Hermann Goering is usually “credited” with the line “When I hear the word ‘culture’ I reach for my gun.” Apparently the allergy to the word “culture” remains strong, for its use by Mitt Romney has been viewed by certain Palestinian “leaders” and by the elite Western press as a scandal.
Romney has explained further: “During my recent trip to Israel, I had suggested that the choices a society makes about its culture play a role in creating prosperity, and that the significant disparity between Israeli and Palestinian living standards was powerfully influenced by it. In some quarters, that comment became the subject of controversy. But what exactly accounts for prosperity if not culture?”
What did Romney actually say in Jerusalem? The full context of his remarks is conveyed in very few of the stories complaining about or attacking them, so here is the relevant portion:
I was thinking this morning, as I prepared to come into this room, of a discussion I had across the country in the United States about my perceptions about the differences between countries. And as you come here and you see the GDP per capita, for instance, in Israel, which is about $21,000, and you compare that with the GDP per capita just across the areas managed by the Palestinian Authority, which is more like $10,000 per capita, you notice a dramatic, stark difference in economic vitality. And that is also between other countries that are near or next to each other. Chile and Ecuador, Mexico and the United States.
I noted that part of my interest when I used to be in the world of business is I would travel to different countries — was to understand why there were such enormous disparities in the economic success of various countries. I read a number of books on the topic. One that is widely acclaimed is by someone named Jared Diamond called “Guns, Germs and Steel,” which basically says the physical characteristics of the land account for the differences in the success of the people that live there. There is iron ore on the land and so forth. And you look at Israel and you say you have a hard time suggesting that all the natural resources on the land could account for all the accomplishment of the people here. And likewise other nations that are next door to each other, very similar, in some cases, geographic outlets.
But then there was a book written by a former Harvard professor named “The Wealth and Poverty of Nations.” And in this book Mr. Landes describes differences that have — particularly among the great civilizations that grew and why they grew and why they became great and those that declined and why they declined. And after about 500 pages of this lifelong analysis — this had been his study for his entire life — and he’s in his early 70s at this point. He says this, he says, if you could learn anything from the economic history of the world it’s this: Culture makes all the difference. Culture makes all the difference.
The New York Times conveys its version of the remarks this way:
Mitt Romney found himself on the defensive yet again on his overseas trip, this time after offending Palestinian leaders with comments he made at a breakfast fund-raiser here on Monday. Speaking to roughly four dozen donors at the King David Hotel in Jerusalem, Mr. Romney suggested that cultural differences between the Israelis and the Palestinians were the reason the Israelis were so much more economically successful than the Palestinians, without mentioning the impact that deep trade restrictions imposed by the Israeli government have had on the Palestinian economy.
Professor David Landes wrote his book in 1998, and in those days the Times had not yet descended as fully as it has now into trendy liberal claptrap. Andrew Porter, the Rhodes Professor of Imperial History at King’s College, London, and editor of The Oxford History of the British Empire, Volume 3: The Nineteenth Century, was asked to review the book. Porter summed up Landes’s thesis this way:
Natural endowments, including landscape, water, soils, minerals or climate, have been more or less important at different times, but they were never sufficient conditions: geography is not destiny. The timing of opportunities for industrial development has brought variations in the paths of individual countries but no insuperable obstacles. The making of an industrial revolution has always been dependent ultimately on a society’s prior culture and continuing qualities. Riches, without the appropriate cultural traits, have never been secure or sustainable. . . . In the pursuit of wealth, failure or success are ultimately determined from within, not imposed from outside.
He quotes Landes writing that “If we learn anything from the history of economic development, it is that culture makes all the difference.”