Daron Acemoglu, Can a culture impede progress?

What about Max Weber’s Protestant ethic? Though it may be true that predominantly Protestant countries, such as the Netherlands and England, were the first economic successes of the modern era, there is little relationship between religion and economic success.

France, a predominantly Catholic country, quickly mimicked the economic performance of the Dutch and English in the nineteenth century, and Italy is as prosperous as any of these nations today. Looking farther east, you’ll see that none of the economic successes of East Asia have anything to do with any form of Christian religion, so there is not much support for a special relationship between Protestantism and economic success there, either…

China, despite many imperfections in its economic and political system, has been the most rapidly growing nation of the past three decades. Chinese poverty until Mao Zedong’s death had nothing to do with Chinese culture; it was due to the disastrous way Mao organized the economy and conducted politics. In the 1950s, he promoted the Great Leap Forward, a drastic industrialization policy that led to mass starvation and famine. In the 1960s, he propagated the Cultural Revolution, which led to the mass persecution of intellectuals and educated people—anyone whose party loyalty might be doubted. This again led to terror and a huge waste of the society’s talent and resources.

In the same way, current Chinese growth has nothing to do with Chinese values or changes in Chinese culture; it results from a process of economic transformation unleashed by the reforms implemented by Deng Xiaoping and his allies, who, after Mao Zedong’s death, gradually abandoned socialist economic policies and institutions, first in agriculture and then in industry. Just like the geography hypothesis, the culture hypothesis is also unhelpful for explaining other aspects of the lay of the land around us today.

There are of course differences in beliefs, cultural attitudes, and values between the United States and Latin America, but just like those that exist between Nogales, Arizona, and Nogales, Sonora, or those between South and North Korea, these differences are a consequence of the two places’ different institutions and institutional histories. Cultural factors that emphasize how “Hispanic” or “Latin” culture molded the Spanish Empire can’t explain the differences within Latin America— for example, why Argentina and Chile are more prosperous than Peru and Bolivia.

Other types of cultural arguments— for instance, those that stress contemporary indigenous culture—fare equally badly. Argentina and Chile have few indigenous people compared with Peru and Bolivia. Though this is true, indigenous culture as an explanation does not work, either. Colombia, Ecuador, and Peru have similar income levels, but Colombia has very few indigenous people today, while Ecuador and Peru have many. Finally, cultural attitudes, which are in general slow to change, are unlikely to account by themselves for the growth miracles in East Asia and China. Though institutions are persistent, too, in certain circumstances they do change rapidly, as we’ll see.