Why isn't every country a capitalist democracy?

CULTURE MATTERS: How Values Shape Human Progress Edited by Lawrence Harrison and Samuel Huntington Basic Books 348 pp., $35

"Everyone has the right to life, liberty and the security of person.... Human beings shall enjoy freedom of speech and belief.... All are equal before the law and are entitled without any discrimination to equal protection.... Everyone has the right to take part in the government of his country.... Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and his family.... Everyone has the right to education."

These admirable ideals, set forth more than half a century ago in the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights, are still far from being realized in many parts of the world. Shockingly enough, as Lawrence Harrison points out in his introduction to "Culture Matters," even back in 1947, long before "multiculturalism" became the academic rage, "the Executive Board of the American Anthropological Association decided not to endorse the declaration on the grounds that it was an ethnocentric document."

In one way - perhaps not the way they intended it - the anthropologists may have been right: Over the past half century, there has been little progress towards democracy in many third world nations. For a while, it was fashionable - not only in Communist countries but also in the West - to blame colonialism and Western imperialism. But it has since become clear to many social scientists that a country's cultural values have a great deal to do with its success or failure in achieving democracy and higher living standards. For instance, in cultures where family ties are strong and belief in self-reliance and civic duty is weak, corruption tends to breed.

The essays in "Culture Matters" come from a symposium sponsored by Harvard University's Academy for International and Area Studies. Although most of the contributors, including Harrison, Francis Fukuyama, Seymour Martin Lipset, Carlos Alberto Montaner, Daniel Etounga-Manguelle, and Orlando Patterson, share the view that "culture matters," some, like Jeffrey Sachs, challenge the theory that culture, rather than climate or geography, is to blame for underdevelopment.

Others, like Richard Shweder, take issue with the very idea that progressive and democratic values are universally desirable. Ironically, those liberals who are leery of imposing "alien" Western values on indigenous cultures often find themselves defending nonwestern systems that are sexist, racist, authoritarian, and reactionary.

Or, as the African Etounga-Manuelle puts it in his scathingly sarcastic reply to Shweder: "It would be terribly boring if free, democratic elections were organized all over Africa. Were that to happen, we would no longer be real Africans, and by losing our identity - and our authoritarianism, our bloody civil wars, our illiteracy, our 45-year life expectancy - we would be letting down not only ourselves but also those Western anthropologists who study us so sympathetically and understand that we can't be expected to behave like human beings who seek dignity on the eve of the third millennium."

The main thrust of this book, notwithstanding its inclusion of some dissenting opinions like Sachs's and Shweder's, is that culture is a major, if not always the sole, factor in developing democracy, freedom, and prosperity. This reflects what editor Huntington, quoting Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, calls the "conservative truth [that] culture, not politics ... determines the success of a society." The contributors also offer practical suggestions as to how to bring about change for the better, reflecting what Moynihan calls the "liberal truth ... that politics can change a culture and save it from itself."

One further irony - indeed, cause for alarm - that the careful reader may note: The book's introduction tells us that the world's poorest, most corrupt, and undemocratic countries also tend to have the most inequitable income distribution. It also tells us that among the advanced democracies, it is the United States where income distribution is the most inequitable - hardly a reassuring sign of our own continuing progress!

*Merle Rubin reviews books regularly for the Monitor.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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