Harrison, Lawrence E., The Central Liberal Truth: How Politics Can Change a Culture and Save It from Itself, Oxford University Press, 2006, 272 pp.
[cross-posted on Albion’s Seedlings]
To my mind, the Anglosphere discussion is part and parcel of a resurgence in interest in cultural matters after both communism, and vast amounts of post-WW2 Western international aid, failed to provide dramatic economic successes in the poorest parts of the world. The events of 9/11 have highlighted the disparities across the planet, their seeming intractibility, and the view that the rich part of the planet should be solving the problem.
Recently, I reposted a book review of Lewis’s Power of Productivity, which noted that only a single large nation has moved from relative per capita economic poverty to economic prosperity (“being rich”) in the twentieth century — Japan. And Japanese history in the 20th century was hardly without its tragedies. Accordingly to the current numbers, we aren’t likely to see another sizable country make the leap to notable GDP per capita prosperity any time soon. If the 20th century, despite a massive increase in global GDP, has essentially kept every nation running in place, what can be done to give nations with low or medium prosperity an effective boost?
Lawrence Harrison’s experience in Latin American foreign aid with USAID from 1962 to 1982 gave him first hand experience with both the great expectations of the times and with the dashed hopes of subsequent decades. After he retired from public service, he wrote Underdevelopment is a State of Mind (1985), Who Prospers?(1992) and The Pan-American Dream(1997). All were cataloging the ways in which cultural habits affect the economic and civic progress of the region he knows best. By 1999, he was involved in a symposium at Harvard chaired by Samuel Huntington on the relationship of cultural values and human progress, which in turn led to the creation of the Culture Matters Research Project (CMRP) established at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. The Central Liberal Truth is a summarization of several years of that project’s research on the cultural values affecting economic progress in many nations (by scholars and commentators from around the world) . The book also outlines a few theories of cultural change, a typology of values for progress-prone and progress-resistant nations, and wraps with some guidelines for “progressive cultural change.”
The title of the book comes from a well-known aphorism by Daniel Patrick Moynihan:
The central conservative truth is that it is culture, not politics, that determines the success of a society. The central liberal truth is that politics can change a culture and save it from itself.
If scholars like Huntington, Fukuyama, and Landes make the case that cultural inheritance influences national history, the obverse question is “how do you alter cultural habits to support national success?”
With evident sincerity, Harrison sets about establishing firstly that culture matters, with an early chapter discussing the contrasts between Haiti and the Dominican Republic … sharing an island yet almost a world apart in economic conditions. Then he highlights how an increasing number of scholars and experts are returning to a focus on cultural values after a half-century of disappointment with international aid and development, and finally, he asserts that programs must be put in place to systematically leverage cultural change for economic progress.
Some time ago, Argentine journalist Mariano Grondona evolved a typology of values which can categorize cultures according to their response to change. No country has established an “ideal” but clearly the progress-prone and -resistant countries share many attributes, and do so in evident patterns. The Culture Matters Research Project started with Grondona’s lists and revised it into the following:
Categories for Typing Progress-Prone and Progress-Resistant Cultures
3. Time Orientation
6. Ethical code
7. The lesser virtues
10. Frugality and prosperity
12. Risk propensity
16. Rule of law/corruption
17. Radius of identification and trust
19. Association (social capital)
20. The individual/group
22. Role of elites
23. Church-state relations
24. Gender relationships
For each of the 25 parameters, there are mirror-images in attitudes … for example, Item 1 Religion. A progress-prone culture “nurtures rationality, achievement; promotes material pursuits; focus on this world; pragmatism.” A progress-resistant culture “nurtures irrationality; inhibits material pursuits; focus on the other world; utopianism.”
At the heart of the typology are two fundamental questions: (1) Does the culture encourage the belief that people can influence their destinies? (2) Does the culture promote the Golden Rule? p.55
Harrison would make the case that there is some sort of “universal progress culture” which is independent of race and ethnicity and has more to do with wide-shared, and constantly inculcated, expectations and attitudes.
