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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?

    Introduction from The Central Liberal Truth, Lawrence E. Harrison
These are just some of the questions that Lawrence E. Harrison sets out to answer in this useful if sometimes awkward book. The title comes, of course, from a maxim of 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 to save it from itself." Mr. Harrison wisely starts by assuming that the first portion is a given. Some folks may still be reluctant to accept it or feel uncomfortable talking about it. but it's pretty futile to deny any longer that, as in the title of an earlier book by the same author, culture matters. Mr. Harrison defines culture as follows:
What do we mean by "culture"? "It has been defined in myriad ways," as a recent World Bank study observes. We commonly hear references to "popular culture," which includes food, entertainment, and clothing styles, among other dimensions. And "culture" often brings to mind literature, art, and music -- "high" culture. 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.
You can see how things will become problematic quickly for Mr. Harrison because the second half of that aphorism now would seem to depend on the notion that politics can (and should) change religion. Further complicating matters is that within these cultures he notes that the Protestant, Jewish and Confucian have been successful in either creating or sustaining what he calls a "Universal Progress Culture," because they encourage people to believe that they influence their own destinies and promote the Golden Rule. The others tend to be what he calls "Progress-Resistant Cultures." (We might add, though he conspicuously fails to do so, that secular humanist ideologies more closely parallel the progress-resistant cultures and oppose progress-encouraging values--Darwinism, for example, argues against both free will and morality.) Mr. Harrison does not suggest, nor would we expect him to, that we use politics to favor one religion over another--this would, after all, tend to violate the very values that make the progressive cultures so successful to begin with. However, we would expect him to propose that politics be used to support those two main strengths of the Universal Progress Cultures. That is to say: politics ought to help create opportunities for people to influence their own destinies and enforce the Golden Rule. Despite the title of the book, it must be obvious that this is the politics of conservatism, not liberalism. In effect then, the central liberal truth turns out to be that liberalism -- at least in its modern statist and secular/multi-culturalist form -- ought to be discarded in favor of the traditional Judeo-Christian values that conservatism defends.

That said, it actually seems that someone must have tried packaging this book as a sort of anti-Bush hit piece, to cash in on the trend. There's an especially bizarre bit of jacket copy that claims:
Harrison rejects the Bush administration's doctrine that "the values of freedom are right and true for every person in every society."
The opposite is more nearly true. While he describes why certain cultures do not yet offer fertile ground in which freedom can thrive, he is nonetheless arguing that those societies will not progress until they change their culture and he is not neutral as to whether human progress is good or not, as no sensible person would be. Indeed, as a general matter the text tends to be more conservative and explicitly anti-PC than the marketing would lead you to believe it will be. I happen to agree with most of his conclusions, so enjoyed the book tremendously, though I think he could have pushed further in offering prescriptions and proscriptions for cultural change. But he's marshaled such an enormous amount of data here that even folks who may disagree with his arguments--which, oddly, would seem to include most of those to whom the book is being pitched--will be hard pressed to overcome the facts he provides in support. My one complain about the book is that it sometimes has the disjointed and compromised feel of a committee report. This may have been inevitable since it represents the combined findings of the Culture Matters Research Project at the Fletcher School (Tufts University) but it is distracting. One would hope that Mr. Harrison would follow-up with either a long essay or a short book that distills just what he's taken away from the project. Considering that the book is often best when he's using the research to sculpt his own thesis, a more sustained personal presentation would seem appropriate.


Grade: (B+)


Lawrence Harrison Links:

    -Lawrence E. Harrison (Adjunct Lecturer, The Fletcher School)
    -BOOK SITE: The Central Liberal Truth: How Politics Can Change a Culture and Save It from Itself by Lawrence E. Harrison (Oxford University Press)
    -EXCERPT: Chapter One of Central Liberal Truth
    -ESSAY: Immigrants and Culture -- Two Value Systems (Lawrence Harrison, Winter 2001, The Social Contract)
    -ESSAY: Culture Matters (Lawrence E. Harrison, Summer 2000, The National Interest)
    -ESSAY: The silence about immigrants (Lawrence E. Harrison, September 29, 2004, Boston Globe)
    -ESSAY: The rich-poor gap: If Brazil can address it, US can and should (Lawrence E. Harrison, 1/13/03, CS Monitor)
    -ESSAY: Latin America: democracy and the market are not enough (Lawrence E. Harrison, Spring 1993, World Affairs)
    -ARCHIVES: PBS: Think Tank: Biography: Lawrence Harrison
    -ARCHIVES: "Lawrence E. Harrison" (Find Articles)
    -PODCAST: with Lawrence E. Harrison, author of Central Liberal Truth: How Politics Can Change a Culture and Save It from Itself (Writen Voices Radio)
    -INTERVIEW: Radio Interview with Lawrence E. Harrison on Central Liberal Truth: How Politics Can Change a Culture and Save It from Itself (Written Voices Radio)
    -INTERVIEW: Capitalism and Culture (Think Tank, 4/14/2001, PBS)
    -REVIEW: of The Central Liberal Truth : How Politics Can Change a Culture and Save It from Itself by Lawrence E. Harrison (Jonathan Dolhenty, Radical Academy)
    -REVIEW: of Culture Matters: How Values Shape Human Progress Edited by Lawrence E. Harrison and Samuel P. Huntington (Michael Novak, Weekly Standard)
    -REVIEW: of Culture Matters (Andrew J. Bacevich, World Policy Journal)
    -REVIEW: of Who Prospers? How Cultural Values Shape Economic and Political Success. By Lawrence E. Harrison (JASON DEPARLE, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of Who Prospers? How Cultural Values Shape Economic and Political Success by Lawrence E. Harrison (Doug Bandow, National Review)
    -REVIEW: of Underdevelopment Is a State of Mind by Lawrence E. Harrison (Robert Kendall, Hispanic Times Magazine)

Book-related and General Links:

    -CIA World Factbook
    -World Values Survey
    -Human Development Report (United Nations)
    -Transparency International Corruption Perceptions Index
    -Freedom House
    -Economic Freedom in the World (Cato)
    -ARTICLE: Nigeria tops happiness survey (BBC, 10/02/03)
    -ARTICLE: Egalitarian Finland most competitive, too: Despite hefty government spending on social benefits, Finland tops global economies. Second in a three-part series. (Peter Ford, 10/26/05, The Christian Science Monitor)
    -ESSAY: American values: Living with a superpower: Some values are held in common by America and its allies. As three studies show, many others are not (The Economist, Jan 2nd 2003)
    -ESSAY: Wealth from worship: An economist finds that going to church is more than its own reward (The Economist, Dec 20th 2005)
    -ESSAY: Cultural lens: Judging you, judging me: Confronted with terror, Americans are rethinking their 'I'm OK, you're OK' culture (Samar Farah, 3/14/02, The Christian Science Monitor)
    -ESSAY: The Size Of Nations (Roger Kerr, 2 February 2005, New Zealand Business Roundtable)
    -ESSAY: Globalization and Cultural Encounters (Alvin G. Edgell, INTERNATIONAL THIRD WORLD STUDIES JOURNAL AND REVIEW)
    -ESSAY: Why nations die (Spengler, 8/16/05, Asia Times)
    -ARCHIVES: The Complete Spengler (Asia Times)
    -ESSAY: A Unified Field Theory of World Entertainment (H.D. Miller, 6/05/02, Travelling Shoes)