Exit Strategies

2005-12-08

Jim Bennett points to an interesting and important article by Arnold Kling that asks: what causes prosperity? I'm currently reading The Wealth and Poverty of Nations by David Landes, which seeks to answer the same question. No one really knows. Kling points out that poverty does not have a cause: it has always been the default state of humankind. What requires explanation is wealth. Specifically, why did northwestern Europe (led by England) begin to break out of the endless cycle of poverty around 500 years ago? Ernest Gellner calls this "The Exit". Max Weber tried to explain the exit by reference to the Protestant work ethic. But why did the peoples of northwestern Europe (English, Scots, Dutch, Germans, Danes, Swedes, Norwegians) become Protestant in the first place? Landes puts great weight on the scientific outlook that emerged first in Italy but that passed by southern Europe and passed to northwestern Europe beginning with the burning of Giordano Bruno, the trial of Galileo, and the Inquisition. But why were the English and Dutch much more predisposed to scientific inquiry and open publication of new ideas? Others point to the corruption of the Portuguese and especially Spanish (who originally dominated the Atlantic trading area) because of the influx of gold from the New World and the overwhelming presence of slave labor on the plantations of Brazil and the Caribbean. But why were the Spanish and Portuguese empires more susceptible to these corrupting influences than were the English and Dutch empires? Everywhere you look, causes are not ultimate but can be pursued further back into history, until the evidence becomes less and less substantial although all the more tantalizing. (I suppose that's what makes history so fascinating.)

Yet this exercise is not of merely historical interest. No people on earth want to remain in poverty (even if their government wants to keep them there). Most countries would love to replicate the success of northwestern Europe and north America if they only could. Some countries, such as Japan and Korea, have pretty much succeeded. Other countries, such as China and India, are trying hard to do so. Other countries, such as Argentina and the Philippines, have tried but not succeeded very well. Other countries have not even tried (vast swaths of Asia and Africa). Yet there is no one formula for success. All we know is the Anglosphere social model seems to work extremely well, and that social models that are similar to the Anglosphere model in certain ways (high trust, open minds, mostly open markets, etc.) tend to work well enough to produce significant, sustainable wealth. But there is no magic bullet. As a long-time libertarian I used to think that removing government impediments was the answer, but that approach seems awfully simplistic to me now. Government emerges from culture and social life, which means that unfortunately most places get the government they deserve (corrupt in low-trust cultures, hegemonistic in traditionalist cultures, etc.). Just changing the government from the outside (cf. Iraq) or, for you anarcho-capitalists, removing it altogether (cf. Somalia) will not result in prosperity in the absence of a culture of trust, individualism, high risk-tolerance, entrepreneurialism, respect for work and education, open inquiry, literacy, science, and technological innovation (or at least most of those, and probably more). How many cultures can lay claim to even half of those attributes? Sadly, not nearly enough.

David Landes, too, stresses the importance of culture. The countries of northwestern Europe got a head start on everyone else in the modern industrial world because of their distinctive cultural traits, and Britain got a 100-year head start among those nations because of the Anglosphere social model. Latin America mainlined an Iberian culture of (at the time) militarism, corruption, and Inquisition -- a legacy it has found hard to shake even today. The Islamic world has lacked the traits of open inquiry, commercial trade, and learning from other societies for hundreds of years, and was not helped more recently by the so-called scientific socialism of post-colonial elites. Most African nations are even further down the ladder of civil society, honest dealing, education, and health -- a whole continent plagued by misfortune. Since the end of World War II the only real exceptions to a growing divergence between the West and the Rest have been in East Asia, led by Japan, joined by Korea, Taiwan, Singapore, and more recently places like Malaysia and China. Landes ties the East Asian success stories to hard work, serious thrift, clear-thinking honesty (both to recognize one's plight and communicate about how to change it), extreme patience, and tenacious perseverence.

These are not pleasant conclusions to have to draw. We'd all like everyone to be rich and happy. Furthermore, tying wealth and poverty to culture seems to personalize it in ways that are simultaneously triumphalist and demeaning (we're better off because we're better, and you're worse off because you're worse). Easier, then, to avoid hard evidence and difficult conclusions. Yet, no matter how you slice it, culture matters. Thankfully, people have free will and can choose to face reality, understand their problems, work harder, save and invest more, focus on production over consumption, demand better governance, criticize in a constructive way, set higher goals, and work to achieve them. The painful experiences of economic deprivation, military defeat, ecological disaster, and the like can provide means to focus the mind and inspire effort; so can the image of a better life to be had by emulating those who blazed the path to modernity -- not following them, but joining them as equals in moving humankind forward scientifically, economically, technologically, and culturally.

None of this is going to get any easier. We understand more than we ever did about the role of cultural traits in societal success, but that does not necessarily make cultural change a breeze: it is still a tough, confusing slog. And the fact that life gets faster all the time may make it easier to leapfrog into modernity, but also harder for cultures to adapt. Instead of the centuries it took Britain and Europe to create modernity, cultures such as Korea, China, and India have only a few generations to do it. And even though human beings are deeply flexible, it's an open question whether people can change that fast. The coming Singularity revolutions in info-, bio-, and nano-technology will increase the pace of change even more, to levels that right now seem inconceivable. Those changes will challenge all cultures and civilizations, the Anglosphere included.

May you live in interesting times...


Peter Saint-Andre > Journal