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