Turning to his colleagues, Harrison then evaluates the world’s cultures based on reports created for the project by scholars, journalists, and experts. Here we can see some careful tap-dancing as the writers try to “accentuate the positive” without totally abandoning the idea that culture influences economic and material success. Information collated from the World Values Survey, the UN Human Development Index, Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index, and the UNDP Arab Human Development Reports all make an appearance, and justifiably so. It’s a compelling part of Harrison’s argument that so many of these independent reporting tools seem to match the classification of nations according to the CMRP typology.
Two chapters are used to cover the globe from the perspective of cultural values with some thoroughness. Examples from Meiji Japan and Turkey, and more recently, Quebec, Ireland, Singapore, and Spain are described as case studies where noticeable changes in culture had a big impact on economic prosperity. In the course of these chapters, two books are mentioned which I’ve added to my “to read” list … Robert Putnam’s Making Democracy Work: Civic Traditions in Modern Italy (on the differences between northern and southern Italy) and John McWhorter’s Losing the Race: Self-Sabotage in Black America (on African-American cultural attitudes since the Civil Rights era).
There’s also a chapter on eight conscious initiatives (by foundations or governments) in Latin America to directly or indirectly make cultural changes: Peru’s Institute of Human Development, USAID programs for voter participation and democracy, Ecuador’s Punctuality Campaign, US National Strategy Information Center anti-corruption campaigns, Bogota’s poverty priority program, the encouragement of philanthropy, and the “foreign standards” schools. The long-term results of these programs are certainly open to question but I would gather that they are listed in the book as models for how cultural change can be attempted.
Finally, Harrison proposes a set of recommended initiatives for supporting economic progress in nations:
Guidelines for Progressive Cultural Change
I. Child Rearing and Education
A. End illiteracy
B. Study, then modify child-rearing techniques
C. Reform education
D. Learn English
II. Religious Reform
B. Roman Catholicism
C. Orthodox Christianity
F. Confucianism, Judaism, Protestantism
G. Animist Religions
A. Raise awareness of the key role of culture
B. Look for historic/mythical precedents for cultural change
C. Be alert to developments in other societies that may be applied beneficially at home
D. Give highest priority to education and education reform
E. Pursue open economic policies and encourage foreign investment
F. Build a competent, honest, respected civil service
G. Encourage and facilitate home ownership
H. Regularize property ownership
I. Institutionalize periodic surveys of values, beliefs, and attitudes
IV. Develpment Assistance Institutions
A. Confront culture
B. Integrate cultural change analysis into research programs, strategies, and project design
C. Consider establishing a network of quality universities under international institutional auspices
A. Confront culture
VI. The Media
VII. The Private Sector
B. Participatory Management
Considering the Argument
Harrison does yeoman service by assembling the broader sweep of argument in favour of the role of culture and economic progress. His book is readable, sensibly organized, even-handed, and encouraging to the work of his collaborators on the Culture Matters Research Project. In making the case for culture as an important factor in the design of international aid, he’s put his best foot forward. His recommendations are quite sensible, if sometimes betraying a bit of the utopianism he spots in progress-resistance nations. He certainly deserves credit for his work.
He insists that patience, openess to change, the ability to identify a domestic problem and have the desire to fix it, underlie all cultural changes that lead to economic progress. More controversially though, he also declares that such change “cannot be imposed from the outside.”
Unfortunately, based on what I’ve read in this book and others on 20th century history, there’s little to suggest that cultures adopt change in the absence of severe external pressure. The timing of such changes, often synchronized with technological changes that temporarily focus power in the hands of a few inspired, and honest leaders, seems to be more influential than any internal reflection and consensus-building. It is a mighty contrast between the modestly successful “best-wishes” efforts listed in one of Harrison’s chapters on cultural programs in Latin America, and the traumatic authoritarian shifts executed by Ataturk, Meiji Japan, and Lee Kuan Yew. Less so, granted, for the more peaceful successful economic jumps made by a Quebec, Ireland, and Spain freed from religious supervision, and surrounded by either dynamic indulgent Anglosphere economies or a burgeoning wealthy EU.
It’s seems clear to me that “where you are”, and “when you make a change” are just as influential as “who you are” and the cultural changes you want to make. And such a constraint may well forestall successful cultural change for much of the 21st century planet.
