Why are some nations so poor and others so rich? Two Harvard professors recently revived an old-fashioned answer to this unsettling question, and it sits plainly as the title of their book: 'Culture Matters.' Anyone who has ever agreed with them that culture does indeed matter will want to look at what they take this statement to mean. Adding so-called 'Asian values' - a more public-spirited, Confucian version of the Protestant ethic - to the 19th century's self-congratulatory belief in the West's 'civilising mission', Huntington and Harrison have discovered that the West can keep on congratulating itself - not this time on its exportable civilisation, but on its particular culture. The disparity between the misery of others and our relative well-being has nothing to do with colonialism or the IMF. Should you be told that the average life expectancy is 78.2 in Sweden and 39 in Sierra Leone, remind yourself that some cultures are cut out for success and others aren't. Which culture you are born into is not something for which you are responsible. Neither are you responsible, therefore, for the likelihood that you will benefit from forty more years of earthly existence, or that while doing so you will benefit from an obscenely disproportionate share of the Earth's resources.
LRB 1 November 2001 | PDF Download