The Central Liberal Truth : How Politics Can Change a Culture and Save It from Itself , by Lawrence E. Harrison -- Book Review

Book Classification : Nonfiction : Cultural Values - Social Reform - Sociology - International Politics - Government Policy - Economics - Religion -
Third World Development - Industrialization - Cultural Studies - Modern History - Current Events

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The Central Liberal Truth : How Politics Can Change a Culture and Save It from Itself
by Lawrence E. Harrison
Hardcover - 288 pages
First Edition, May 1, 2006
Published by Oxford University Press

ISBN 0195300416
ISBN-10: 0-19-530041-6
ISBN-13: 978-0-19-530041-3

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Book Review

Latin America expert Lawrence E. Harrison is a participant in the the Culture Matters Research Project (CMRP), an international organization of economists, university professors, and other scholars , with its home base at Tufts University. The purpose of the CMRP is to study the cultural characteristics associated with cultures that are "progress prone", as well as those which are "progress resistant", so that the best characteristics can be consciously promoted.

First we must address the point that there is an objective reality that can be called material or ideological progress. To illustrate that this premise is not universally accepted, Harrison cites the contrary position taken by the American Anthropological Association in 1848 that the ratification by the United Nations of its Universal Declaration of Human Rights (such axioms as the basic right of all to freedom of thought and expression, education, health care, to be free of poverty) was deplorable as an attempt to impose "western" cultural biases on the rest of the world. [8-9]

If it may then be recognized by the reader that not everyone believes that material and ideological progress are objective realities, Harrison moves quickly to designate various cultural attributes as more consistent than others with furthering this material and ideological progress.

About the Author

Lawrence E. Harrison is Senior Research Fellow and Adjunct Lecturer at the Fletcher School at Tufts University. He is the author of Underdevelopment Is a State of Mind , Who Prospers? : How Cultural Values Shape Economic and Political Success , and The Pan-American Dream : Do Latin America's Cultural Values Discourage True Partnership With the United States and Canada? . He is also co-editor, with Samuel Huntington, of Culture Matters: How Values Shape Human Progress . Between 1965 and 1981, Lawrence E. Harrison directed USAID missions in the Dominican Republic, Costa Rica, Guatemala, Haiti, and Nicaragua. Harrison was associated with Harvard University's Weatherhead Center for International Affairs for eight years during the period 1981-2001. His articles have appeared in The New York Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, Boston Globe, Atlantic Monthly, Foreign Policy, and The National Interest, among other publications.

- From the Publisher

For example, support for science and education [41-43], and a a legal system based on rule of law rather than corruption [47-48] are worthy of being promoted by both public and private policy makers. In addition to being good in themselves, they also promote personal liberty, democratic institutions, and economic affluence. Goverments and organizations ought to promote these internationally as good ends which lead to additional good ends.

Some of the changes needed are not the sort than can be enacted by formal adoption, but require the development of new values and attitudes. While religious freedom along with separation of church and state [36-37, 53] may and should be adopted universally through legal reform, popular values and attitudes must evolve if religion shall be that sort of religion which "nurtures rationality and objectivity" [39].

The author's personal bourgeois values come through his work when, having determined that progress is driven by an ethical system that encourages "personal accomplishment" [63], he assumes that this must necessarily take the form of personal accumulation of wealth. He fails to address, as he should, the fact that the accumulation of wealth in the most industrialized countries has brought us to the greatest fracture of all time between those who own but do not work and those who work but do not own, a minority demographic inheriting affluence and a majority demographic inheriting economic insecurity. There can be no doubt that Harrison is correct to recommend "materialistic pursuits" [128] (as opposed to magical escapism, that is) and the promotion of "merit, work, frugality" [130]. He is too quick to dismiss alternatives to the economic carrot and the stick. While it is true, for example, that Buddhism is "not a powerful force for modernization" [94], Harrison neglects to mention that Buddhism promotes cooperation and peace, which too is a kind of progress. The casual reader might arrive at the interpretation, which I sense would be an unjustified interpretation, that the author feels that the speed of assembly lines takes precedence over all other considerations.

Table of Contents
The Central Liberal Truth : How Politics Can Change a Culture and Save It from Itself
by Lawrence E. Harrison
1. The Riddle of Hispaniola21
2. Disaggregating "Culture"35
3. Models and Instruments of Cultural Transmission / Change57
4. Religions and Progress87
5. Culture in Action I120
6. Culture in Action II142
7. Patterns of Cultural Change163
8. Success and Failure184
9. Conclusion : Guidelines for Progressive Cultural Change206
Appendix : Biographical Sketches245

In my opinion, the most fascinating part of The Central Liberal Truth is Harrison's treatment of a general theory of history. The author doesn't say so explicitly, but he is largely reexamining the old question, handed down to us from the days of Hegel and Marx, of whether we should have an idealist conception of history (the view that the flow form one epoch to another is best explained by the development of ideas) or a materialist conception of history (the viewpoint that, in the long run, the ideas of each epoch grow out a material basis in geography and improvements in the tools of production).

