THE CULTURE HYPOTHESIS The second widely accepted theory, the culture hypothesis, relates prosperity to culture. The culture hypothesis, just like the geography hypothesis, has a distinguished lineage, going back at least to the great German sociologist Max Weber, who argued that the Protestant Reformation and the Protestant ethic it spurred played a key role in facilitating the rise of modern industrial society in Western Europe. The culture hypothesis no longer relies solely on religion, but stresses other types of beliefs, values, and ethics as well.
Though it is not politically correct to articulate in public, many people still maintain that Africans are poor because they lack a good work ethic, still believe in witchcraft and magic, or resist new Western technologies. Many also believe that Latin America will never be rich because its people are intrinsically profligate and impecunious, and because they suffer from some “Iberian” or “mañana” culture. Of course, many once believed that the Chinese culture and Confucian values were inimical to economic growth, though now the importance of the Chinese work ethic as the engine of growth in China, Hong Kong, and Singapore is trumpeted.
Is the culture hypothesis useful for understanding world inequality? Yes and no. Yes, in the sense that social norms, which are related to culture, matter and can be hard to change, and they also sometimes support institutional differences, this book’s explanation for world inequality. But mostly no, because those aspects of culture often emphasized—religion, national ethics, African or Latin values—are just not important for understanding how we got here and why the inequalities in the world persist. Other aspects, such as the extent to which people trust each other or are able to cooperate, are important but they are mostly an outcome of institutions, not an independent cause.
Let us go back to Nogales. As we noted earlier, many aspects of culture are the same north and south of the fence. Nevertheless, there may be some marked differences in practices, norms, and values, though these are not causes but outcomes of the two places’ divergent development paths. For example, in surveys Mexicans typically say they trust other people less than the citizens of the United States say they trust others. But it is not a surprise that Mexicans lack trust when their government cannot eliminate drug cartels or provide a functioning unbiased legal system. The same is true with North and South Korea, as we discuss in the next chapter. The South is one of the richest countries in the world, while the North grapples with periodic famine and abject poverty. While “culture” is very different between the South and the North today, it played no role in causing the diverging economic fortunes of these two half nations. The Korean peninsula has a long period of common history. Before the Korean War and the division at the 38th parallel, it had an unprecedented homogeneity in terms of language, ethnicity, and culture. Just as in Nogales, what matters is the border. To the north is a different regime, imposing different institutions, creating different incentives. Any difference in culture between south and north of the border cutting through the two parts of Nogales or the two parts of Korea is thus not a cause of the differences in prosperity but, rather, a consequence.
What about Africa and African culture? Historically, sub-Saharan Africa was poorer than most other parts of the world, and its ancient civilizations did not develop the wheel, writing (with the exception of Ethiopia and Somalia), or the plow. Though these technologies were not widely used until the advent of formal European colonization in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, African societies knew about them much earlier. Europeans began sailing around the west coast in the late fifteenth century, and Asians were continually sailing to East Africa from much earlier times.
We can understand why these technologies were not adopted from the history of the Kingdom of Kongo at the mouth of the Congo River, which has given its name to the modern Democratic Republic of Congo. Map 6 shows where the Kongo was along with another important central African state, the Kuba Kingdom, which we discuss later in the book.
Kongo came into intense contact with the Portuguese after it was first visited by the mariner Diogo Cão in 1483. At the time, Kongo was a highly centralized polity by African standards, whose capital, Mbanza, had a population of sixty thousand, which made it about the same size as the Portuguese capital of Lisbon and larger than London, which had a population of about fifty thousand in 1500. The king of Kongo, Nzinga a Nkuwu, converted to Catholicism and changed his name to João I. Later Mbanza’s name was changed to São Salvador. Thanks to the Portuguese, the Kongolese learned about the wheel and the plow, and the Portuguese even encouraged their adoption with agricultural missions in 1491 and 1512. But all these initiatives failed. Still, the Kongolese were far from averse to modern technologies in general. They were very quick to adopt one venerable Western innovation: the gun. They used this new and powerful tool to respond to market incentives: to capture and export slaves. There is no sign here that African values or culture prevented the adoption of new technologies and practices. As their contacts with Europeans deepened, the Kongolese adopted other Western practices: literacy, dress styles, and house designs. In the nineteenth century, many African societies also took advantage of the rising economic opportunities created by the Industrial Revolution by changing their production patterns. In West Africa there was rapid economic development based on the export of palm oil and ground nuts; throughout southern Africa, Africans developed exports to the rapidly expanding industrial and mining areas of the Rand in South Africa. Yet these promising economic experiments were obliterated not by African culture or the inability of ordinary Africans to act in their own self-interest, but first by European colonialism and then by postindependence African governments.
