Acemoglu and Robinson contrast culture with institutions

Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson, co-authors of Why Nations Fail have weighed in on the “culture debate.” It’s a curious comment because it seems to misunderstand the culture argument (like Diamond and Zakaria), even as it uses data that supports that argument, and then concludes by swerving in a completely unsupported direction – surprise surprise – against Romney.

We were doing so well. Writing about economics and politics for the last five months here without once mentioning the US presidential race. But it’s all over. Mitt Romney has given us no choice, wading into the debate about the origins of inequality and prosperity around the world.

Here is what Mitt says:

I was thinking this morning as I prepared to come into this room of a discussion I had across the country in the United States about my perceptions about differences between countries. And as you come here and you see the G.D.P. per capita, for instance, in Israel which is about $21,000, and compare that with the G.D.P. per capita just across the areas managed by the Palestinian Authority, which is more like $10,000 per capita, you notice such a dramatically stark difference in economic vitality.

He continues:

Culture makes all the difference. And as I come here and I look out over this city and consider the accomplishments of the people of this nation, I recognize the power of at least culture and a few other things. One, I recognize the hand of Providence in selecting this place.

Mitt Romney also identifies the origins of his thinking as David Landes’s The Wealth and Poverty of Nations  and Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs and Steel (though presumably not the origin of his numbers, which are incorrect; the gap between per capita in Israel and West Bank and Gaza is about tenfold).

Well actually, Jared Diamond doesn’t say much about culture. In fact, his thesis is about how geographic and ecological conditions led to the differential development paths and prosperity among otherwise identical peoples. In fact his theory would predict that Israelis and Palestinians should have identical levels of prosperity.

Actually Romney cites Diamond to contrast him with Landes along precisely these lines.

Readers of this blog and of Why Nations Fail have already heard us inveigh against geographic determinism. Those interested in this debate can start from Jared Diamond’s engaging and critical review of our book in the New York Review of Books, and then look at our letter and Jared’s response . Perhaps it’s just us. But doesn’t Diamond just say that he disagrees with us but without substantiating how he counters our arguments?

In any case, we digress. Mitt Romney is instead taking his cue from David Landes. But as we show in Why Nations Fail, cultural differences cannot explain differing levels of prosperity. Deng Xaioping didn´t change Chinese culture after 1978 to make the economy grow, but he did change economic institutions a lot. Indeed, many cultural differences we see are the outcomes of different institutional choices. This is surely the case between North and South Korea, for example. After all, does Mitt and David think that there were huge cultural differences between the north and the south of the 38th parallel before the separation of Korea into two?

As I’ve argued against Zakaria, the issue is not a simple dichotomy. Let me state three theses:

1) Without cultural foundations (what I call “demotic religiosity“), no one, including the geographically favored Western European continent would have generated modern economies.

2) Even once modern economies have emerged, with both the technological and social blueprints available (and, more recently with the intensification of  globalization), without some kind of cultural preparation, changes in economic institutions will make limited difference (Arab economies).

3) Innovation remains largely the product of specific cultural conditions that favor independent, creative thinking, risk-taking entrepreneurship and a strong learning curve based on the ability to self-criticize (Israel).

Of course the difference between Israel and Palestine is not the same as the two Koreas. It was created by the migration of Jewish people, mostly after World War II. Many came from much more developed parts of the world than Palestine which had endured centuries of debilitating Ottoman and then British colonialism. They brought more advanced technologies and high levels of human capital, which in themselves were the result of the institutions and incentives that they faced. As Maristella Botticini and Zvi Eckstein point out in their book The Chosen Few: How Education Shaped Jewish History , the origins of these very high human capital levels are in the historical adoption of institutions in Jewish society.

I’d consider this much more a matter of culture than institutions, which are the product of that culture. Schools are institutions, but the culture of those schools determines their contribution to the society. Madrassas where students learn the Qur’an by heart are schools, but they hardly contribute to a modern economy. What distinguishes Jewish schools, both religious and secular, is a culture of disagreement and controversy which prizes the ability to give and receive rebuke (tochachot). As the Ethics of the Fathers puts it, one of the features of a Torah scholar is that he “loves rebuke.”

This is one of the most important and difficult traits to foster. Most cultures, even ones that have escaped the heavy gravitational pull of “honor-shame” dynamics, have difficulty with open discord. They prefer consensus, in which the egos of “big men” are not bruised by public contradiction. Of course such societies are vulnerable to “Emperor’s New Clothes” scenarios in which, afraid to break with consensus, people line up to confirm patent falsehoods.

This is where the roots of Israel’s current prosperity lie. They have further been strengthened by Israel’s integration into the world economy, which has enabled it to continue the process of technology transfer and encouraged trade and investment.

Again, these are cultural matters. The UN study of Arab economic development emphasized the appalling lack of translations into Arabic. As a culture, the Arab world is insulated by their language not only from other cultures but, some pre-post-moderns would argue, from reality. Israeli culture – technological, intellectual, business – is wide open to foreign influences.

Why hasn’t this prosperity spilled over to the Palestinians since the British left in 1948? A definitive answer would need to be based on much more research, but a plausible one comes from the reaction of Saeb Erekat, an aide to President Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority, to Mitt´s remarks:

this man doesn’t realize that the Palestinian economy cannot reach its potential because there is an Israeli occupation.

It seems to us that Mr. Erekat, not Mitt Romney, has the right idea.

