Why Some Nations are Rich and Others are Poor

Why Some Nations are Rich and Others are Poor

Do inferior and superior “cultures” account for differences in wealth?

Who Prospers? How Cultural Values Shape Economic and Political Success, Lawrence Harrison, Basic Books, 1992, 280 pp., $22.00.

Why are Europe and the United States rich while Africa and Latin America are poor? How a person answers this question is an almost fool-proof indication of his politics. Until recently, the most common view was that white countries grew rich by exploiting poor, non-white ones. On university campuses there are still Marxists who roar about imperialism and neo-colonialism, but most people have begun to realize that economics is not thievery.

Lawrence Harrison, author of Who Prospers?, confesses that in 1962, when he first went to work for USAID, he thought that Latin America was poor because of American “neglect.” He also recalls that when President John Kennedy launched the Alliance for Progress in 1961 nearly everyone believed that Latin America would blossom as quickly and gratifyingly as Europe did under the Marshall Plan.

Mr. Harrison now believes that the reason poor countries stay poor is not because rich ones squeeze them but because they are hobbled by unhelpful mores and folkways, which he rather grandly calls “cultures.” In an era in which it is fashionable to pretend that all “cultures” are equally valid, it is a minor milestone to point out that the folkways of certain peoples are inferior to others.

Mr. Harrison’s analysis suffers from his unwillingness to violate certain taboos, but to speak of “culture” is an enormous improvement over blaming imperialism. Many of the foolish ideas that have influenced our immigration and foreign policies have grown out of the myth that overseas squalor is somehow all our fault. Mr. Harrison tries to avoid blaming anyone for anything, but a vital message gets through despite his scruples: We are not responsible for the failures of others.

Growth Through Culture

Mr. Harrison backs his culture argument with accounts of nations that he considers successful — Brazil, Japan, Korea, and Taiwan — and contrasts them with Latin American countries that have stagnated. In his view, the cultures of Spain and Portugal, especially when transplanted overseas, have been terrible obstacles to development. Spanish culture in particular, with its emphasis on male strutting rather than compromise, leisure rather than work, and plunder rather than production, is said to disadvantage a country.

Both cultures reportedly promote a narrow “radius of trust,” that is to say, people trust their own families but do not care about anyone else. This means that cooperation is rare but littering and tax evasion are common. Corrupt, nepotistic governments dispense favors to friends rather than services to the public, and philanthropy is virtually unknown.

According to Mr. Harrison, another Iberian influence on Latin America is the view that since wealth is limited and cannot be increased, the only way to get it is to take it from someone else. Hard work, which can sustain life but cannot lift a man from poverty, is therefore a curse and an indignity rather than something honorable. Most people are victims of fate, success is reserved for the few, and there is no such thing as the Latin American Dream.

Mr. Harrison offers Brazil as an exception to the Hispanic rule, pointing out that at least until 1980 it was growing at a pace that made it the wonder of the continent. He argues that this was because the Portuguese, who colonized Brazil, had a less stultifying culture than the Spaniards, who colonized the rest of Latin America.

People who are familiar with the region all seem to agree that the Brazilians are different: They are willing to compromise and believe that hard work will be rewarded. Mr. Harrison traces this to the fact that Portuguese are less preoccupied with honor and confrontation than are Spaniards, and that they are more tolerant of competition and the success of others. He is a specialist in Latin America and in how Portuguese differ from Spaniards, so one may well take his word for this. However, even at this point, there are defects in his argument.

First, it was presumably the same, suffocating Iberian culture that made Spain the richest nation in the world in the 16th and 17th centuries and Portugal a major power. Why was it an advantage then but an obstacle later? Likewise, if Portuguese culture is better than Spanish culture, why is Spain now so much richer than Portugal?

As for Latin America, theories about Iberian culture disregard the Indians. Throughout the region, they are the poorest people of all, yet they are the least influenced by the cultures that are supposed to be holding the continent back.

