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Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Romney Is Right on Culture and the Wealth of Nations

A 2002 United Nations report written by Arab intellectuals acknowledges the problems the Republican candidate pointed out.

Mitt Romney caused a firestorm last week in Jerusalem by commenting on the cultural dimensions of Israeli economic growth. Palestinian spokesman Saeb Erekat, correctly seeing an implied criticism of Palestinian culture, called Mr. Romney a "racist" and complained that Palestinian economic woes are really caused by the Israeli occupation. Analysts said Mr. Erekat's reaction was a sign that Mr. Romney has disqualified himself as a broker for peace. The episode reveals as much about the dynamics of the Middle East conflict as about presidential politics.

In making his brief case, Mr. Romney cited two books: "Guns, Germs and Steel," by geographer Jared Diamond, and "The Wealth and Poverty of Nations," by economist David Landes (my father). As in other fields of social "science," economists argue about whether development derives from cultural advantages or from natural ones such as resistance to disease and access to primary resources. Prof. Diamond, whose book focuses on societies' natural advantages, last week wrote an op-ed in the New York Times emphasizing both culture and nature and trying to draw Prof. Landes in with him.

But Israel (which neither book examined) and the Arab world (which only the Landes book examined) illustrate the primacy of culture as both necessary and sufficient for economic development. Israel, a country with no natural resources, an economic backwater even in the Ottoman Empire, rose to the top of the developed world in a century on culture alone. The Arab nations, on the other hand, illustrate the necessity of a certain kind of culture: Even those with vast petrodollars still have among the least productive economies in the world.

Americans tend to assume that everyone shares their cultural attitudes—that everyone strives to get to "yes," to positive-sum, win-win, voluntary relations; that everyone holds productive work in high respect and prizes the principles of fairness embodied in the meritocratic principle of "equality before the law"; that everyone encourages criticism, treasures intellectual capital, promotes risk-taking, prizes transparency and fosters innovation. With institutions built on such values—with a culture dedicated to making, not taking, money—a society can make use of whatever primary products a land offers.

But there are cultures whose favored mode is not voluntary but coerced and zero-sum relations, where the principle of "rule or be ruled" dominates political and economic life. The elites in such cultures hold hard work in contempt, and they distrust intellectual openness and uncontrolled innovation as subversive. They emphasize rote learning and unquestioning respect for those in authority. Protection rackets rather than law enforcement assure the public order and bleed the economy. Public criticism brings sharp retaliation. Powerful actors acquire wealth by taking, rather than making.

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