We can turn to Alan Macfarlane’s Origins of English Individualism to see how many centuries specific cultural habits may take to blossom. Or turn to Crosby’s Measure of Reality: Quantification in Western Europe, 1250-1600 (review here) to show how difficult it has been for dynamic and prosperous republics to survive for very long, despite their progress-prone cultural styles. Until Trafalgar, I would propose, progress-prone republics were a moving historical target, never sure of survival for more than a century or two. The Pax Anglospherica has, I think, artificially kept alive a number of Harrison’s star performers from the 20th century that would otherwise have rapidly fallen underfoot by some predatory neighbour. It’s hard to imagine Singapore, or Ireland, or Quebec, or Spain, making their way into prosperity without benign neighbourhoods and considerable political or economic pampering by allies.
And we can also certainly cite Macfarlane’s The Making of the Modern World: Visions from the West and East to see how deeply and substantially Japan borrowed from Britain in the late 19th century. An entire style of civic and public discourse was inspected, dissected, then promoted and adopted in Japan, most notably by Yukichi Fukuzawa. And the turmoil of the early 20th century subsequently showed how difficult it was for Japan to make the shift through rapid industrialization without authoritarianism co-opting the public space. Would Japan actually be progress-prone today without the American devastation, American neutering and subsequent management of its politics and culture post-WW2? Is it now, after 60 years, domestically progress-prone?
Reflecting on the industrial assessment of Lewis and the McKinsey company … the Power of Productivity … Japan’s success in the last half of the 20th century has been very narrowly based, and is (like Harrison’s other 20th century success stories – Ireland, Quebec, Singapore, Spain) now facing demographic collapse. It seems a rather Pyrrhic victory to make the shift to progress-prone values only to lose the capacity to reproduce!
And turning to the other example of dramatic cultural change in the 20th century — Turkey — I don’t think it’s disrespectful to withhold judgement on the success of Ataturk’s ferocious revolution for another few decades yet, until we see how Turkey manages its population growth, the growing role of Islamists, and its relationship with the EU … let alone any reconciliation it might have with its neighbours, the Armenians and Kurds.
In sum then, despite Harrison’s careful and valuable contribution, I think there’s more cause for pessimism than optimism when it comes to conscious domestic programs for cultural change in support of economic progress. And if pessimism is an attitude that’s too “progress-resistant” by nature, then perhaps an acknowledgement by the optimists of the very long timeline required for success is needed. American interventions in the Caribbean, for example, have been unrelenting since the mid-19th century, and yet the domestic economies and civil societies of the region return periodically to turmoil. Good intentions do not, unfortunately, translate into permanent positive change. Progress-resistant cultures are, by Harrison’s own argument, caught in a self-perpetuating loop that keeps them from identifying and rectifying their own obstacles. Externally-forced change is resented. Internally-forced change is avoided.
Harrison’s book is certainly a useful antidote to the 20th century’s enthusiastic embrace of “cargo cult development” … “just build the dams, roads, and schools and people will transition naturally through the Industrial Revolution.” Granted, there’s much to be sombre about when looking at the immediate cultural obstacles to prosperity and economic progress facing the West in Afghanistan and Iraq. The questions of “nation-building” and “democracy for all” are meeting a savage test at the moment. But The Central Liberal Truth doesn’t help us answer a more modest, and to my mind ultimately more urgent, question.
Just how long does economically-positive cultural change take? Is there time enough?
If we accept Harrison’s prescriptions, how much time, money, and indulgence are required for any given society or nation to cast aside their cultural resistance to the habits of mind and behavior that encourage economic development? And can such change take place outside of European culture without cataclysmic events such World War 2 and the Cold War which created East Asia economic dependencies and fiefdoms of the Anglosphere?
More importantly, have the meagre changes that Harrison documents been entirely, or at least partially, enabled by the security guarantees and technological donations of the Anglosphere? The technological imbalance which allowed European nations to impose their will on the world from 1500 to 1950 is now past. The missionary schools which raised several generations of Third World leaders, both benign and malignant, have now been superseded by academies filled with dependency theorists and victimologists. The habits of patience and openness identified by Harrison as the foundation of progress-prone cultures must now compete with First World products and attitudes that are profoundly toxic when they reach the Third World. And the scale of globalized illicit trade now forms a counter-current which can reverse a culture’s move to values that are progress-prone. It’s hard to imagine, for example, that cocaine has done Colombia or Peru much good.