What a sad and uninformed cop-out. As I’ve pointed out in more detail elsewhere, Erekat’s scape-goating of the “occupation,” which has arguably done much more good for the Palestinian economy than damage (compare the economy from 1948-67 under Jordanian rule with the period 1967-1987). The difficulties and impediments imposed by the “occupation” – checkpoints, barriers, blockades – are specifically a response to the hate-mongering terror campaign generated by a radically zero-sum Palestinian political culture. Erekat won’t own that element of the story because it might mean he’d be forced to do something about it. But why would intelligent and free people in the West indulge his radical lack of self-criticism?

We end this by agreeing with what Sandeep Baliga and Jeff Ely say on their blog . Mitt should do some more reading.

I can think of some other people who could afford to do some more reading before taking public positions.


5 Responses to Acemoglu and Robinson contrast culture with institutions

  1. Dear Professor Landes:

    I read this article in the NYTimes today:

    “Israel’s Fading Democracy” By Avraham Burg in the NYTimes on August 5, 2012 at page SR5.

    It struck me as being a distillation of several themes you have written about, and I would appreciate your comments on it.

  2. patriceayme says:

    Turkey replaced under Ataturk the Arabic alphabet by the Latin alphabet. A reason is that the Latin alphabet is the most frequently used alphabet. At first sight it looks as if the Turks had surrounded to European imperialism. But, little known, at the instant of its creation, the Arabic alphabet was half baked. The first Arabic book was the Qur’an, but, because the alphabet was in creation, it’s not clear all words were written correctly.

    Where did the Latin alphabet comes from? Partly from the older Greek alphabet, which had spread over the Celts by 600 CE. Both alphabets were Phoenician inventions. Some tribes in Libya are presently asking for the official re-installment of their old Phoenician alphabet, more than 3,000 years old (the Hebrew alphabet also came from it).

    What does this all mean? That culture can be very old. That culture, indeed, can be so very old and ingrained. So much so that culture becomes destiny.

    In the Qur’an there is Sura 4, verse 59:
    “O Ye Who Believe! Obey Allah, and obey the messenger and OBEY THOSE OF YOU WHO ARE IN POWER.”
    Allah, according to the Qur’an, wants us to obey whoever detains power: it is the exact anti-democratic principle. And what is the main advantage of democracy: putting as many brains as possible, in parallel, whereas dictatorship is just from one mind, and thus less intelligent.

    Hence the culture derived from Muslim theocracy has friendly to dictators, and hostile to ideas. Jewish culture, in contrast, although based on the same god and hero called “Abraham”, has been much more keen to debate, a tradition more friendly to study and intelligence.

    There is much more along these lines on the sites found by searching for “Patrice Ayme”.)

    • AnneKavkaz says:

      When the Greeks borrowed the alphabet, they did add one feature for which we can be grateful–vowels.

      (Pity English spelling was never reformed).

  3. w.w.wygart says:

    I read Walter S’s link to Avraham Burg, and would also be interested in Richard’s thoughts, especially on the Israeli constitutional issue.

    Myself, I was first struck by the complete absence of mention of Palestinian participation in the dynamic, a kind of totalization of Masochistic Omnipotent Complex – as Richard terms it – which I’ve always called, “Treating the Palestinians like pets.”

    Burg’s MOC seems to be so complete that one has to wonder if there isn’t an even deeper psychological complex lurking beneath that, namely an unconscious recognition that the Palestinian intransigence is so rigid that you can no longer think about them as being part of any realistic solution. I’m not sure if that’s the case, but I wonder.

    There is a kind of dialectic going on between the two cultures, Israeli and Palestinian, a pretty dysfunctional one to be sure, but you can’t even begin to discuss how to improve the dialectic if you completely ignore the contributions of one of the participants to the process.

    I was also thinking that another way to look at the I-P conflict is that Israel is defeating the Palestinians with prosperity. The short sighted strategy of Palestinians in diverting all available resources to maintaining some kind face saving offensive action against Israel is assuring that they will never succeed, unless they can get Israel to surrender unilaterally [possible it seems].

    On another note.

    I’m not sure Acemoglu and Robinson’s argument is very convincing where they argue against Landes, at least in the examples they use.

    You could look at China’s pre-Deng crazy, reality denying communist economic and political institutions as a kind of lid on top of Chinese culture, remove the lid [or replace the cast iron lid with a perforated lid] and the natural inclinations of a culture start to operate more normally. The two Koreas may also not be a great example, I don’t know about Korean society in particular, but based on the antebellum differences in economic culture north and south of the Mason Dixon Line, such a difference is at least possible. In any case, in the lead up to the Korean War, pretty much anyone who was capable of showing any daring, risk taking, and initiative FLED to the south, a kind of instant cultural sieve. Then the cast iron lid went on the North Korean culture and hasn’t been removed since. You also cannot overlook the kind of intense cultural changes that did take place after the war due to South Korean contact with Western economies – bad example in my book.

    Third thought, and slightly off topic, it just came to me as I was reading the discussion. Does “cheap labor” represent some kind of a “resource curse” for countries like China? Meaning, rather than the Chinese workforce being used effectively as “cultural capital” is it just being ‘mined’, ‘exploited’ and ‘consumed’ as an available resource in exactly the way an abundance of coal, iron or oil is exploited – to the detriment of other sectors of the economy?


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