Book Excerpt
The Central Liberal Truth : How Politics Can Change a Culture and Save It from Itself
by Lawrence E. Harrison

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An excerpt from The Central Liberal Truth : How Politics Can Change a Culture and Save It from Itself by Lawrence E. Harrison, published 2006 by Oxford University Press.
Book excerpt reprinted with the permission of the publisher.
Copyright © 2006 Lawrence E. Harrison




"I am convinced that the luckiest of geographic circumstances and the best of laws cannot maintain a constitution in despite of mores, whereas the latter can turn even the most unfavorable circumstances and the worst laws to advantage. The importance of mores is a universal truth to which study and experience continually bring us back. I find it occupies the central position in my thoughts: all my ideas come back to it in the end."

-- Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America

The influence of cultural values, beliefs, and attitudes on the way that societies evolve has been shunned by scholars, politicians, and development experts, notwithstanding the views of Tocqueville, Max Weber, and more recently Francis Fukuyama, Samuel Huntington, David Landes, Robert Putnam, and Lucian Pye, among others. It is much more comfortable for the experts to cite geographic constraints, insufficient resources, bad policies, and weak institutions. That way they avoid the invidious comparisons, political sensitivities, and bruised feelings often engendered by cultural explanations of success and failure. But by avoiding culture, the experts also ignore not only an important part of the explanation of why some societies or ethno-religious groups do better than others with respect to democratic governance, social justice, and prosperity. They also ignore the possibility that progress can be accelerated by (1) analyzing cultural obstacles to it, and (2) addressing cultural change as a remedy.

The influence of culture on the way that societies evolve is central not only to the goal of reducing poverty and injustice around the world. It is also a key factor in foreign policy, with particular relevance to the Bush administration's keystone policy of promoting democracy: "[the] values of freedom are right and true for every person, in every society." If culture matters in making democracy work, as Tocqueville insists, and as the disappointing experience of the United States in promoting democracy (e.g., in Latin America) suggests, then the keystone is likely to crumble under the pressure of cultures averse to democracy, as in the Arab countries, not one of which has yet produced stable democracy.

Some fundamental questions about what drives human progress cannot be answered without considering the role of culture and/or cultural change. For example:

* Why have democratic institutions failed to take root in any Arab country?

* Why have the Confucian societies of East Asia experienced transforming rates of economic growth?

* Why are East Asian immigrants so successful wherever they migrate?

* Why are Jews so successful wherever they migrate?

* What explains the "miracle" of Spain's transformation from a traditional autocracy to a modern Western European democracy?

* Why do the Nordic countries lead the rest of the world in most indicators of progress?

* Why have Haiti and the Dominican Republic, two countries that share the Caribbean island of Hispaniola, followed such divergent paths?

Other Factors Matter, Too

Culture can be crucial, but it is only one factor, if an important one, in play in human progress. Geography, including climate and resource endowment, also matters, not only in its direct impact on economic development but also through its influence on culture. Jared Diamond makes a compelling case for the powerful influence of environment in his best-selling Guns, Germs, and Steel, but he leaves space for culture: "Among other factors [explaining why some societies have advanced more rapidly than others] cultural factors . . . loom large . . . Human cultural traits vary greatly around the world. Some of that cultural variation is no doubt a product of environmental variation . . . But an important question concerns the possible significance of local cultural factors unrelated to the environment. A minor cultural feature may arise for trivial, temporary local reasons, become fixed, and then predispose a society toward more important cultural choices . . ."

That colder climates forced humans to plan ahead to get through the winter, while humans in tropical zones had no such problem, must surely be relevant in explaining why most poor countries are found in the tropical zones; and it may also be relevant in explaining why the warmer portions of some countries -- for example, the south of Italy, the south of Spain, the south of the United States -- are poorer than the colder portions.

Ideology and governmental policies can also profoundly influence the pace and direction that development takes: toward or away from democracy and social justice, toward or away from sustained rapid economic growth. In contrast with Italy, Spain, and the United States, the northern part of Korea is poor, the southern part rich. This reversal is largely because, in the North, an ideology and the policies that flow from it are hostile to economic development and political pluralism, while the ideology and policies of the South have proven conducive to economic development, which in turn has nurtured democracy. This is a case where ideology and economic policy seem to matter much more than culture. Yet even in such cases, culture is in play. North Korea's authoritarian government is in part a product of the same authoritarian current in Confucianism that produced the autocracies of Mao Zedong and his predecessors and successors in China -- and the progressive authoritarianism of Lee Kuan Yew in Singapore. And, as we shall see, ideological shifts have played a key role in cultural change in several countries.

The role of political leaders with a vision of a better society can also play a crucial role. The Meiji leadership in late-nineteenth-century Japan, Mustafa Kemal in Turkey following World War I, and Franklin Roosevelt in the United States of the 1930s and '40s all brought about transforming change -- in a political and economic sense, to be sure, but in a cultural sense as well. A more recent example is the crucial role played by Mikhail Gorbachev in the demise of the Soviet empire and the movement, rapid in some of its components and slow in others, toward democratic capitalism.

I note in passing that each of these leaderships came to power at a time of national crisis, validating an observation by Samuel Huntington, "Societies . . . may change their culture in response to major trauma." The corresponding crises: Japan's awareness of its technological backwardness and vulnerability in the wake of the arrival of Commodore Perry's flotilla in Tokyo Bay in 1853; the collapse of the Ottoman Empire in World War I; the Great Depression and World War II; the failure of Communism to produce prosperity, and increasing evidence that the West was winning the Cold War.

