Wednesday, May 18, 2011

The Serf versus the Entrepreneur?

This is a bit of a deviation from my usual topics, but I've been thinking a bit about economic development in various countries around the world (sort of a natural topic for me in that I travel a lot, have lived in several countries, and have done business and work in a lot of different countries including the US, Europe, Brazil, Hong Kong, Japan and China and Korea, Australia and NZ, etc.)

The hypothesis I'm going to put forth here is that the difference between development-prone and development-resistant countries, is related to whether the corresponding cultures tend to metaphorically view the individual as a serf or as an entrepreneur.

Of course, this is a very rough and high-level approximative perspective, but it seems to me to have some conceptual explanatory power.

Development-Prone versus Development-Resistant Cultures

The book "Culture Matters", which I borrowed from my dad (a sociologist) recently, contains a chapter by Mariano Grondona called "A Cultural Typology of Economic Development", which proposes a list of properties distinguishing development-prone cultures from development-resistant cultures. Put very crudely, the list goes something like this

  • Development-resistant vs. development-prone
  • Justice: present-focused vs future-focused
  • Work: not respected vs. respected
  • Heresy: reviled vs. tolerated
  • Education: brainwashing vs. more autonomy focused
  • Utilitarianism: no vs. yes
  • Lesser virtues (valuing a job well done, tidiness, punctuality, courtesy): no vs. yes
  • time focus: past/ spiritual far-future vs. practical moderately near future
  • rationality: not a focus vs. strongly valued
  • rule of man vs. rule of law
  • large group vs. individual as nexus of action
  • determinism vs. free will ism
  • salvation in the world (immanence) vs. salvation from the world (transcendence)
  • focus on utopian visions not rationally achievable vs. focus on distant utopias that are more likely rationally progressively achievable
  • optimism about action of "powers that be" vs. optimism about personal action
  • thoughts about political structure: absolutism vs compromise

A more thorough version of the list is given in this file "Typology of Progress-Prone and Progress-Resistant Cultures", which is Chapter 2 of book "The Central Liberal Truth: How Politics Can Change a Culture and Save it From Itself" by Lawrence Harrison. The title of Harrison's book (which I didn't read, I just read that chapter) presumably refers to the famous quote from Daniel Patrick Moynihan that

"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."

Harrison adds some other points to Grondona's list, such as

  • wealth: zero-sum vs. positive-sum
  • knowledge: theory vs. empirics
  • low risk tolerance (w/ occasional adventures) vs. moderate risk tolerance
  • advancement: social connections based vs. merit based
  • radius of trust: narrow vs. wide
  • entrepreneurship: rent-seeking vs. innovation

and presents it in a more nicely formatted and well-explained way than this blog post! I encourage you to click the above link and read the chapter for yourself.

Now, I find all this pretty interesting, but also in a way unsatisfying. A theory that centrally consists of a long list of bullet points always gives me the feeling of not getting to the essence of things.

Harrison attempts to sum up the core ideas of the typology as follows:

At the heart of the typology are two fundamental questions: (1) does the culture encourage the belief that people can influence their destinies? And (2) does the culture promote the Golden Rule. If people believe that they can influence their destinies, they are likely to focus on the future; see the world in positive-sum terms; attach a high priority to education; believe in the work ethic; save; become entrepreneurial; and so forth. If the Golden Rule has real meaning for them, they are likely to live by a reasonably rigorous ethical code; honor the lesser virtues; abide by the laws; identify with the broader society; form social capital; and so forth.

But this abstraction doesn't seem to me to sum up the essence of the typology all that well.

Lakoff's Analysis of the Metaphors Underlying Politics

When reading the above material, I was reminded of cognitive scientist George Lakoff's book "Moral Politics" whose core argument is summarized here.

Lakoff argues that much of liberal vs. conservative politics is based on the metaphor of the nation as a family, and that liberal politics tends to metaphorically view the government as a nurturing mother, whereas conservative politics tends to metaphorically view the government as a strict father.

While I don't agree with all Lakoff's views by any means (and I found his later cognitive/political writings generally less compelling than Moral Politics), I think his basic insight in that book is fairly interesting and significant. It seems to unify what otherwise appears a grab-bag of political beliefs.

For instance, the US Republican party is, at first sight, an odd combination of big-business advocacy with Christian moral strictness. To an extent this represents an opportunistic alliance between two interest groups that otherwise would be too small to gain power .. but Lakoff's analysis suggests it's more than this. As he points out, the "strict father" archetype binds together both moral strictness and the free-for-all, rough-and-tumble competitiveness advocated by the pro-big-business sector. And the "nurturant mother" archetype binds together the inclusiveness aspect of the US Democratic party, with the latter's focus on social programs to help the disadvantaged. Of course these archetypes don't have universal explanatory power, but they do seem to me to capture some of the unconscious patterns underlying contemporary politics.

So I started wondering whether there's some similar, significantly (though of course not completely) explanatory metaphorical/archetypal story one could use to explain comparative economic development. Such a story would then provide an explanation underlying the "laundry list" of cultural differences described above.

The Serf versus the Entrepreneur?

Getting to the point finally … it seems to me that the culture of development-resistant countries, as described above, is rather well aligned with the metaphor of the "serf and lord". If the individual views himself as the serf, and the state and government as the lord, then they will arrive at a fair approximation of the progress-resistant world-view as described in the above lists. So maybe we can say that progress-resistant nations tend to have a view of the individual/state relationship that is based on a "feudal" metaphor in some sense.

On the other hand, what is the metaphor corresponding to progress-friendly countries? One thing I see is a fairly close alignment with an entrepreneurial metaphor. Viewing the individual as an entrepreneur -- and the state as a sort of "social contract" between interacting, coopeting entrepreneurs -- seems to neatly wrap up a considerable majority of the bullet points associated with the progress-friendly countries, on the above list.

Note that this hypothetical analysis in terms of metaphors is not intended as a replacement for Lakoff's -- rather, it's intended as complementary. We understand the things in our world using a variety of different metaphors (as well as other means besides metaphor, a point Lakoff sometimes seems not to concede), and may match a single entity like a government to multiple metaphorical frames.

Finally... what value is this kind of analysis? Obviously, if we know the metaphorical frames underlying peoples' thinking, this may help us to better work with them, to encourage them to achieve their goals and fulfill themselves more thoroughly. If you know the metaphors underlying your OWN unconscious thinking, this can help you avoid being excessively controlled by these metaphors, taking more of your thinking and attitude under conscious control….

One way to empirically explore this sort of hypothesis would be to statistically study the language used in various cultures to describe the individual and the state and their relationship. However, this would require a lot of care due to the multiple languages involved, and certainly would be a large project, which I have no intention to personally pursue!

But nevertheless, in spite of the slipperiness and difficulty of validation of this sort of thinking, I find it interesting personally, as part of my quest to better understand the various cultures I come into contact with as I go about my various trans-continental doings....