The best indication of a Latin American nation’s success is simply the percentage of white people. Mr. Harrison tells us over and over that Costa Rica has somehow escaped the Iberian blight; he fails to mention that it is also overwhelmingly white. Likewise, the part of Brazil that works the best — the South — has a large white majority, and even Mr. Harrison admits that much of Brazil’s success can be attributed to the entrepreneurial spirit that German and Italian immigrants brought with them.

Finally, although the combination of traits Mr. Harrison describes as Iberian certainly sound daunting, he concedes that many of them are common to all poor countries. In fact, he describes something called “universal peasant culture,” which sounds almost exactly like Spain at its worst. He finds, for example, that Thais and Filipinos are unable to work cooperatively because they do not trust each other, and that peasants all over the world have the same fatalistic acceptance of life as something over which they have little control.

Mr. Harrison as much as admits that it is progress, not stagnation, that is the exception and requires explanation. Besides whites, only North Asians have built rich, industrial societies, and Mr. Harrison claims to have plumbed the cultural secrets that helped them do it.


Of all the national success stories of the modern era, Japan’s is the most astonishing. During the last decades of the 19th century, it transformed itself from an illiterate, pre-industrial peasant society into a world power. It did it almost as an act of pure volition, without foreign aid and in the face of a hostile world.

Poor as they were, mid-19th century Japanese hired foreign experts to teach them industry, engineering, and public administration. Their ambition and self-sufficiency stand in stark contrast to today’s Africans, Latin Americans, and South Asians, who continue to stew in poverty despite technology transfers, international investment, concessionary trade, and billions of dollars in foreign aid. Nations are like people: Those that can benefit from help rarely need it; those that are always clamoring for it are no better off after they get it.

Although they made their ways in the world later than Japan, Korea and Taiwan have also pulled far ahead of the third-world pack. Colonization by Japan — which ended in 1945 — established the industrial infrastructure for both countries, but the most dramatic growth came after the Second World War. Since 1952, Taiwan’s real GNP has increased almost 20 times, and Korea’s real GNP grew nine-fold in the 15 years from 1962 to 1987.

Predictably, Mr. Harrison attributes all this to good culture, specifically Confucianism. There is no question that the Confucian emphasis on learning, hard work, loyalty, and promotion by ability is conducive to development. However, in the 1950s, when Korea and Taiwan were as poor as Ghana, it was fashionable to argue that Confucianism was a great hindrance to development because it held commerce, trade, and manual labor in low esteem. Mr. Harrison’s arguments are a little like astrology: For believers, anything can be read into either a culture or a horoscope.

The Toils of Dogma

Of course, for anyone who tries to use culture rather than race to account for national success, Africans are the greatest challenge. Mr. Harrison’s arguments are the conventional ones: slavery, Jim Crow, and segregation thwart black progress. The trouble, of course, is that blacks, in the aggregate, have been unsuccessful no matter what their circumstances — as natives or immigrants, as minorities or majorities, as colonists or colonizers, as slave or free.

To be fair, Mr. Harrison probably knows this. Although he makes much of the “culture of slavery,” he points out that today’s black Americans are vastly better off than the descendants of their brothers who stayed in Africa. Nor is he fooled by arguments about colonialism; the African countries that were most thoroughly colonized are the most successful. Mr. Harrison thus bows the knee to egalitarian dogma but quietly supplies facts that refute it.

The next step would be to realize that to speak of culture but ignore race is to put the cart before the horse. Cultures do not drop from the sky, with lucky people getting the good ones. People make their own cultures and successful peoples make superior ones. Mr. Harrison seems to think that different cultures are just accidents. He does not consider the possibility that although mores and folkways do help make a people successful, they are themselves the products of biologically distinct races and subraces. For anyone who accepts the evidence for racial differences in intelligence and perhaps in other traits as well (see cover story), cultural explanations simply beg the question of the origins of culture.