Generally, however, what I wrote in Underdevelopment Is a State of Mind twenty years ago remains valid: "the cultural environment importantly influences the process through which leaders gain their positions, the priorities they apply in shaping policies, and the people, institutions, and practices they use to execute those policies" -- not to mention culture's influence on the leaders themselves.

Success can also breed cultural change that slows the pace of economic growth. Such has been the case in Japan in the 1990s and the first years of the twenty-first century, and it may also be true of some European countries, too, as symbolized by France's move to a 35-hour work week. The New York Times recently noted that Norway's "bedrock work ethic" is caving in as a result of the country's affluence. These cases evoke the kind of post-industrial culture that Ronald Inglehart has analyzed: "Having attained high levels of economic security, the populations of the first nations to industrialize have gradually come to emphasize . . . values [other than prosperity]; these groups give higher priority to the quality of life than to economic growth." I am reminded of Thomas Mann's early novel of a north German commercial dynasty, Buddenbrooks, in which the dynastic fortune is dissipated through lack of interest in business in third and fourth generation offspring; also a Chinese adage that covers three generations: From rags, to riches, to ruin.

The foregoing is not a full cataloguing of the noncultural factors that influence how societies evolve. But it does address significant factors, some of which, for example, ideology in North Korea (and in East Germany) have trumped culture. Culture is one of several relevant factors. But in many cases, it may be the crucial one.

The Central Liberal Truth : How Politics Can Change a Culture and Save It from Itself by Lawrence E. Harrison,


Which cultural values, beliefs, and attitudes best promote democracy, social justice, and prosperity? How can we use the forces that shape cultural change, such as religion, child-rearing practices, education, and political leadership, to promote these values in the Third World -- and for underachieving minorities in the First World? In this book, a valuable follow-up to his acclaimed Culture Matters, Lawrence E. Harrison offers intriguing answers to these questions.

Drawing on a three-year research project that explored the cultural values of dozens of nations -- from Botswana, Sweden, and India to China, Egypt, and Chile -- Harrison offers a provocative look at values around the globe, revealing how each nation's culture has propelled or retarded its political and economic progress. The book presents 25 factors that operate very differently in cultures prone to progress and those that resist it, including one's influence over destiny, the importance attached to education, the extent to which people identify with and trust others, and the role of women in society. Harrison pulls no punches, and many of his findings will be controversial. He argues, for example, that Protestantism, Confucianism, and Judaism have been more successful in promoting progress than Catholicism, Orthodox Christianity, and Islam.

Harrison rejects the Bush administration's doctrine that "the values of freedom are right and true for every person, in every society." Thus nations like Iraq and Afghanistan -- where illiteracy, particularly among women, and mistrust are high and traditions of cooperation and compromise are scant -- are likely to resist democracy.

Most important, the book outlines a series of practical guidelines that developing nations and lagging minority groups can use to enhance their political, social, and economic well-being.

Contradicting the arguments of multiculturalists, this book contends that when it comes to promoting human progress, some cultures are clearly more effective than others. It convincingly shows which values, beliefs, and attitudes work and how we can foster them.

The Central Liberal Truth : How Politics Can Change a Culture and Save It from Itself by Lawrence E. Harrison,


Lawrence E. Harrison is Senior Research Fellow and Adjunct Lecturer at the Fletcher School at Tufts University. He is the author of Underdevelopment Is a State of Mind, Who Prospers?, and The Pan-American Dream, and co-editor, with Samuel Huntington, of Culture Matters: How Values Shape Human Progress. Between 1965 and 1981, he directed USAID missions in the Dominican Republic, Costa Rica, Guatemala, Haiti, and Nicaragua. Harrison was associated with Harvard University's Weatherhead Center for International Affairs for eight years during the period 1981-2001. His articles have appeared in The New York Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, Boston Globe, Atlantic Monthly, Foreign Policy, and The National Interest, among other publications.

The Central Liberal Truth : How Politics Can Change a Culture and Save It from Itself by Lawrence E. Harrison,


"Nothing is so important and tenacious as culture (values and institutions) in shaping economic performance, and nothing so decisive as economic performance in determining political and social possibilities and structure. This book is a global, historical, empirical approach to these connections, as exemplified by the major stories of success, failure, and cases in between. I can think of no better entrance to the topic, both for what it teaches and the way it invites and prepares the reader to continue. A gateway study."

-- David S. Landes, author of The Wealth and Poverty of Nations: Why Some Are So Rich and Some So Poor

"Lawrence Harrison's previous writings have made him a leading, perhaps the leading, scholar exploring, analyzing, and documenting the central impact of culture on how society develops, or fails to develop, economically and politically. In The Central Liberal Truth, he draws on his immense knowledge and long experience to spell out the ways societies suffering from cultural attributes unfavorable to development can overcome these obstacles. The Central Liberal Truth is an impressive, persuasive, and indispensable book for anyone interested in improving the conditions of human life in poor countries."

-- Samuel Huntington, author of Who Are We: The Challenges to American National Identity and The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order

"Authors who emphasize the role of culture in development are often accused of consigning whole peoples to backwardness because they are locked into the wrong values. Larry Harrison takes culture seriously, but shows that culture evolves, and offers a practical agenda for cultural change."

-- Francis Fukuyama, author of Nation-Building: Beyond Afghanistan and Iraq and The End of History and the Last Man

"A book of enormous importance and startling originality. Harrison has pulled off an amazing intellectual feat. He has drawn our attention both to the centrality of culture in historical outcomes and to the ability of good public policy to reshape economic and political history."

-- Fouad Ajami, Majid Khadduri Professor and Director of Middle East Studies at Johns Hopkins University, School of Advanced International Studies

The Central Liberal Truth : How Politics Can Change a Culture and Save It from Itself by Lawrence E. Harrison,

We have reviewed this book.
Link to our book review.