Observing Cultural Change

Writer Lawrence Harrison looks at the potential for positive societal shifts

SOME cultures are superior to others."

Lawrence Harrison states his provocative premise and you can practically hear the sproing of hair standing on end among the "politically correct."

Indeed, it wasn't uncommon for him to get publicly harangued as a "racist" or for "blaming the victim [of underdevelopment]" following the 1985 publication of his first book, "Underdevelopment is a State of Mind."

In that book, Mr. Harrison, who has directed United States Agency for International Development programs in five Latin American countries, linked the region's persistent underdevelopment and instability to aspects of traditional Hispanic culture that he considers to be anti-democratic, anti-entrepreneurial, and anti-work.

Now comes his new book, "Who Prospers? How Cultural Values Shape Economic and Political Success" (Basic Books, 271 pp., $22).

His news is that culture can change for the better. Harrison looks at why Spain was able to leap from centuries of poverty and authoritarianism into a shining example of democratic capitalism, why the Chinese have done so much better outside China than at home, and why Brazil has had explosive economic growth amid neighboring economic crises.

Harrison's new book even suggests that a cultural shift among American blacks enabled the quiet revolution that brought two-thirds of them into the middle-class mainstream since the 1960s. Likewise, he suggests, the lack of cultural change - to standard English and a future-oriented value system - is responsible for keeping ghetto blacks where they have been since the days of slavery.

The focus of the book is "good" cultural values, and it is still likely to rub the "politically correct" the wrong way. Cultural relativism holds that all societies are equally good and that it is morally wrong to make value judgments about cultures. But Harrison has concluded that, while it may not be easy for people to admit, there is a body of evidence that shows progress is related to culture.

While some who hear Harrison's ideas at public forums dismiss his ideas out of hand, others, though still skeptical, acknowledge that he has a point.

"He gets people angry, but I don't think he's a racist," says Peter Hakim, an expert on Latin American affairs at the Inter-American Dialogue, an organization of Western Hemisphere policymakers.

"There's a lot to what he says if you say culture plays a role [in progress]. But it intersects with leadership, honest government, and external forces, and it is not the magic factor that will explain everything," Mr. Hakim says.

In the "new world order" in which democratic capitalism has eclipsed communism, Harrison says he notices a distinct warming to his idea that cultural values and attitudes are the key to progress.

"I believe that the world now substantially accepts that human societies are the most decent, most just, and most progressive when they pursue pluralistic political institutions and free-market economies, and they don't work simply by saying we will have them and they will work," explained Harrison in a recent interview here.

Societies that are the most successful at helping all people progress the fastest, he concludes.

Four factors, he says, affect whether a society moves toward or away from that model:

* The degree of identification with others in a society - the radius of trust, or sense of community.

* The rigor of the ethical system - the expectation of fair play and social justice.

* The way authority is exercised within the society.

* Attitudes about work, innovation, saving, and profit.

These factors are determined by cultural values and attitudes. For example, in Latin America the family is the bastion of culture. But, he says, this can have varied influence on progress.

While strong Hispanic family values lead to what is perhaps the world's most humane treatment of the aged by subsequent generations, says Harrison, "The radius of trust and confidence ends with the family, and that means that the sense of community ends with the family. It leads to nepotism, corruption."

The erosion of American values themselves parallels underdevelopment elsewhere, he says. National confidence, unity, and purpose suffer because Americans believe less and less that work is a core element of a good life, that education and a commitment to creativity and achievement are crucial to progress, that ostentation is wrong, and that a strong sense of community is right, he says.

For different reasons, but with the same effect, a similar lack of "good" values prevails in the world view of peasant cultures, observes Harrison. Often in impoverished peasant communities, progress is considered possible only at the expense of others. The virtues of hard work and thrift "are meaningless," he explains, because often the limits on land, technology, and education mean that hard work doesn't necessarily produce additional income.

The liberal reactions to this brand of cultural interpretation are often accusations of "racism," "cultural chauvinism," and "blaming the victim."

Harrison parries the criticism, first, by heavily footnoting both his writing and conversation with official statistics and the frequent intersection of his ideas with those of such thinkers as Francis Fukuyama, Hernando De Soto, and Thomas Sowell.

As for racism, he counters, "There's nothing intrinsic or immutable about culture. It is transmitted and received. And it changes while genes do not." He adds that a cultural interpretation of ghetto conditions, for example, "is not blaming the victim, it is a way of understanding a grave problem that may contribute to the solution."

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