A high-profile debate has begun over the relationship between culture and development. While speaking in Jerusalem, presumptive Republican Presidential candidate Mitt Romney cited The Wealth and Poverty of Nations. The book’s author, Dr. David Landis, is Professor Emeritus of Economic History from Harvard University. Here’s how Romney paraphrased Landis’s thesis:
He says if you can learn anything from the economic history of the world, it’s this: culture makes all the difference. Culture makes all the difference. And as I come here and I look out over this city and consider the accomplishments of the people of this nation, I recognize the power of at least culture and a few other things …
Many economic historians acknowledge that culture is the key to development and poverty. Landis’ position is shared, among others by Max Weber (The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism), Michael Novak (The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism), and Niall Ferguson (Civilization).
Romney’s statements should have engendered a much-needed discussion. Instead, a firestorm erupted. The chief Palestinian peace negotiator, Saeb Erekat, labelled Romney’s remark as “a racist statement that shows a lack of knowledge.” Sadly, many critics, both in the Middle East and in the West, mimicked Erekat’s indictment.
Let’s be clear: Romney’s statement had nothing to do with race. It was a statement about ideas. Is it primarily physical circumstances that create wealth and poverty, or is it the ideas and ideals of a people? It’s time we had a vigorous discussion around these two very different notions. Certainly Romney’s statement was not racist. Both Jews and Arabs are Semitic peoples. Both trace their family tree to Abraham. Those who call Romney’s statement racist are simply choosing to inflame passions rather than engage the issue.
The writing team of the 2002 Arab Human Development Report: Creating Opportunities for Future Generations, led by Dr. Nader Fergany Director of the Almishkat Center for Research of Egypt, sided with those who see culture as the fountain head of 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 daily 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.
To see how culture shapes the social, economic, and political vibrancy of nations, consider two examples: transparency (versus corruption) and religious freedom.
Where transparency is valued and widely practiced, freedom and prosperity are nurtured. Corruption, on the other hand, has been one of the catalysts for the so-called “Arab Spring.” The 2011 Transparency International Corruption Perceptions Index shows the relatively high corruption of the Arab cultures of the Middle East and North Africa compared to the relatively low corruption of the Judeo-Christian cultures of Western Europe, North America, Australia, and New Zealand. (This interactive site allows you to look at specific countries.) Clearly, countries founded in Judeo-Christian theism have greater transparency and integrity than those with Islamic cultural background.
The second example is religious freedom (or, for that matter, freedom of conscience, of speech and of the press). Again, those countries with Judeo-Christian cultural roots enjoy the highest degree of religious freedom (and the corresponding freedoms) while those with Islamic culture have the least. Dr. Paul Marshall is senior fellow at the Hudson Institute’s Center for Religious Freedom. His graphic below shows the profound gap in religious freedom between those nations with Judeo-Christian culture and those with Muslim culture. (This table was excerpted from Marshall’s essay on The Range of Religious Freedom resourced in Roger Alford’s paper Religious Freedom By Religious Background).
We need the courage to stand against today’s tide and speak of common sense realities. The root of poverty is not found in a country’s level of resources. Singapore, the tiny island state off the coast of Malaysia, has no natural resources. What is more, given her five million people on an island 40 kilometers long, she has one of the highest population densities in the world. From a materialistic paradigm, with all those mouths to feed and no resources, one would expect Singapore to be in dire poverty. Instead she is one of the wealthiest nations in the world. The per capita GDP of Singapore is 21% higher than that of the United States, a vast land abounding in material resources. Singapore’s secret? the metaphysical and social capital of her people. Her people and their creativity and innovation are the source of her material prosperity.
People who care about the poor would do well to reject the paradigm of materialism, cultural relativism, and political correctness. These may convey the sense of being on the “moral high ground” but in fact do little to help the poor. Indeed, they exacerbate poverty by creating dependency between communities and nations.
The root of wealth and poverty of a nation is found in the culture, the moral vision of the nation. Though the world may not want to hear it and the governing elites may not want him to say it, Romney is right!
Culture, not material circumstances, is the soul, the wellspring of development.
– Darrow Miller