I’d question whether the modest handful of nations that made the jump to prosperity and progress post-1950 will be matched by many in the 21st century. Poland and the Czech Republic, perhaps. Like Ireland and Spain, countries on the margin of prosperity with intact civic cultures.
Guns and explosives can, as we see every day in the news, brake any attempt to establish the stable progress-prone cultural attributes that Harrison so generously lays out. Nations, societies, and cultures (heck, inner cities) now have the tools and knowledge to resist economic progress. Indefinitely, we might ask? Well, yes, perhaps indefinitely.
It was interesting to read Harrison’s book and see no direct references to the English common law countries. Instead, the Nordic “Protestant” nations are lumped into one amalgam. Once more, Finland and Sweden get equal billing with 400 million Anglosphere inhabitants. Whether this oversight was the result of Harrison’s politics, or the politics of his colleagues, it’s impossible to glean from The Central Liberal Truth. What we can say is that the author’s arguments about cultural values go out of their way to ignore the eight hundred pound gorilla in the room.
- No reference to the so-called LLSV school of economic theory that suggests that a nation’s legal system has big implications for its attitudes toward change, progress, and prosperity.
- No reference to the Pax Britannica and Pax Americana which has altered the global economic and geopolitical landscape over the two hundred years since Trafalgar.
- No reference, per Lewis, to the commanding lead that Anglosphere nations have, as a group, over their other “Western” progress-prone cultures.
- No reference to the American effort in applying its values in the creation of the League of Nations and United Nations.
Why Harrison should completely ignore this distinction is unclear. That he does so places great limitations on his ability to sort out why cultures are generally so resistant to progress, and how they might overcome that resistance.
As for his confidence that such polar shifts in attitudes cannot be imposed from outside a culture, I think it is misplaced. As Professor Claudio Véliz so eloquently described in his recent speech at The Anglosphere Institute (The Optional Descent of the English Speaking World) the rest of the world has little latitude to pick and choose when it receives cultural products from the Anglosphere. Whether organized sports, tourism, or technology … the English-speaking world has created a mass culture (a “vulgar” culture, to be precise) which specifically addresses the needs and aspirations of individuals within a society. It is that culture, that attitude toward change, that provides constant challenge for progress-resistant societies around the world.
The Central Liberal Truth makes a strong case for the role of culture in inhibiting economic and social progress. Readers of Huntington, Fukuyama, and Landes will find much that is familiar … updated with perspectives from around the world. And the book makes a good case for the elements of society that would need to be rectified in order for a country to shift from progress-resistant to progress-prone attitudes.
The case for how to make such changes in the real world, however, with an Anglosphere now elevated to bogey-man status by its erstwhile “progress-prone” brethren, are singularly unconvincing. By ignoring the gorilla in the room, Harrison has conflated values at the top end of the progress scale which do not belong together … and has sidestepped historical facts, and inherent economic limitations (drawing on available social capital and equity), that bring his whole argument into question.
He’s confirmed the Central Conservative Truth, most certainly. But his case for the Central Liberal Truth is about to be put to the test in our time, our century, with all of us cast as players.
Table of Contents
1 Riddle of Hispanola 
2 Disaggregating “Culture” 
3 Models and Instruments of Cultural Transmission/Change 
4 Religions and Progress 
5 Culture in Action I 
6 Culture in Action II 
7 Patterns of Cultural Change 
8 Success and Failure 
9 Conclusions: Guidelines for Progressive Cultural Change 
13 thoughts on “Harrison — The Central Liberal Truth”
James, your dour take is unfortunately convincing.
The Chinese Communist Party seems to agree with you, too. It is trying to “scale up Singapore”, and act as a sort of collective, long-term Lee Kwan Yew. Maybe it is possible. They are building a massive police force to clamp down when the inevitable social instability starts as the country continues to develop.
“Democracy first” is , unfortunately, a loser. The Anglosphere did it the other way around — democracy came last, after centuries of laying the other institutional foundations of a free and prosperous society.
Countries that lack a strong enough state to jam down the institutional and cultural changes that are needed for prosperity are probably going to be flea-bitten pest-holes … forever. There is no “progress” that implicates everyone. There are communities with their cultural inheritances and their competancies and deficiencies, and their greater or lesser ability to inculcate or disseminate their values and incorporate new members. That’s the bedrock reality. We are not all on a single path to anything.