The real reason that the Kongolese did not adopt superior technology was because they lacked any incentives to do so. They faced a high risk of all their output being expropriated and taxed by the all-powerful king, whether or not he had converted to Catholicism. In fact, it wasn’t only their property that was insecure. Their continued existence was held by a thread. Many of them were captured and sold as slaves—hardly the environment to encourage investment to increase long-term productivity. Neither did the king have incentives to adopt the plow on a large scale or to make increasing agricultural productivity his main priority; exporting slaves was so much more profitable.
It might be true today that Africans trust each other less than people in other parts of the world. But this is an outcome of a long history of institutions which have undermined human and property rights in Africa. The potential to be captured and sold as a slave no doubt influenced the extent to which Africans trusted others historically.
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.
Let’s turn to a favorite area for the enthusiasts of the culture hypothesis: the Middle East. Middle Eastern countries are primarily Islamic, and the non–oil producers among them are very poor, as we have already noted. Oil producers are richer, but this windfall of wealth has done little to create diversified modern economies in Saudi Arabia or Kuwait. Don’t these facts show convincingly that religion matters? Though plausible, this argument is not right, either. Yes, countries such as Syria and Egypt are poor, and their populations are primarily Muslim. But these countries also systemically differ in other ways that are far more important for prosperity. For one, they were all provinces of the Ottoman Empire, which heavily, and adversely, shaped the way they developed. After Ottoman rule collapsed, the Middle East was absorbed into the English and French colonial empires, which, again, stunted their possibilities. After independence, they followed much of the former colonial world by developing hierarchical, authoritarian political regimes with few of the political and economic institutions that, we will argue, are crucial for generating economic success. This development path was forged largely by the history of Ottoman and European rule. The relationship between the Islamic religion and poverty in the Middle East is largely spurious.
The role of these historical events, rather than cultural factors, in shaping the Middle East’s economic trajectory is also seen in the fact that the parts of the Middle East that temporarily broke away from the hold of the Ottoman Empire and the European powers, such as Egypt between 1805 and 1848 under Muhammad Ali, could embark on a path of rapid economic change. Muhammad Ali usurped power following the withdrawal of the French forces that had occupied Egypt under Napoleon Bonaparte. Exploiting the weakness of the Ottoman hold over the Egyptian territory at the time, he was able to found his own dynasty, which would, in one form or another, rule until the Egyptian Revolution under Nasser in 1952. Muhammad Ali’s reforms, though coercive, did bring growth to Egypt as the state bureaucracy, the army, and the tax system were modernized and there was growth in agriculture and industry. Nevertheless, this process of modernization and growth came to an end after Ali’s death, as Egypt fell under European influence.
But perhaps this is the wrong way to think about culture. Maybe the cultural factors that matter are not tied to religion but rather to particular “national cultures.” Perhaps it is the influence of English culture that is important and explains why countries such as the United States, Canada, and Australia are so prosperous? Though this idea sounds initially appealing, it doesn’t work, either. Yes, Canada and the United States were English colonies, but so were Sierra Leone and Nigeria. The variation in prosperity within former English colonies is as great as that in the entire world. The English legacy is not the reason for the success of North America.
There is yet one more version of the culture hypothesis: perhaps it is not English versus non-English that matters but, rather, European versus non-European. Could it be that Europeans are superior somehow because of their work ethic, outlook on life, Judeo-Christian values, or Roman heritage? It is true that Western Europe and North America, filled primarily by people of European descent, are the most prosperous parts of the world. Perhaps it is the superior European cultural legacy that is at the root of prosperity—and the last refuge of the culture hypothesis. Alas, this version of the culture hypothesis has as little explanatory potential as the others. A greater proportion of the population of Argentina and Uruguay, compared with the population of Canada and the United States, is of European descent, but Argentina’s and Uruguay’s economic performance leaves much to be desired. Japan and Singapore never had more than a sprinkling of inhabitants of European descent, yet they are as prosperous as many parts of Western Europe.
