Why Some Countries Succeed and Others Don't

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Why do some people succeed, and some not? The answer may seem obvious. Jim Hightower, the liberal humorist from Texas, used to say that the elder George Bush "was born on third base, and thought he'd hit a triple." A funny crack, but captious. Teddy Roosevelt and his brother Elliott were both born to the same privilege. Sickly Teddy overcame, and gloriously prospered. Elliott, the golden boy (and father of Eleanor), died an alcoholic disgrace in his early thirties.

When you apply the question to entire societies, you enter into a conundrum that may be approached as a sort of cultural genome project. What's our social and economic DNA? A fascinating new book, "Culture Matters: How Values Shape Human Progress" (Basic Books, 348 pages, $35) proclaims the secret in its title and, in a series of 22 essays by scholars, journalists and global business experts, studies the record of societies' successes and failures in the light of their cultural inheritances and internalized mental models.

Harvard's Samuel P. Huntington, an expert in international affairs who co-edited the book with Lawrence E. Harrison, begins by wondering why, say, South Korea and Ghana, which had roughly the same GNP in 1960, went on to such different economic destinies — South Korea becoming an industrial giant, Ghana remaining pretty much unchanged. "It seemed to me," writes Huntington, "that culture had to be a large part of the explanation. South Koreans valued thrift, investment, hard work, education, organization, and discipline. Ghanaians had different values. In short, cultures count."

So, of course, do such potent variables as geography (coastline, access to rivers, ports), climate, religious heritage, luck and sponsorship by superpowers. Traditional explanations (imperialism, colonialism, racism, dependency) have passed out of fashion, if only because (true or not) they represent a protest without a program, a righteousness ultimately feckless.

One of my favorite lines of speculation on the have/have-not mystery comes from Harvard historian and economist David Landes, who, after much subtle analysis (of the low rate of Argentine savings, for example, or the intense communal focus of the Japanese) returns unexpectedly to a conclusion of such radiant common sense one wants to put him in for the Nobel Prize. His conclusion: Optimism pays.

"Today," Landes writes, "we condescend to such verities, dismiss them as platitudes. But why should wisdom be obsolete?" Dependency cripples. "No empowerment is so effective as self-empowerment. In this world, the optimists have it, not because they are always right, but because they are positive. Even when wrong, they are positive, and that is the way of achievement."

Anyone campaigning for optimism runs the risk of sounding like Ronald Reagan in his famous fable of the Christmas pony in the manure pile. A person must have access to optimism — not often an available grace in areas of great poverty and disease (the African AIDS belt, for example). And it depends what the object of your optimism is. An optimist who hopes to start a flourishing small business is different from an optimist who hopes to blow himself to heaven by driving a car bomb into the Great Satan's military barracks.

Let's define it as optimism, rightly understood — not a mindlessness but an enabling faculty. Nothing possesses more kinetic energy in a globalizing world.