'Culture,' Prosperity, and Political IQ

I accept the idea that "culture" has a legitimate part in explaining national or regional success. In the late 1980s, after living in Japan, I wrote a book examining cultural differences between U.S. and Japan -- and arguing that America would do best if it made the most of the cultural and structural traits that were distinctively our own. (Openness to immigration, toleration for failure and opportunity for the second chance, attempts to level the playing field, etc.) At around the same time I infuriated many residents of the Philippines with an Atlantic article suggesting a "damaged culture" explanation of that country's ongoing woes.

I also understand that "culture" is the beginning rather than the end of such explanatory efforts. It is hard to top the standard quote attributed to 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."

How does this apply to Mitt Romney's already-much-discussed comments that "culture" explains Israel's success in business, the comparative failure of the Palestinians, and the cross-border differences between Mexico and the United States? (Original comments here; followup column by Romney here.) My points:

1) Culture as last, not first, explanation. In my experience, culture is the explanation you should look for after you've tried and exhausted others. I argued that culture was important in assessing the Philippines' problems because in other ways -- structure of government, letter-of-the-law freedoms -- it resembled countries that had fared much better. But when you are comparing the performance of self-governing, always-threatened-but-militarily-dominant Israel with that of Palestinians in governmental limbo and under occupation, it is axe-grinding rather than enlightening to start with "cultural" differences. Or, as in Romney's case, not even to get around to mentioning the structural, legal, and financial-system differences that might contribute to Palestinian poverty.

This is like saying that the main difference between East and West Germany in the old days, or between China when it was starving in the 1950s and when it is prospering now, was the variation in German or Chinese "culture." Unt-uh. Behavior and incentives in these cases differed wildly -- a visit to the old divided Berlin made that dramatic -- but that was mainly because of contrasts in political systems and rules. Chinese "culture" did not suddenly become more ambitious and entrepreneurial in 1979. The rules changed to encourage and allow people to behave in different ways.

2) Culture as meaningless grab bag. If you define "culture" to include everything from family structure to Constitutional liberties to representative government to copyright protection and rule of law, as Romney essentially does in his followup essay, you've removed all meaning from the term. Now we're talking about the entire network of formal and informal rules that constitute civil society. And to go back to the beginning, this broadened assessment of the Palestinians' situation is exactly what Mitt Romney did not apply when speaking of them.

Like, I suspect, many Atlantic readers, I am well familiar with the two books that Romney said gave him his "culture explains everything" outlook: Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs, and Steel, and David Landes's The Wealth and Poverty of Nations. Neither writer would ever put things as baldly as he did.

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.

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