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.
THE IGNORANCE HYPOTHESIS The final popular theory for why some nations are poor and some are rich is the ignorance hypothesis, which asserts that world inequality exists because we or our rulers do not know how to make poor countries rich. This idea is the one held by most economists, who take their cue from the famous definition proposed by the English economist Lionel Robbins in 1935 that “economics is a science which studies human behavior as a relationship between ends and scarce means which have alternative uses.”
It is then a small step to conclude that the science of economics should focus on the best use of scarce means to satisfy social ends. Indeed, the most famous theoretical result in economics, the so-called First Welfare Theorem, identifies the circumstances under which the allocation of resources in a “market economy” is socially desirable from an economic point of view. A market economy is an abstraction that is meant to capture a situation in which all individuals and firms can freely produce, buy, and sell any products or services that they wish. When these circumstances are not present there is a “market failure.” Such failures provide the basis for a theory of world inequality, since the more that market failures go unaddressed, the poorer a country is likely to be. The ignorance hypothesis maintains that poor countries are poor because they have a lot of market failures and because economists and policymakers do not know how to get rid of them and have heeded the wrong advice in the past. Rich countries are rich because they have figured out better policies and have successfully eliminated these failures.
Could the ignorance hypothesis explain world inequality? Could it be that African countries are poorer than the rest of the world because their leaders tend to have the same mistaken views of how to run their countries, leading to the poverty there, while Western European leaders are better informed or better advised, which explains their relative success? While there are famous examples of leaders adopting disastrous policies because they were mistaken about those policies’ consequences, ignorance can explain at best a small part of world inequality.
On the face of it, the sustained economic decline that soon set in in Ghana after independence from Britain was caused by ignorance. The British economist Tony Killick, then working as an adviser for the government of Kwame Nkrumah, recorded many of the problems in great detail. Nkrumah’s policies focused on developing state industry, which turned out to be very inefficient. Killick recalled:
The footwear factory … that would have linked the meat factory in the North through transportation of the hides to the South (for a distance of over 500 miles) to a tannery (now abandoned); the leather was to have been backhauled to the footwear factory in Kumasi, in the center of the country and about 200 miles north of the tannery. Since the major footwear market is in the Accra metropolitan area, the shoes would then have to be transported an additional 200 miles back to the South. Killick somewhat understatedly remarks that this was an enterprise “whose viability was undermined by poor siting.” The footwear factory was one of many such projects, joined by the mango canning plant situated in a part of Ghana which did not grow mangos and whose output was to be more than the entire world demand for the product. This endless stream of economically irrational developments was not caused by the fact that Nkrumah or his advisers were badly informed or ignorant of the right economic policies. They had people like Killick and had even been advised by Nobel laureate Sir Arthur Lewis, who knew the policies were not good. What drove the form the economic policies took was the fact that Nkrumah needed to use them to buy political support and sustain his undemocratic regime.
Neither Ghana’s disappointing performance after independence nor the countless other cases of apparent economic mismanagement can simply be blamed on ignorance. After all, if ignorance were the problem, well-meaning leaders would quickly learn what types of policies increased their citizens’ incomes and welfare, and would gravitate toward those policies.
Consider the divergent paths of the United States and Mexico. Blaming this disparity on the ignorance of the leaders of the two nations is, at best, highly implausible. It wasn’t differences in knowledge or intentions between John Smith and Cortés that laid the seeds of divergence during the colonial period, and it wasn’t differences in knowledge between later U.S. presidents, such as Teddy Roosevelt or Woodrow Wilson, and Porfirio Díaz that made Mexico choose economic institutions that enriched elites at the expense of the rest of society at the end of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth centuries while Roosevelt and Wilson did the opposite. Rather, it was the differences in the institutional constraints the countries’ presidents and elites were facing. Similarly, leaders of African nations that have languished over the last half century under insecure property rights and economic institutions, impoverishing much of their populations, did not allow this to happen because they thought it was good economics; they did so because they could get away with it and enrich themselves at the expense of the rest, or because they thought it was good politics, a way of keeping themselves in power by buying the support of crucial groups or elites.
