go.

But wait. What if the culture makes adaptation its central trait? Does not it become permanent, the end of history, as they say?

We really don't have an answer. It is enough for us to sing that even if we do not know how the dice will fall, we will fight for our country and believe that we will win.

Posted by: Lou Gots at June 18, 2006 5:46 PM

Allow an equal place for the Martriarch and balance is possible.

Posted by: ghostcat at June 18, 2006 5:57 PM

Adaptation, too.

Posted by: ghostcat at June 18, 2006 5:59 PM

No, it isn't. Matriarchy is amoral and destructive of freedom.

Posted by: oj at June 18, 2006 6:34 PM

* Why have Haiti and the Dominican Republic, two countries that share the Caribbean island of Hispaniola, followed such divergent paths?

All the other points have complicated answers, however, in the case of Haiti, the answer is only one word, and that word is, France.

Posted by: erp at June 19, 2006 1:01 PM

and Voodoo.

Posted by: oj at June 19, 2006 2:34 PM