One of Harrison's techniques is to compare countries two at a time, and point out that it seems to be inadequate to explain their different cultural courses by citing material factors. For example, Saudi Arabia has a wealth of oil but an authoritarian government, while India, which is poorer economically, has made steady political progress in recent decades in the the direction of democracy. Clearly, anyone who would cite economic deprivation as a simplistic explanation for authoritarianism must be challenged by this counterexample. [27]

Harrison realizes, however, that one may easily object that there are too many variables involved to permit such comparisons of countries in pairs. He therefore begins his case by pointing to two adjacent countries with nearly identical geographical conditions but dissimilar cultural developments. These are the two countries on the island of Hispaniola, Haiti to the west, with a recent history of abusive dictatorships and incompetent government, and the Dominican Republic to the east, with a recent history of political reform in the direction of democracy and individual rights. [25-26] Anyone who, like Jared Diamond, asserts that geography largely explains socioeconomic results faces this datum as an exception. Similarly: "Canada and Russia occupy essentially the same latitudes" and both enjoy "rich mineral deposits" [28], and yet their cultural characteristics are quite unlike.

This reviewer must object that the problem with Harrison's point is that the time scale is left ambiguous. It's conceivable that economics and geography could drive history on the time scale between millennia and centuries, while ideology drives history at the level from centuries to decades. In that case, we may say that culture drives, and also that culture is itself driven. Of course Harrison is right in saying that culture matters" [21] but this doesn't dismiss the fact that geography and the means and mode of production also matter.

This "culture matters" issue had me confounded for a while. I wondered: by whom has it ever been denied that "culture matters"? Even the most ardent exponents of historical materialism would agree with that much. For example, Engels wrote:

"According to the materialist conception of history, the ultimately determining element in history is the production and reproduction of real life. More than this neither Marx nor I have ever asserted. Hence, if somebody twists this into saying that the economic element is the only determining one, he transforms that proposition into a meaningless, abstract, senseless phrase. The economic situation is the basis, but the various elements of the superstructure: political forms of the class struggle and its results, to wit: constitutions established by the victorious class after a successful battle, etc., juridical forms, and then even the reflexes of all these actual struggles in the brains of the participants, political, juristic, philosophical theories, religious views and their further development into systems of dogma, also exercise their influence upon the course of the historical struggles, and, in many cases, preponderate in determining their form."

-- Friedrich Engels, letter to Joseph Bloch, Sept. 21-22, 1890

I wondered at first why Harrison didn't strengthened his case by showing that there are indeed some parties influential in policy making who deny the obvious fact "that culture matters". An author doesn't have to argue a case which no one denies. I believe the answer to my question is that the name of the Culture Matters Research Project is a misnomer. It's not really an organization dedicated to promoting recognition that culture "matters". It's really dedicated to promoting the reforms that correlate with its own view of what kind of culture is the improved kind, which is something else entirely.

Some of these aspects that improve culture are undoubtedly identified correctly in the book, among these: equality between the sexes [36-37], the attitudes of looking toward the future [40], and even such several "lesser virtues" as "punctuality". [42] Harrison is astute to recognize that one sign that a culture is progessing is when people identify with and develop trust in strangers, and not merely their own families [49].

The author then errs in taking it as self-evident that "materialistic pursuits" and "hard work" [128] have the curative properties that he ascribes to them, and in supposing that religion is progressive when it "encourages accumulation of wealth" [39] He says nothing about the danger that private accumulation of wealth so often leads to the result that the the poor are "working hard" to receive mere subsistence wages, while fattening the holdings of a propertied few. Harrison might have allocated a few paragraphs to exploring the possibility that one of his goals, an ethical system that encourages "personal accomplishment" [63], might take alternative forms.

A wonderful aspect of The Central Liberal Truth is Harrison's willingness to judge the values held by various religions, fearless of being called Politically Incorrect by others. He notes certain similarities among Protestantism, Judaism and Confucianism: historically, these are religions that have emphasized the importance of progress and industry, avoidance of otherworldly kinds of mysticism, and emphasis on the value of education. He regards the "authoritarian" and "hierarchical" structure of Catholicism as a factor that, through history, has discouraged rational and critical thought. [52] In the case of Hinduism, the slowness to adopt equality between the sexes has hindered other forms of cultural progress [97]. The author recognizes that the value of rationalism found in traditional Islam is lacking among many modern forms [39], and that this has been a factor in Islamic countries falling behind other countries in the matters of economic development and technology. [96] The author even makes specific recommendations for the reform of each religious faith in matters that pertian to cultural progress [211].