I notice you do not mention Harrison talking about religious revival. Religious transformations seem to be associated with major cultural changes that facilitate modernization. Does he refer at all to the rise of Pentecostalism? 500 million people is a damned big group. Many people seem to think this development is leading to the development of civil society and other good things in various poverty-stricken locales.
See The Nexus of Religion and Foreign Policy: The Global Rise of Pentecostalism.
Harrison does indeed mention Pentecostalism in reference to changes in Latin America (his specialty) and Africa … and ties that in to his Guidelines list (under religious reform for each of the major world religions). But he’s explicitly uncomfortable with that particular religion in the US, let alone with proposing one specific religion has the capacity to ensure economic progress while most others don’t. Harrison is left-of-centre, though rather less so than his contributors. Thus a denatured set of “values” is proposed, minus the historical turmoil (and baggage) which begat them! I guess it’s all in “code” there for those that want to look.
And, of course, there’s Rodney Stark’s much more controversial view (in “Victory of Reason: How Christianity Led to Freedom, Capitalism, and Western Success”) that Latin America was never really, or fully, Christian in the first place, and is only now getting exposed to its values through evangelical Protestantism and the modern response of the Roman Catholic church. His basis for claiming that is the tiny ratio of priests-to-populace that persisted on the continent for centuries, and the resulting shaky expression of orthodox faith (let alone literacy) through the hinterland. Lots of llama fetuses still getting left in shrines up in the Andes, I guess.
I can recommend Harrison for someone wanting an introduction to the debate about culture and economic progress. But as for the Anglosphere argument, per se, Harrison seemed to have ignored it completely … on purpose or through lack of familiarity with the literature. The result, as I mentioned, is an assessment of the “progress-prone” societies that’s unhinged from the military and geopolitical history of the 20th century, and indiscriminate in its consideration of the nature of the progress or prosperity towards which most of the world claims to aspire.
A good intermediate thought experiment is “what’s the population breakdown, society by society, in the year 2100?” Roughly a billion people now live in prosperity with relatively little economic dependency on the other five (raw materials and a few cheap goods don’t really count as “dependency”). Will 100 years really make a difference? Especially since the years 1900-2000, which we reflexively consider all-so-important, didn’t actually see much relative change.
100 years from now, I more or less concur with the picture from The Diamond Age. Nippon, Atlantis (and its associated and networked English-speaking communities), Han (in some political configuration) and Hindostan (ditto). The rest of the world as we now know it will either be gone as politico-cultural communities (Europe, Russia) or irrelevant, backward also-rans. (Africa, Latin America, Islam). These last have probably peaked and willfall further and further behind. In the coming economy they will have nothing to sell, except maybe tourism in fortified enclaves, or as a source of transplantable human organs, or servants and prostitutes, or the occasional pop-culture phenomenon with street cred for the rich youth to slum around with. It will basically be a globe-spanning Haiti, whose main contacts with the developed areas will be criminal, as well as intermittent, nasty, picturesque but ultimately ineffectual terrorism. As such this permanent Gap will be the site of occasional punitive raids and police round-ups, by the advanced communities. Otherwise it will be a quarantined zone housing the vast majority of humanity in permanent and unrelievable squalor, doomed to have its face pressed against the glass and never getting in, ever.
I hope it turns out better than that. But that is the scenario I think most likely in 2106.
It will basically be a globe-spanning Haiti, whose main contacts with the developed areas will be criminal, as well as intermittent, nasty, picturesque but ultimately ineffectual terrorism. As such this permanent Gap will be the site of occasional punitive raids and police round-ups, by the advanced communities. Otherwise it will be a quarantined zone housing the vast majority of humanity in permanent and unrelievable squalor, doomed to have its face pressed against the glass and never getting in, ever.
Who knows. Widely available technologies for nuclear and bio weapons make ignoring or quarantining entire parts of the world ineffective.
Also, productivity isn’t going to stop growing. It’s not unreasonable to think that a much larger percentage of the world’s population will acquire significant wealth, even in bad parts of the world. If that happens everthing will be much different than we might now project.
