Being of Greek descent, I have occasionally used my cultural identity to my advantage. Specifically, this party line at birthdays: “No, I didn’t bring you a gift. Speaking as a Greek, I just wanted you to know that you can trust me…”
Which does turn out quite economical – although it can make for a shortage of gifts when it comes round to my birthday…
I mention this because I’ve just finished reading Ha-Joon Chang’s book “Bad Samaritans: The Myth of Free Trade and the Secret History of Capitalism”. It sounds like the economic version of a conspiracy theory – but it’s had support from unusual places (mainly: Nobel prizewinner Joseph Stieglitz). And in Chapter 9, Chang deals with cultural stereotypes.
The Theory: Some Countries Are Culturally Doomed To Fail
When economists look back in retrospect, they ask some awkward questions. Like:
- How did we get here? and
- Why do some countries fare better than others?
- Germany has been an economic triumph because of its protestant work ethic and commitment to efficiency.
- Japan has done similarly well because of its Confucian ideals and general industriousness.
- Africa is corrupt and filled with self-interested malignants; and its people are lazy.
- The Greeks are spendthrift.
- The Arabs are unscrupulous.
Or put differently: some cultures are better suited to economic prosperity than others, meaning that the economic problem requires a cultural paradigm shift.
I’ve sometimes wondered about this around the dinner table. Are Latin American countries doomed to high inflation because of their hot-blooded populist tendencies? Is Zimbabwe suffering from a nationwide disillusionment that it can’t break out of?
And on the face of it, there does seem to be a correlation between cultural truisms and economic progress.
The Chang Counter-Argument
Mr Chang gives examples of older cultural stereotypes.
Of The Japanese
American missionary Sidney Gulick, after living in Japan for 25 years, wrote in 1903:
“[many Japanese] give an impression…of being lazy and utterly indifferent to the passage of time”
British socialist Beatrice Webb, after a visit to Asia in 1911-1912, described the Japanese as having “objectionable notions of pleasure and a quite intolerable personal independence”. And that in Japan, “there is evidently no desire to teach people to think”.
Of The Germans
Some common attitudes toward the Germans before their economic revolution in the mid-19th century:
“[the Germans] work and do as they please”
“a plodding, easily contented people…endowed with neither great acuteness of perception nor quickness of feeling”
“not distinguished by enterprise or activity”
“the tradesman and the shopkeeper take advantage of you wherever they can, and to the smallest amount imaginable rather than not take advantage of you at all…This knavery is universal”
“some will laugh all sorrows away and others will always indulge in melancholy”
So the Japanese were lazy, mindless and hedonistic. And the Germans were considered slothful, overly-emotional, relaxed, stupid and dishonest.
It hardly rings true today, does it?
Perhaps the chain of causality is wrong. Culture and economic development are inter-connected – but maybe people appear lazier because they’re poor, rather than being poor because they’re lazy…
And that’s seems intuitively true. After all, if you want something done, don’t you give it to a busy person?
Time for a little less fatalism. Things can get better.