This is one of the most well-organized of today's books of social commentary, with charts and tables of data [6-7, 88-89] to support its clearly expressed conclusions and specifically defined suggestions about public policy. As a person with a science background, I appreciated the incorporation of the research of others, as in the borrowing of certain results from the work of the Japanese economist Yoshihara Kunio [14], and Mariano Grondona, who teaches government and writes a newspaper column in Argentina [142]. Harrison was also thoughtful to list very specifically which international leaders he believes represent the "progressive vision" [164-165], and exactly which social reforms around the world have been successes worthy of being emulated [187-197]. This book contains no ad homimen attacks, nor any weak reliances on anectotal evidence.

Harrison concludes with a list of reform objectives that must be sold to the field of education, the media, government, industry, philanthropy, organized religion, and even in the area of child-rearing techniques. [207-224]

The title of The Central Liberal Truth comes from a statement by Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who remarked:

"The central conservative truth is that it is culture, not politics, that determines the success of a society. The central liberal truth is that politics can change a culture and save it from itself." [xvi]

Book review by Mike Lepore for

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Book Description from the Publisher

Which cultural values, beliefs, and attitudes best promote democracy, social justice, and prosperity? How can we use the forces that shape cultural change, such as religion, child-rearing practices, education, and political leadership, to promote these values in the Third World -- and for underachieving minorities in the First World? In this book, a valuable follow-up to his acclaimed Culture Matters , Lawrence E. Harrison offers intriguing answers to these questions.

Drawing on a three-year research project that explored the cultural values of dozens of nations -- from Botswana, Sweden, and India to China, Egypt, and Chile -- Harrison offers a provocative look at values around the globe, revealing how each nation's culture has propelled or retarded its political and economic progress. The book presents 25 factors that operate very differently in cultures prone to progress and those that resist it, including one's influence over destiny, the importance attached to education, the extent to which people identify with and trust others, and the role of women in society. Harrison pulls no punches, and many of his findings will be controversial. He argues, for example, that Protestantism, Confucianism, and Judaism have been more successful in promoting progress than Catholicism, Orthodox Christianity, and Islam.

Harrison rejects the Bush administration's doctrine that "the values of freedom are right and true for every person, in every society." Thus nations like Iraq and Afghanistan -- where illiteracy, particularly among women, and mistrust are high and traditions of cooperation and compromise are scant -- are likely to resist democracy.

Most important, the book outlines a series of practical guidelines that developing nations and lagging minority groups can use to enhance their political, social, and economic well-being.

Contradicting the arguments of multiculturalists, this book contends that when it comes to promoting human progress, some cultures are clearly more effective than others. It convincingly shows which values, beliefs, and attitudes work and how we can foster them.

Book Reviews

"Nothing is so important and tenacious as culture (values and institutions) in shaping economic performance, and nothing so decisive as economic performance in determining political and social possibilities and structure. This book is a global, historical, empirical approach to these connections, as exemplified by the major stories of success, failure, and cases in between. I can think of no better entrance to the topic, both for what it teaches and the way it invites and prepares the reader to continue. A gateway study."

-- David S. Landes , author of The Wealth and Poverty of Nations : Why Some Are So Rich and Some So Poor

"Lawrence Harrison's previous writings have made him a leading, perhaps the leading, scholar exploring, analyzing, and documenting the central impact of culture on how society develops, or fails to develop, economically and politically. In The Central Liberal Truth , he draws on his immense knowledge and long experience to spell out the ways societies suffering from cultural attributes unfavorable to development can overcome these obstacles. The Central Liberal Truth is an impressive, persuasive, and indispensable book for anyone interested in improving the conditions of human life in poor countries."

-- Samuel Huntington , author of Who Are We : The Challenges to American National Identity and The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order

"Authors who emphasize the role of culture in development are often accused of consigning whole peoples to backwardness because they are locked into the wrong values. Larry Harrison takes culture seriously, but shows that culture evolves, and offers a practical agenda for cultural change."

-- Francis Fukuyama , author of Nation-Building : Beyond Afghanistan and Iraq and The End of History and the Last Man

"A book of enormous importance and startling originality. Harrison has pulled off an amazing intellectual feat. He has drawn our attention both to the centrality of culture in historical outcomes and to the ability of good public policy to reshape economic and political history."

-- Fouad Ajami , Majid Khadduri Professor and Director of Middle East Studies at Johns Hopkins University, School of Advanced International Studies

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