The experience of Ghana’s prime minister in 1971, Kofi Busia, illustrates how misleading the ignorance hypothesis can be. Busia faced a dangerous economic crisis. After coming to power in 1969, he, like Nkrumah before him, pursued unsustainable expansionary economic policies and maintained various price controls through marketing boards and an overvalued exchange rate. Though Busia had been an opponent of Nkrumah, and led a democratic government, he faced many of the same political constraints. As with Nkrumah, his economic policies were adopted not because he was “ignorant” and believed that these policies were good economics or an ideal way to develop the country. The policies were chosen because they were good politics, enabling Busia to transfer resources to politically powerful groups, for example in urban areas, who needed to be kept contented. Price controls squeezed agriculture, delivering cheap food to the urban constituencies and generating revenues to finance government spending. But these controls were unsustainable. Ghana was soon suffering from a series of balance-of-payment crises and foreign exchange shortages. Faced with these dilemmas, on December 27, 1971, Busia signed an agreement with the International Monetary Fund that included a massive devaluation of the currency.
The IMF, the World Bank, and the entire international community put pressure on Busia to implement the reforms contained in the agreement. Though the international institutions were blissfully unaware, Busia knew he was taking a huge political gamble. The immediate consequence of the currency’s devaluation was rioting and discontent in Accra, Ghana’s capital, that mounted uncontrollably until Busia was overthrown by the military, led by Lieutenant Colonel Acheampong, who immediately reversed the devaluation.
The ignorance hypothesis differs from the geography and culture hypotheses in that it comes readily with a suggestion about how to “solve” the problem of poverty: if ignorance got us here, enlightened and informed rulers and policymakers can get us out and we should be able to “engineer” prosperity around the world by providing the right advice and by convincing politicians of what is good economics. Yet Busia’s experience underscores the fact that the main obstacle to the adoption of policies that would reduce market failures and encourage economic growth is not the ignorance of politicians but the incentives and constraints they face from the political and economic institutions in their societies.
Although the ignorance hypothesis still rules supreme among most economists and in Western policymaking circles—which, almost to the exclusion of anything else, focus on how to engineer prosperity—it is just another hypothesis that doesn’t work. It explains neither the origins of prosperity around the world nor the lay of the land around us—for example, why some nations, such as Mexico and Peru, but not the United States or England, adopted institutions and policies that would impoverish the majority of their citizens, or why almost all sub-Saharan Africa and most of Central America are so much poorer than Western Europe or East Asia.
When nations break out of institutional patterns condemning them to poverty and manage to embark on a path to economic growth, this is not because their ignorant leaders suddenly have become better informed or less self-interested or because they’ve received advice from better economists. China, for example, is one of the countries that made the switch from economic policies that caused poverty and the starvation of millions to those encouraging economic growth. But, as we will discuss in greater detail later, this did not happen because the Chinese Communist Party finally understood that the collective ownership of agricultural land and industry created terrible economic incentives. Instead, Deng Xiaoping and his allies, who were no less self-interested than their rivals but who had different interests and political objectives, defeated their powerful opponents in the Communist Party and masterminded a political revolution of sorts, radically changing the leadership and direction of the party. Their economic reforms, which created market incentives in agriculture and then subsequently in industry, followed from this political revolution. It was politics that determined the switch from communism and toward market incentives in China, not better advice or a better understanding of how the economy worked.
WE WILL ARGUE that to understand world inequality we have to understand why some societies are organized in very inefficient and socially undesirable ways. Nations sometimes do manage to adopt efficient institutions and achieve prosperity, but alas, these are the rare cases. Most economists and policymakers have focused on “getting it right,” while what is really needed is an explanation for why poor nations “get it wrong.” Getting it wrong is mostly not about ignorance or culture. As we will show, poor countries are poor because those who have power make choices that create poverty. They get it wrong not by mistake or ignorance but on purpose. To understand this, you have to go beyond economics and expert advice on the best thing to do and, instead, study how decisions actually get made, who gets to make them, and why those people decide to do what they do. This is the study of politics and political processes. Traditionally economics has ignored politics, but understanding politics is crucial for explaining world inequality. As the economist Abba Lerner noted in the 1970s, “Economics has gained the title Queen of the Social Sciences by choosing solved political problems as its domain.”
We will argue that achieving prosperity depends on solving some basic political problems. It is precisely because economics has assumed that political problems are solved that it has not been able to come up with a convincing explanation for world inequality. Explaining world inequality still needs economics to understand how different types of policies and social arrangements affect economic incentives and behavior. But it also needs politics.