Final Comments

For Gregory Clark

Your repetition of the assertion “in 50 years the agenda of introducing culture into analysis of growth has not advanced one step from the state of the art of the 1950s” suggests that you may not be aware of the following books, which I commend to you:

David Hackett Fischer, Albion’s Seed (1989)

Francis Fukuyama, Trust (1995)

Mariano Grondona, Las Condiciones Culturales del Desarrollo Económico


Samuel Huntington, The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World

— Who Are We? (2004)

Ronald Inglehart, Culture Shift in Advanced Industrial Society (1989)
— Modernization and Postmodernization (1997)
— Modernization, Cultural Change, and Democracy (2005)
Yoshihara Kunio, Asia Per Capita (2000)

Gunnar Myrdal, Asian Drama; An Inquiry into the Poverty of Nations (1968)

Douglass North, Institutions, Institutional Change and Economic Performance


Michael Novak, The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism (1982)
— The Catholic Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (1993)

David Landes, The Wealth and Poverty of Nations (1998)

Robert Putnam, Making Democracy Work (1993)

Lucian Pye, Asian Power and Politics (1985)

Carlos Rangel, The Latin Americans (1976)

And, with all due modesty,

Lawrence Harrison, Underdevelopment is a State of Mind (1985)

Who Prospers? (1992)

The Pan-American Dream (1997)

— Culture Matters (co-edited with Samuel Huntington) (2000)

Developing Cultures: Essays on Cultural Change (co-edited

with Jerome Kagan, 2006)

Developing Cultures: Case Studies (co-edited with Peter

Berger, 2006)

The Central Liberal Truth (2006)

For James Robinson

I hope that the absence of further comment on the Chinese diaspora and “Confucianism,” East Asian and Jewish students at Harvard, Chile, and Botswana, indicates that you are at least a little less doubtful that culture matters. Let me add one more argument. If economic development were only a question of getting “the right institutions and policies in place,” then why has it proven so daunting to do that for the large majority of poor countries? The world’s best economists have studied, analyzed, modeled, and prescribed for a half-century, with meager results. Those of us who believe that culture matters, particularly those of us who have lived and worked in the field for many years, focus on institutional debilities as a manifestation of a culture adverse to development. And so does Douglass North:

In all societies…people impose [formal and informal] constraints upon themselves to give a structure to their relations with others…That the informal constraints are important in themselves (and not simply as appendage to formal rules) can be observed from the evidence that the same formal rules and/or constitutions imposed on different societies produce different outcomes…Where do informal constraints come from? They come from socially transmitted information and are a part of the heritage that we call culture. [1] (my emphasis)


[1]  Douglass North, Institutions, Institutional Change and Economic Performance (Cambridge UK: Cambridge University Press, 1990), 36-7.

Also from this issue

Lead Essay

  • In this month’s information-packed lead essay, Lawrence E. Harrison notes that the role of culture has been badly neglected in serious studies of economic devewlopment. But then, he asks, what explains “why, in multicultural countries where the economic opportunities and incentives are available to all, some ethnic or religious minorities do much better than majority populations?” Harrison reports some results of his recent Culture Matters Research Project, including the finding that “Protestant, Jewish, and Confucian societies do better than Catholic, Islamic, and Orthodox Christian societies…” Harrison provides a number of incisive country case studies, illustrating different ways pre-existing culture can produce economic results, and the ways policy and politics can transform culture.

Response Essays

  • In his reply to Harrison’s lead essay, University of California, Davis economist Gregory Clark writes, “I simultaneously want to endorse [Harrison’s] promotion of culture, and to run screaming from his lethal embrace.” While agreeing that the failure of purely institutional explanations of historical economic growth “opens the door … for culture,” Clark argues that “attempts to introduce culture into economic discussions so far have been generally either ad hoc, vacuous, blatantly false, or void of testability.” Clark points to great variation in economic performance within cultures and religions, and worries that Harrison’s “measures are not a pure probe into the essence of local cultures, but reflect institutions and economic environments that change the real possibilities for people.”

  • In his reply to Lawrence Harrison’s lead essay, George Mason University economist Peter J. Boettke argues that it is not culture but institutions—“the rules of the game that govern the way that people interact with one another”—that are the primary determinant of economic growth. However, culture may be crucial, Boettke argues, since it is “a tool for the self-regulation of behavior” that may raise or lower the cost of monitoring and enforcing compliance with “the rules of the game.” And that can make the difference between the success or failure of growth-conducive institutions and policies such as “private property, freedom on contract, limited scope of regulation, monetary restraint, fiscal responsibility, and open trade.”

  • James A. Robinson of the Harvard University Department of Government argues that Harrison’s measures are insufficient to establish that culture is the x-factor in economic development. For example, Robinson argues that the relative success of certain ethnic and religious minorities may be due to concessions from the majority group, and not the features of the minority culture. Also, Robinson asks, if the economic success of Chinese minorities in other countries is “because they have such a good culture, then why is China one of the world’s poorest countries?” And if Chile’s success lies in its distinctive culture, “then why did it manifest itself so recently?” Robinson concludes that “culture might matter, but doubters like me will not be convinced by the evidence here.”