Re: Romney, Culture, Politics, and Development

by John O'Sullivan

Mark, thanks for your note on the culture and development front with which I largely agree. Indeed I think I wrote that “Romney is at least half-right, and maybe more than half-right.”

Peter Bauer would also have agreed with that. He thought that while both culture and institutions were factors, the single most important driver of development was the aptitudes, attitudes, customs, etc., etc, of a people. But he left some room for the influence of institutions and government in his East German example.

You want a more total victory, a slam-dunk knockout blow — and you think you have it with the argument the political and economic institutions are usually shaped by the culture of the country. Well, yes, but . . . politicians, governments, writers, intellectuals, and others can and do rebel against their culture and seek to replace it through political means. Fareed ends his piece by pointing this out more or less approvingly.

You and I would probably respond that in most cases government-imposed cultural makeovers don’t work. Witness the Kemalist attempt to drive Islam out of public life, sustained over 80 years, but failing in the last ten. Or the collapse of Communism everywhere with the amazingly simultaneous disappearance of New Soviet Man, etc. Or even the current state of Britain, where the cultural atmosphere is more or less hostile to the culture of markets and enterprise that Britain pioneered and that until recently foreigners regarded as essentially British.

And maybe that last tips us off. Changes in culture that are imposed, such as Kemalism, are more fragile and vulnerable than changes in culture that arise because ordinary people are tempted into acting and thinking differently by new “things.” Traders spread a culture of exchange in traditional societies by offering the locals new goods; governments corrupt their people into idleness in socialist societies by offering them free goods. Culture changes as a result in both cases. The change goes deeper than imposed cultural change, cultural revolutions etc., but it’s still not necessarily permanent. And in the case of the Arab world and Britain, I’ll be paying close attention to what happens next from my ringside seat with Peter Bauer at the eternal harp recital.

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