Soft sides of growth get a long hard look

Cultures Merging
October 27, 2006

Eric Jones has had a distinguished career as an economic historian. In addition to his detailed work, he has not been afraid to address broad themes that span the centuries, and even the millennia. In this book, his aim is to consider the question: how much does culture matter for economic development?

Jones himself is sympathetic to the hypothesis that culture might be important in explaining development. He notes from the outset, for example, that the concept of culture was gradually squeezed out of mainstream economics over the course of the 20th century.

A problem in assessing the book is that the chapters read in many ways like individual essays rather than a coherent whole. One chapter, for example, is devoted for the most part to a criticism of the arts elite in Australia (Jones is currently at Melbourne University) and their demands for protection from external competition and for large subsidies courtesy of the taxpayer. He contrasts the quality of Australian art unfavourably with that from the more free-market approach of America, where there has been massive growth in symphony orchestras, opera companies and theatres. This is interesting, but it is tangential to the main theme of the book.

On balance, Jones comes down on the side of economics, arguing that culture is "seldom likely to be the original source of change". For example, there is a widespread belief that Islam itself acts as a brake on economic development. But the Institute for International Economics in Washington finds no evidence that countries with the largest Islamic populations grow more slowly than other developing countries. Their main problems seem to be low levels of education and overlarge government sectors, neither of which is confined to Islamic countries - although Jones sidesteps the thorny question of Islam and the education of women.

In contrast to mainstream economics, however, Jones believes that institutional structures are extremely important in determining economic development. To some extent, the distinction between the institutions a society develops and its culture is semantic. He notes a clear positive correlation between economic growth and democracy in East Asia from 1960 onwards, but democracy is seen as an institution, not as a cultural concept. The rule of law rather than the arbitrary will of the king or emperor, for example, appears to have been decisive in explaining why the West developed economically and the rest of the world did not. Again, Jones places this concept in the box marked "institution" rather than the one marked "culture".

An important current debate in economic history is precisely on the theme of why Europe and America developed but China did not. This is a key subtheme of the book. Jones argues impressively that the West had evolved far superior institutional structures and it was these rather than, say, slavery that explain its success. It would have been good to have had much more on this topic.

Jones's scholarship is enormous, and the book is full of fascinating facts.

Most are serious, but Jones is not without his light-hearted side. He cites, for example, the lapse of a Presbyterian community in the New Hebrides into worshipping a Duke of Edinburgh stone and reserving three teenagers as brides for him to replace the older model he would leave behind.

He writes clearly with an absence of jargon, which makes the book accessible to a wide audience. Economists could certainly benefit from the way it opens up a wider set of perspectives. And, despite the rather disjointed nature of the work as a whole, there is more than enough interesting material to make the book worthwhile for the more general reader.

Paul Ormerod is a director of Volterra Consulting and author of Why Most Things Fail .

Cultures Merging: A Historical and Economic Critique of Culture

Author - Eric L. Jones
Publisher - Princeton University Press
Pages - 297
Price - £18.95
ISBN - 0 691 11737 3

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