Romney is right, culture matters, Part Three

Whatever one believes about Israel and the Palestinians, the general proposition that culture strongly influences economic performance should not be controversial. Romney likes to cite The Wealth and Poverty of Nations by former Harvard professor David Landes, which makes that case. The work of economist Mancur Olson also supports Romney’s view.

Reaching further back, Romney could have cited Max Weber’s The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism and R. H.Tawney’s Religion and the Rise of Capitalism (though heaven help him if he had).

Perhaps the best statement by a politician in support of Romney’s general point came in (or around) 1850 during a Senate debate on the extension of slavery into U.S. territories in the West. John C. Calhoun had delivered a speech in which he complained about the unequal economic development between the North and the South, citing among other things his standard beef about certain tariffs.

Thomas Hart Benton responded with a brilliant address in which he explained that the existence of slavery, which Calhoun wanted to extend, was one of the reasons the South was lagging economically.

Southerners didn’t like hearing this, any more than Palestinians appreciated Romney’s remarks. But Benton was right, and the South did not truly begin to “rise again” economically until its culture, especially as it related to race, began dramatically to change about 120 years after Benton spoke.

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