WHO PROSPERS? by Lawrence E. Harrison


How Cultural Values Shape Economic and Political Success
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 Harrison, a sometime director of development programs for the US Agency for International Development, argues that the extent to which countries are economically and politically ``successful'' is principally determined by cultural factors. Why are some countries prosperous and democratic while others poor and politically oppressed? According to Harrison, the main reason is a country's values and attitudes. He finds that four factors are especially important: the ``radius of trust,'' or degree to which the members of a society identify with one another; the ``rigor'' of the ethical system; the way authority is exercised; and attitudes about work, innovation, saving, and profit. Harrison's thesis is advertised by his publishers as ``myth-shattering,'' but his conclusion surely comes as no surprise--that the most successful cultures, according to his criteria, have been those most influenced by the Protestant work ethic and Western values of democracy and individual rights. This view does become controversial, although no less predictable, in the chapters that analyze in cultural terms the relative performance of Asian-, Mexican-, and Afro-Americans, and in the closing essay about the danger of overall decline in the US. The argument that the recent success of countries like Japan, Taiwan, and Korea can be traced to their Confucian traditions is less familiar and more interesting in the light of the common Western assumption that progress depends on individualism. On the whole, Harrison has no trouble showing the general importance of culture as a factor of national success, and he provides many pertinent examples. But his stronger claim that culture is the principal determinant of success is never substantiated. His method is to pile up evidence favoring his view while doing little to confront or even record possible counterarguments. A compendium of useful information that delivers less than it claims as a social-scientific argument.

Pub Date: July 15th, 1992
ISBN: 0-465-01634-0
Page count: 288pp
Publisher: Basic
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 15th, 1992