All the same, even though it is much easier to explain the success or failure of peoples in terms of race rather than culture, it would be wrong to ignore a nation’s circumstances. The two Germanies — or the two Koreas — are striking examples of how different social systems can either smother or stimulate a people. Race is the more powerful, deeper force but culture can certainly ruffle the surface.

There is yet another dogma Mr. Harrison recites only to undercut with his own examples: “Democratic capitalism does a better job of promoting human progress and well-being than other systems.” In fact, not one of the countries Mr. Harrison uses to make his case for growth-through-culture was a democracy during its period of rapid growth! Even worse, economic progress in both Korea and Brazil began to bog down just when military dictatorship began to soften, and Taiwan’s recent flirtations with democracy show no sign of stimulating commerce and industry.

Singapore and Hong Kong are two examples of rapid development that Mr. Harrison mentions, but one has been a semi-dictatorship and the other is a colony. Even modern Japan, whose rebirth as an industrial power after defeat by the United States is another remarkable achievement, is only debatably democratic; politicians of the same center-right stripe have run the country since 1948. By contrast, the limping economies of Britain, the United States, Italy, and India are poor advertisements for democracy as a growth tonic.

To speak of culture but to ignore race is to put the cart before the horse. Cultures do not drop from the sky, with lucky people getting the good ones.

Although it is easy to tear large holes in Mr. Harrison’s theories, this does not mean his book is not worth reading. First of all, he is honest enough to include facts that do not support his views and his facts are interesting. Also, theories about culture are much more respectable than theories about race, and under Mr. Harrison’s deft hand they often lead to the same conclusions. Culture, after all, is durable stuff and Mr. Harrison has no illusions about how easy it will be to turn Haitian boat people into scout leaders and PTA members.

Mr. Harrison therefore argues that waves of Hispanic immigrants are bringing their inferior cultures with them to the United States and are retarding our development. Also, he maintains that it is the culture of slavery and not white racism that thwarts black progress. These are useful positions for a self-styled “life-long Democrat” to take, and they rest on arguments worth understanding. Finally, even if theories about culture are ultimately unsatisfying, they have the refreshing advantage of not laying all the world’s problems at the feet of the wicked white man.


12 thoughts on “Why Some Nations are Rich and Others are Poor

  1. interesting agruement but are we ignoring the elephant in the room, can a culture9or race if you insist) that does not reproduce be considered a sucess.A culture or race that must import the next generation is a failure

  2. Interesting prepositions. But the position on race inferiority stands on its head until justifiable scientific evidence can be adduced. Stressing race and discounting 200 years of slavery plus a century of colonialism and the skewed global economics is like assessing the behaviour of a woman that was serially raped as a child and conclude they were simply due to the biological fact of her being a female. Indeed Africa and Latin America share in the blame of their perpetual under development, but Thomas Jackson’s racist conclusions lack justification. Facts on the destabilizing roles of the US in fostering “banana Republics” across Latin America are in the public domain, and are too vivid to be white-washed. So are de-classified documents on CIA roles in Lumumba’s Congo and Nkrumah’s Ghana; to mantion a few. Going by his premise that the ” theories about culture… have the refreshing advantage of not laying all the world’s problems at the feet of the … white man” one can easily understand why Thomas Jackson thinks race is sufficient to explain away the facts.

  3. Thanks for every other informative website. The place else may just I am getting that type of information written in such an ideal manner? I have a project that I’m just now operating on, and I have been at the look out for such info.

  4. i am going to appear for my global prespectives exams….
    so i have done much reasearch on this topic….
    so i am surprised to know that cultur of people plays such an important role in economic strength of a country….
    but i am not satisfied with the reasons given by Mr. Harrison ….
    so can anyone help with some strong resons to support this theory ???

  5. Pingback: Why Do the Religious Rich Need to Beg for Slave Labor?

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