Of course I have found the Corner discussion on culture, institutions, and prosperity right up my alley. You got close to the key point when you noted that cultures, of course, can be changed. The missing piece in the Corner exchanges to date has been a clarification of peoples’ theories of culture. (Most people don’t realize that there is such a thing, or what the various possible theories are, and they certainly aren’t aware of what their own theory is.) The key things are, how mutable is a culture, and how deterministic is it? The formula I use is “culture is a persistent but not immutable and mutually reinforcing pattern of behavior that is not genetic in origin, and is transmitted over multiple generations.” It is not deterministic in nature — you cannot say “this person’s culture requires him to do a certain thing in a certain situation, and therefore he will.” It is at most one item in a web of causation (to use Alan Macfarlane’s formula.) However, it is one with good predictive power.
The interesting cases are those where a colonial power, such as the European colonialists, but also the Japanese, came into a culture and, without entirely exterminating or driving out the prior inhabitants, imposed very substantial new cultural elements into an existing culture. France in Indochina, Britain in India, Japan in Taiwan and Korea. This is change by force, but it has created some very interesting new hybrid cultures. The LLSV researchers (Rafael La Porta of Dartmouth’s Tuck School of Business, Florencio Lopez-de-Silanes of the Yale School of Management, Andrei Shleifer of Harvard’s economics department, and Robert Vishny of the University of Chicago’s business school) found that different neighboring countries with similar original cultures but colonized by different powers have consistent differences in success rates depending on the colonizing power; those who adopt common-law systems are noticeably more successful than those who adopt Roman civil-law systems. This is sometimes given as proof of institutional, rather than cultural influence, but it is more likely that the legal system is a marker for the cultural influences.
In culture, following [French sociologist Emmanuel] Todd, the key underlying issue seems to be family systems, since that sets expectations of rightness and fairness in distribution of wealth. The difference between East and West Germany seems to lie in the fact that West Germany adopted a system of social market capitalism that was evolved locally and consistent with the underlying German family system. East Germany had an alien system imposed by Russian occupation, and one that was evolved from the Russian culture, that was fundamentally considered unjust by Germans. One can see that the satellites that had family systems similar to Russia (e.g., Bulgaria) were much more obedient than those with radically dissimilar family systems (e.g., Poland and the Czech Republic).
I was just writing a section on this today for the book for Roger, so it is right at the top of my mind.
The book to which Jim refers will be published next year by Encounter Books. And to centrist_centrist, I would just suggest that he read Hayek on the point that some of the most important questions in the social sciences cannot be fruitfully illuminated by statistical techniques and that to limit one’s investigations into questions that can be so illuminated is to spend too much time on secondary questions.
Also, as the old gag has it, it’s better to be roughly right than precisely wrong.