December 07, 2005

Culture, Prosperity, and Youthful Democracies

Arnold Kling tackles the question of what characteristics must a country have to achieve prosperity in two interesting articles. In one, he raises among other things two approaches to the problem; one, the perception that newly-established democracies are more vulnerable to corruption than well-established ones; in the other, he cites my book (thanks, Arnold!) in which I point out that the English-speaking cultures have enjoyed high-radius-of-trust features for a very long time. In fact the two approaches are not entirely contradictory; the English and American revolutions of 1688 and 1776 respectively produced the first two real constitutional representative governments in modern times (neither of which could be called "democracies" until well into the nineteenth century). Both of these constitutional regimes experienced substantial corruption in their initial phases, but managed to function and avoid a downward spiral into a totally corrupt society. (It was common for a government contractor to pocket substantial amounts of government assets, for example, but it was unheard of for a commander to betray a critical position to an enemy in wartime for a bribe -- unlike many of their contemporary cultures. Benedict Arnold was a borderline case -- he acted from hurt vanity and resentment, not primarily greed in what was effectively a civil war.) So in some ways we might say that the English-speaking countries suffered a non-fatal case of these problems in their early years, and upon recovery, had the equivalent of a vaccination effect.

Arnold then expands upon these issues in an earlier interesting article. As they say, read the whole thing.

Posted by James C. Bennett at December 7, 2005 11:16 PM

I was particularly struck by this statement by Mr. Kling:

To achieve prosperity, a country must foster three "ethics."

* A work ethic.
* A public service ethic.
* A learning ethic.

It would be interesting to sketch out how the Anglosphere has inculcultated and cultivated these "ethics" over its history. It is noteworthy that he refers to an "ethic", i.e. a moral and subjective component more than an institutional framework -- i.e. he does not take people as rationally self-interested monads. Also, the idea of a "public service ethic" is massively important, and too often obscured or ignored or even denigrated in libertarian thinking.

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