Book Summary: “The Central Liberal Truth: How Politics Can Change a Culture…” by Lawrence Harrison


Title: Central Liberal Truth: How Politics Can Change Culture and Save It from Itself
Author: Lawrence Harrison
Scope: 4 stars
Readability: 4 stars
My personal rating: 4 stars
See more on my book rating system.

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Topic of Book

The authors seek to explain how culture affects economic development, and how politics can change culture to make faster economic development possible.The book starts with the aphorism from 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.”

Key Take-aways

  • Culture plays a critical role in promoting or undermining economic growth.
  • Culture can and does change.
  • Political leadership, particularly in a time of crisis, can help change culture to make it more conducive to economic growth.
  • The process is fundamentally about learning from other more successful cultures, rather than blaming them.

Important Quotes from Book

Bernard Lewis’s words are also relevant: “When people realize that things are going wrong, there are two questions they can ask: One is, ‘What did we do wrong?’ and the other is ‘Who did this to us?’ The latter leads to conspiracy theories and paranoia. The first question leads to another line of thinking: ‘How do we put it right?’”

But for our purposes, culture is the body of values, beliefs, and attitudes that members of a society share; values, beliefs, and attitudes shaped chiefly by environment, religion, and the vagaries of history that are passed on from generation to generation chiefly through child rearing practices, religious practice, the education system, the media, and peer relationships.

Culture is powerfully influenced by religion, and the cultures discussed in this book are defined, at a broad level of generalization, by the predominant religion or ethical code: Protestant, Catholic, Orthodox Christian, Jewish, Islamic, Confucian, Hindu, and Buddhist.

Moynihan’s aphorism underscores the complexity one faces in dealing with culture: in the central conservative truth, culture is a cause of national success (or failure); in the central liberal truth it is an effect of politics and policy.

In his book Asia Per Capita, Yoshihara identifies the following ways that culture influences economic development:

  • Culture determines individual preference structure.
  • Culture is also an important determinant of people’s attitudes toward public order and the ethics of government officials.
  • Culture affects institutions by shaping the ideological basis for legislation or policy.
  • A strategy for sustainable economic growth requires an appropriate cultural policy.

The conventional economic development strategies of the past half-century, chiefly devised by development assistance institutions like the World Bank and scholars, emphasized market incentives, trade and investment, competitiveness, employment-intensive manufacturing, agricultural productivity, appropriate technology, institution building, health, education, and infrastructure, among others. These have generally had beneficial results but have rarely produced transforming rates of economic growth.

In fact, a similar approach, with heavy flows of external resources and the active participation of recipient countries in decisions on policies and resource allocation, has been tried in a different setting—Latin America—though with scant results. The Alliance for Progress, inaugurated by President Kennedy and Latin American leaders in 1961, was designed with the Marshall Plan in mind, although with fewer resources—$20 billion ($10 billion in development assistance, $10 billion in private investment) over 10 years.

In pondering why some countries are rich while others are poor, and why some evolve democratically while others don’t, geography is an indispensable first consideration. But exceptions to the geographic presumption are numerous. The island of Hispaniola is a case in point.

Daniel Etounga-Manguelle’s observation: “Culture is the mother. Institutions are the children.

See page 53-54 for Typology of Progress-Prone and Progress-Resistant Cultures

The political scientist Ronald Inglehart has tested Grondona’s 25 elements of culture with data from the World Values Survey… “these empirical findings tend to support the Progress Typology—sometimes very strongly.” Of the 25 factors, 11 receive “strong confirmation” from the World Values Survey data; 3 receive “moderately strong confirmation”; there is “no significant support” for 2; and no data are available for 9.

The zero-sum worldview is common to peasant societies around the world, according to anthropologist George Foster, who perceives a “Universal Peasant Culture” dominated by the “Image of Limited Good,” which he defines as follows: “By ‘Image of Limited Good,’ I mean that broad areas of peasant behavior are patterned in such fashion as to suggest that peasants view their social, economic, and natural universes—their total environment—as one in which all of the desired things in life such as land, wealth, health, friendship and love, manliness and honor, respect and status, power and influence, security and safety, exist in finite quantity and are always in short supply. . . . Not only do these and all other “good things” exist in finite and limited quantities, but in addition there is no way directly within peasant power to increase the available quantities.

