Why the Haitians aren’t doomed: choice trumps culture.

Haiti is not doomed. To the extent that Haitian culture inhibits prosperity, Haitians will do as people in that condition always have: they will work around their culture—or leave it, and benefit their home countries no less by doing that.

I’m afraid I have to disagree, pretty strongly, with Mike on this one.

Let’s accept for argument* that Banfield’s Moral Basis of a Backward Society is not only classic but something rarer: right.  The question is what it means.

The Italian town that Banfield called “Montegrano” was actually Chiaromonte.  What happened to it after Banfield proclaimed its culture hopelessly backward?  One researcher (academic paywall: it’s N. S. Peabody, III, “Toward an Understanding of Backwardness and Change,” Journal of Developing Areas 4, No. 3 [April 1970]:375-386) examined its record about twelve years after Banfield did—after Italy’s general 1960s boom—and found its agriculture transformed by the substitution of rational crops for fascist-promoted wheat, its cultural repertoire transformed by TV and movies, and everything transformed by emigration.  Those who experienced the wider world brought back modern ideas, sent money that gave their relatives some independence, and often returned to buy or rent land in ways that challenged the ancestral landlord structure.  Returning emigrants were the new, and previously missing, middle class.  Those who didn’t return were both a profitable export and a crucial mechanism through which the local culture did what all cultures do eventually: change beyond recognition.

More than twenty years after that, in the early 90s, L.E. Harrison in Who Prospers? made a personal trip and put it more vividly:

What I found in that brief visit was dramatic change.  Almost everyone was literate.  Half were high school graduates.  All families had television.  Sixty percent had telephones.  Sixty percent had automobiles.  Several agricultural cooperatives had been formed.  Families are now much smaller, averaging two children.  A highway was built in the 1970s that cut travel time to Naples in half (from six hours to three).  People now travel much more, and many attend school elsewhere.  Many Chiaromontese have migrated to Northern Italy and other European countries to work, and a fair number of them have returned.

Chiaromonte is no longer Montegrano, although I have no doubt that a residue of traditional values can be found there.  Chiaromonte has been opened up, by education, by road, by television,by newspapers and magazines, to the progressive values and institutions of modern Italy and Western Europe.  Left to its own devices, the town woudl no doubt today be essentially what it was when the Banfields lived there.  But its isolation has been broken down. …

In Haiti, the story isn’t so different.  To the extent that the prevailing culture and society have made mobility within the country difficult, Haitians have responded by emigrating in droves. (Perhaps 4.5 million live abroad.).  Their remittances, almost $2 billion a year, may be the single greatest contributor to national income.  When many of them return, as we can count on them someday doing, they will instantly swell the middle class.  I’m sure that Haiti’s aristocracy has no great desire to help the poor in their country.  But progress never depended on converting the barons.  The point, and the likely future, is to render them irrelevant.

Even those who stay are likely to prosper slowly (more slowly than in other countries, but faster than “doomed”—as in Naples, as in Chiaromonte).  We notice societies that “stagnate” for a time because it’s so unusual: growth is normal.  Everyone remembers the part of Adam Smith where he rails against bad government policies.  Fewer remember the part where he says that England has steadily grown more prosperous in the face of miserable policies and useless wars.

In the midst of all the exactions of government,…capital has been silently and gradually accumulated by the private frugality and good conduct of individuals, by their universal, continual, and uninterrupted effort to better their own condition.

Of course “culture matters.”  That’s why people who inhabit a culture that thwarts their dreams will either rely on their own hard work and that of their families—a second best to a supportive culture but not therefore useless—or else  leave their culture for one that better supports prosperity, and send home the fruits of their choice to be both consumed and planted.  The relevant unit is not Haiti but Haitians.

The difference between slow growth, against the odds, and inevitable stagnation is not theoretical but terribly practical.  It will be all too easy to misinterpret a statement like “It is not possible to write a check to ‘Haiti‘, nor to ‘the poor in Haiti.'”  UNICEF is currently shipping to Haiti large quantities of water purification tablets, oral rehydration kits, tarps for shelter, and water storage units.  If the rich need such things and want to steal some, they will no doubt succeed to some degree.  Unless one thinks that they’ll take all of it, a small donation can still save a staggering number of lives.  Will development programs succeed in the longer term?  As usual, some will, many won’t, and the removal of tariff barriers would help much more than most of them.  (Update: let’s cancel some debt too.)  But that is, emphatically, an argument for a much later date.

*Accept this only for argument.  Many have claimed that there was lots of interaction in small-town Southern Italy–just not the kinds of interaction he was familiar with and therefore looking for; for some citations, look here.  And Jackman and Miller’s “Social Capital and Politics” article from 1998 (academic subscription wall) asks excellent questions about the wider use often made of Banfield’s theses: Putnam, and others who follow him, often seem to argue simultaneously that culture is immutable and that it’s a great thing when institutions can change it quickly.  That said, few of the critics doubt that the culture of Northern Italy, all things considered, make growth more robust, and government better, there than in the South.

Author: Andrew Sabl

I'm a political theorist and Visiting Professor (through 2017) in the Program on Ethics, Politics and Economics at Yale. My interests include the history of political thought, toleration, democratic theory, political ethics, problems of coordination and convention, the realist movement in political theory, and the thought of David Hume. My first book, Ruling Passions: Political Offices and Democratic Ethics (Princeton, 2002) covered many of these topics, with a special focus on the varieties of democratic politics and the disparate qualities of mind and character appropriate to those who practice each of them. My second book Hume's Politics: Coordination and Crisis in the History of England was published in 2012; I am currently finishing a book on toleration, with the working title The Virtues of Hypocrisy, under contract with Harvard University Press. A Los Angeles native, I got my B.A. and Ph.D. from Harvard. Before coming to Yale I taught at Vanderbilt and at UCLA, where I was an Assistant, Associate, and Full Professor; and held visiting positions at Williams, Harvard, and Princeton. I am married to Miriam Laugesen, who teaches health policy and the politics of health care at the Mailman School of public health at Columbia, and we have a twelve-year-old son.

3 thoughts on “Why the Haitians aren’t doomed: choice trumps culture.”

  1. While Haitian elites may have little use for water purification tablets, they do have market value. Stealing humanitarian aid and selling it is a time honored practice refined by hundreds of despots the world over. And yes, they can take 99.99% of it.

    The connection between economic growth and reduction in human misery is also rather tenuous. The American economy has grown at a great rate over the past 30 years but living standards have stagnated for the bottom 90% and declined for people at the bottom of the socioeconomic pyramid. Similar patterns have manifest throughout Africa since the oil crisis. It's very well established that barons can take all proceeds of growth for themselves regardless of any internal or external opposition.

  2. "Living standards have stagnated for the bottom 90% in the last 30 years?" I think not. Wages have stagnated, but increased productivity and the increase in female labor market participation that began in the '60's has led to greatly increased living standards. Hyper-inflation of health care and college costs has made people in this category feel less economically secure (and rightly so), but actual living standards are much higher than they were in 1980.

  3. Curmudgeon says:

    "While Haitian elites may have little use for water purification tablets, they do have market value. Stealing humanitarian aid and selling it is a time honored practice refined by hundreds of despots the world over. And yes, they can take 99.99% of it."

    Probably not, when there's a crisis, the aid comes in a flood, the media are there, and the rich are scrambling to deal with their own problems.

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