Again, who knows? 100 years is a long time. Why assume that today’s pessimistic assumptions will hold? Shift the assumptions a little and the outcomes change a great deal. That’s the problem with global-warming predictions. Isn’t it the same with social and political predictions?
“Who knows?” I certainly don’t. I won’t be alive in 100 years to find out, for that matter.
It is a complete guess. I threw it at the wall. James asked for a prediction about populations, and I made one.
I notice I did not include numbers. I figure it will be around 8-9 billion, with between 1/5 and 1/4 being in the tolerable parts of the world and the rest in the Gap.
Sure hope I’m wrong.
My God, Lex, a true dystopia. Human nature may be eternal and so may be our tendency to err but surely writing off entire continents as economies, wars, education, culture become more international doesn’t seem all that likely. You think the advanced countries are going to remain “advanced” and to do so they just cordon off half the world? That doesn’t seem all that likely. It would be difficult & neither a useful nor a safe way to remain advanced.
You say that these cultures will have “nothing to sell” – in the modern age, what we all have to sell are individual skills, the fruits of being human. I have my doubts that there won’t be many within the areas you see as cordoned off that will be creative, work within their own systems & move both forward. They’ll have to transcend some tribalism, some of the inluence of beliefs that destroy the believers as well as those who don’t believe. But, well, we’ve been through that before. In one hundred years, we saw the rise & fall of the ideology of communism over great areas; people may, again, be seduced by bad ideas. That can make for rapid changes – ones that are likely to transform whole continents in either (or both) useful & destructive ways.
We may see little in Africa or the Arab states that encourages that view – but a hundred years is a long, long time. The differences between the Great Plains in 1850 and in 1950 would be remarkable, even though that area was never on the world’s front burner and probably never will be. Think of the chaotic Germany Thoreau describes – contrast that one of 1854 with the one of 1950 & contemplate what a different country the later one was. By the way, the culture that first strikes me as cheerfully & picturesquely making its living by providing somewhat shady services (fortune telling, roof-fixing) is the gypsy one – but my husband’s friend complains that his culture is too often assimilated in the US. The reach of our culture is often difficult to resist. That may be a mixed blessing, but it does, certainly, make for a less harsh world.
Like I said, I hope I’m wrong, Ginny.
If I had to bet a dollar today, that’s how I’d bet.
Actually, I could have been much, much more dystopic, and suggested, as I sometimes think, that the islands of civilization will go down as well. That will only happen if we commit suicide as a civilization. But that is not out of the question, as Claudio Veliz suggested in his lecture.
Yes, 100 years is a long time. And the last hundred years suggests that trillions of dollars sunk into these places has made very little impact. They export primary exports in exchange for manufactured goods and IP they could never generate for themselves. They do now wage their internecine struggles with third-hand Kalashnikovs and improvised explosives, rather than spears, which is scarcely progress.
As much as I hesitate to jump into the pool with such an erudite company already there, I am compelled by whatever it is that compels old farts to always have their two cents in the pot to add a few comments.
I am disinclined to believe that culture can be directed in some form of super-management. This belief is a myth, much like the “planned economy” myth, or the previously touched upon mythic “jump-off point”, in which it was assumed that the building of infrastructure would automatically bring less developed economies to a launch point at which further development was automatic.
As any examination of foriegn aid and other big state to state giveaway programs will attest, the usual result of such activity is the creation of a powerful group of well connected intermediaries in the recipient country who funnel the largesse into the pockets of the already rich and powerful, leaving the vast majority of the population with half finished, and usually nonviable, projects producing nothing, while the “powers” fill Swiss bank accounts with the funds that were supposed to bring about the “economic launch” everybody was assured would follow like night follows day.
Which brings me to my next point: the requirement for a culture of innovative development is not a strong state, but a weakened and malleable one. Notice I didn’t say anarchic or disintegrating state, but one in which the reach of the pols and their servants is limited, either by structure or circumstance.
The Magna Carta was not the result of a strong monarchy, but a needy one. The rebirth of Japan was not the result of a strong imperial mandate, but the demythologizing of that personage, and the adoption of more limited representative structures in place of the all powerful militaristic fascism of the warlords.
