On Cultural-Deterministic Explanations of Economic Development

Ha-Joon Chang (2008), Bad Samaritans – The Guilty Secrets of Rich Nations & The Threat to Global Prosperity, London: Random House, pp. 193-4.

"Culture-based explanations for economic development have usually been little more than ex post facto justifications based on a 20/20 hindsight vision. So, in the early days of capitalism, when most economically successful countries happened to be Protestant Christian, many people argued that Protestantism was uniquely suited to economic development. When Catholic France, Italy, Austria and Southern Germany developed rapidly, particularly after the Second World War, Christianity, rather than Protestantism, became the magic culture. Until Japan became rich, many people thought East Asia had not developed because of Confucianism. But when Japan succeeded, this thesis was revised to say that Japan was developing so fast because its unique form of Confucianism emphasized co-operation over individual edification, which the Chinese and Korean versions allegedly valued more highly. And then Hong Kong, Singapore, Taiwan and Korea also started doing well, so, this judgment about the different varieties of Confucianism was forgotten. Indeed, Confucianism as a whole suddenly became the best culture for development because it emphasized hard work, saving, education and submission to authority. Today, we see Muslim Malaysia and Indonesia, Buddhist Thailand and even Hindu India doing well economically, we can soon expect to encounter new theories that will trumpet how uniquely all these cultures are suited for economic development (and how their authors have known it all along)."

2 thoughts on “On Cultural-Deterministic Explanations of Economic Development

  1. The question is whether the culture supports or conflicts with the classical liberal agenda (a suite of freedoms, including free trade; civil order and secure property rights; and a robust moral framework including items such as honesty, compassion, tolerance and enterprise). If you look around the world to find where freedom and prosperity are on the rise, you will probably find that one of more of the components of the classical liberal agenda are at work.

    • Several things:
      1. Freedom and prosperity are two separate things that do not necessarily positively correlate. Examples abound of that. Conjoining them is an ideological construct. Prosperity can rise without freedom and freedom can also rise but without the prosperity.

      2.A lot of the things you list as “classical liberal agenda” can be applied to a lot of different approaches, including Confucianism, for instance.

      3. It works like this: (1) decide which traits one thinks would promote (neo)-liberalism conflated with development, freedom and prosperity; (2) look around the world for cultural traits that match this assumed (but never really empirically established) virtuous circle.

      This assumed a monolithic and ahistorical view of culture. As demonstrated in the book, this judgment call is always made ex-post facto. Never in a predictive manner.

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