At the heart of the typography are two fundamental questions: (1) Does the culture encourage the belief that people can influence their destinies? (2) Does the culture promote the Golden Rule? If people believe that they can influence their destinies, they are likely to focus on the future; see the world in positive-sum terms; attach a high priority to education; believe in the work ethic; save; become entrepreneurial; and so forth. If the Golden Rule has real meaning for them, they are likely to live by a reasonably rigorous ethical code; honor the lesser virtues; abide by the laws; identify with the broader society; form social capital; and so forth. The Golden Rule is not just a Western idea. It is central to Confucianism.

Progress-Prone culture comprises a set of values that are substantially shared by the most successful societies on earth—the West and East Asia—and, I might add, by high-achieving ethnic/religious minorities like the Jains and Sikhs in India, and the Chinese, Japanese, Koreans, and Jews wherever they migrate. I speak of a Universal Progress Culture that contrasts with the Universal Peasant Culture perceived by George Foster and others.

During Muñoz Marín’s 16 years as governor (1948-1964), Puerto Rico experienced transforming rates of economic growth. Today, it is the most affluent society in Latin America.

Several features of Chilean history that diverge from the Latin American mainstream: an early tendency toward compromise that is atypical for Hispanic societies; a relatively high level of female literacy (about 30 percent at the end of the nineteenth century); the link between the opening up of the economy and progressive cultural change starting with Pinochet (reminiscent of the transformation of Spain late in Franco’s rule); proportionally the largest Basque population in Latin America; and substantial conversion to Protestantism, perhaps as much as 20 percent of the population.

“three-fourths of the distinguished personages of nineteenth-century Chile were of Basque descent.”

“Studies of democratic transition in regions as widely disparate as Spain, Poland, Turkey, Taiwan, and Slovakia all show that the evocation of local symbols and myths played a crucial role in the early phases of democratic transition.”

 “There can be no cultural transformation without the widely-accepted belief that there is indeed something ‘wrong’ with the [culture] and without a systematic effort to discuss ways to fix it. For culture to matter, there must [first be] a realization that it needs fixing.”

The process of cultural change is even more difficult when what drives it is the realization of debilities in one’s culture, brought home by the strengths of other cultures that have achieved higher levels of progress. Culture and ego are fused in these circumstances, and it is easier on both to explain the progress gap as a consequence of others’ malevolent actions than one’s own shortcomings.

Cultural change usually occurs when two factors coincide: (1) leaders with a progressive vision, and (2) a time of crisis or unique opportunity…  in most of the above cases, it has been the political, intellectual, and military elites that have led the way to significant change.

In several of the success stories, willingness to learn from other, more advanced societies has been crucial.

Education has been the central item on the development agenda since the world became development-conscious after World War II.

Several of the cultural transformations were triggered by changes in economic policy. In most of the relevant cases, inward-looking, import substitution policies were replaced by outward-looking, export promotion policies. The impact on cultural values was two-pronged. First, the opening-up of the economy meant greater exposure to more modern, more efficient ways both of doing things and of thinking. Not only did new technologies get adopted—so too did new ways of seeing the world, life, social relations, politics, and opportunity. Second, the economic success of these policies meant increasingly higher levels of income for large numbers of people, many of whom never believed it possible that their circumstances would improve. In an environment of growing prosperity and optimism, eons-old assumptions and beliefs, for example, about one’s ability to influence one’s destiny or about the value of education, inevitably get reexamined and modified.

Several of the CMRP case studies highlight the constructive role of foreign investment, in the first instance substituting for shortages in domestic capital, technology, organization, and marketing know-how, but subsequently cultivating entrepreneurial values, attitudes, and techniques. In some cases, foreign investment has propagated the idea of corporate responsibility to the broader society through enlightened labor relations and philanthropic activity. Yet there are also cases where foreign investment has ignored such responsibilities.

Illiteracy is the single greatest obstacle to progressive cultural change. It enshrouds the human capacity to learn, to change, and it nurtures the perpetuation of traditional culture. Human progress lags the most in societies, above all in Islamic countries and Africa, with high illiteracy levels. In the large majority of these countries, female literacy is sharply lower than male literacy. Yet in terms of cultural change, it can be argued that female literacy is more important than male literacy because of the crucial role women play in child rearing. It is highly relevant that females are more literate than males in Botswana.

English is a resource for both economic development and cultural change. If learning from the experience of more advanced societies is crucial to progressive cultural change, command of English today is extremely valuable.

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