The example of the US is well known but often misinterpreted. It was not the extension of federal powers, but the severe limits placed upon it by geography and political structure that led to a 19th century of revolutionary economic development, and a 20th century of industrial development that allowed the defeat of as virulent a set of threats as any nation, and culture, has ever faced.
Finally, as I have already abused your hospitality by my longwinded comment, the victory of western culture is already a fact. The reactions of islam, like the French attempts to impose language and cultural purity, are the frightened responses of a group of confused and threatened old men, appealing to those among their youth who are also afraid that the world is out of their control, as, of course, it is.
The developing world is mimicking the sequence of our own past developments’ progress, from heavy industry and raw material production, to mass assembly and marketing of consumer goods. It is immaterial if they ever catch up or not.
What is important is that they continue to develop that most subversive and revolutionary group that has ever lived—a middle class of wage earners and small entrepeneurs who increasingly demand the rights of free thought and activity that they need to raise their families and follow their life’s course as they see fit.
People forget, especially the “big thinkers”, that the most significant inventions and developments in our culture were brought about by the efforts of tinkerers, mechanics, bicycle repairmen, college dropouts, visionaries, and many others who simply refused to continue in the traditional path, but sought out a new trail through the wilderness.
Yes, some cultural baggage is weightier and more disabling than others. Stagnation and developmental stasis are not natural states, but rather enforced by rigid autocracies who are threatened by changes they cannot understand or seem to control. We are watching that kind of authoritarian scramble right now in Iran, or China, or Russia, as the “old guard” tries to keep the steam in the kettle. They will fail, as all such have before them.
The key to progress is desire. The realization that someone else has medical care, education, and other living standards that you can only dream of for your children is the most powerful stimulus in history. TV is not a wasteland, but a dreamland. It shows the world what is possible if one wants it badly enough.
And every father, every mother, holds their baby in their arms and wants everything there is for that child.
Western culture is the future because that’s where it lives already, even now, planning for ten years or twenty, from now.
We sing the siren song, and the old autocracies will all eventually crash on the rocks as their people sail close to listen. We’ve already won.
Jonathon wrote “. Isn’t it the same with social and political predictions?”
Maybe it isn’t the same. Human nature isn’t exactly constant and social forces less so but aren’t there repeating patterns in history?
I’m thinking in particular that one pattern is, “after an extended hegemony, multitudes of disorganized political units occur” (quotes mine). Not a pretty picture in a nuclear age especially.
We’ve already won.
As long as we retain our cultural self-confidence, I agree.
I think we might be concentrating to much on the idea of relative development without paying enough attention to absolute development.
It may well be true that we cannot export the totality of our economic and political systems to other cultures and that as a result we will never achieve economic and political equality on a world wide scale. However, that doesn’t mean that we cannot massively improve the lives of everyone on earth.
We forget that even with the huge relative disparities between the best off and the worst even the poorest human being lives a better life today than even the richest did centuries past. The greatest emperors of history had to watch their children die of small pox a fate which the poorest parent today will never face. Even in the developing world people have better material well being, more food, medical care and even political freedom and individual choice than they did only a few decades ago.
It frustrates us to see so many mired in what we call poverty because we don’t understand why they cannot duplicate our level of success but we should always remember that we have and continue to make progress and improve the lives of every living human. Relative disparities will always have significant political impact but they are never the real story. We should always remember that the absolute improvements are what really counts.
“…the absolute improvements are what really counts.” Not politically. No one knows how grandpa lived, or how much better it is. Where you are now is the baseline, taken as a given. I remember Erich Honecker saying that the East German people were fine, since he knew for a fact that lived much better than people had under the Kaiser. Which is meaningless. They were miserable because West Germany was right next door and they knew it. What people know is how the wealthy in their own time live compared to them, and they resent the difference.
I agree that generally, people will be better off in the “Gap” in 100 years. But the divergence between where they are and where the Anglosphere and other developed communities (I don’t know if the USA will still exist in 100 years in anything like its current form) are will be even more massive than it is today. And that variance will be what drives the relationship, not the improved absolute level of wellbeing over the intervening century.
Relationship is, of course, true – we are naturally covetous and at times that can impel us to do better. But surely life – that is, whether it is hand to mouth, whether most or few of our children die, whether we live to a ripe old age or die in our twenties – trumps everything else in terms improvement.
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