The Australian business consultant had paid a visit to a developing country known for its low labour costs. He toured the factories, talked to the officials, got a sense of the culture. At the end, he found them utterly unsuitable for any sort of important work in the new economy.
“My impression as to your cheap labour was soon disillusioned when I saw your people at work. No doubt they are lowly paid, but the return is equally so,” he told the country’s government. “To see your men at work made me feel that you are a very satisfied, easy-going race who reckon time is no object. When I spoke to some managers, they informed me that it was impossible to change the habits of national heritage.”
That was the Japanese, of course, those lazy, sloppy, undisciplined people. Can’t hire them; they seem to be living on “Japanese time.” I owe that quotation to Cambridge economist Ha-Joon Chang, who unearthed it from a 1915 copy of the Japan Times while researching his forthcoming book Bad Samaritans: Rich Nations, Poor Policies & the Threat to the Developing World.
He found plenty of others. The Germans were, not too long ago, a “plodding, easily contented people … endowed neither with great acuteness of perception nor quickness of feeling;” they were “not distinguished by enterprise or activity.” They were poor, and everybody agreed they were doomed to perpetual poverty, because they were deeply irrational and given to inappropriate displays of emotion: “Some will laugh all sorrows away and others will always indulge in melancholy.”
And they were slow. Mary Shelley, the novelist, complained that, on the roads, “the Germans never hurry.” In the words of one well-heeled British traveller, “I found the roads so bad in Germany that I directed my course to Italy.”
An idle, slow-witted, over-emotional people with poor organizational skills and bad roads. Yup, sounds like the Germans.
Mr. Chang’s own ancestors, the Koreans, got it even worse. Beatrice Webb, the British socialist reformer, paid them a visit in the past century and agreed with the standard perception: “dirty, degraded, sullen, lazy and religionless savages who slouch about in dirty white garments of the most inept kind and who live in filthy mud huts. … If anyone can raise the Koreans out of their present state of barbarism, I think the Japanese will.”
This wasn’t good news, since she observed, with everyone else, that in Japan “there is evidently no desire to teach people to think.”
As I write this, I am staring at a pair of Samsung monitors and drinking a mug from my Bosch coffee maker, products I purchased not only because they’re the best available, but, I’ll admit, because I have a certain affinity for German and Korean design, to the care and devotion of their industrial cultures. Somehow, in a shockingly brief period, cultures that were considered irredeemably idle and corrupt and lazy turned themselves into the complete opposite.
I can cite other examples. Twenty years ago, a staple of any TV comedian’s routine was the Irish joke. The notion that this pub-bound, peat-burning people would soon become world leaders in software innovation and have Europe’s most productive economy would have been worth a laugh. Now, the Irish make jokes about us.
The Poles, as recently as a couple of years ago, were all fat guys with big mustaches who drank a lot of beer and were the subject of a whole genre of laziness and stupidity jokes. I’m sure you remember a few. Now, I’m continually confronted with British newspaper articles celebrating the “Polish work ethic” of these young, attractive, ambitious people, and asking why it can’t be emulated by the locals.
Mr. Chang has unearthed this material to deliver an important point. There is a popular belief these days that economic failure is the product of cultures. Africa, Latin America and the Middle East are simply lacking a hard-work belief system.
Mr. Chang quotes Samuel Huntington, in his bestseller The Clash of Civilizations, explaining why he believes Korea has made it and Ghana hasn’t: “Culture had to be a large part of the explanation. South Koreans valued thrift, investment, hard work, education, organization and discipline. Ghanaians had different values.”
Yet, as those old quotes show, when the Koreans were beginning to industrialize, they had exactly the same “values” as the Ghanaians supposedly do today. Yet the myth of culture-driven economies is popular: Economist David Landes and political writer Francis Fukuyama have suggested that the success of some Asian economies and the failure of Middle Eastern ones are due to the productive ethics of Confucian culture versus the backward nature of Muslim cultures.
Of course, those cultures do bring out the best and worst in people. Confucian cultures today display admirable traits such as secularism, education and equality; many Muslim cultures devote themselves to superstition and victimization, scorn higher learning and treat women differently from men.
But Mr. Chang notes that these cultures are also dominated by equally strong, opposing traits: Confucianism is both “a culture that values thrift, investment, hard work, education, organization and discipline” and “a culture that disparages practical pursuits, discourages entrepreneurship and retards the rule of law.” Islamic culture, as well as the destructive traits I listed, also “encourages social mobility and entrepreneurship, respects commerce, has a contractual frame of mind, emphasizes rational thinking, and is tolerant of diversity and thus creativity.”
In other words, when a culture is placed in a successful economic setting, it delivers its best. In a failed economy, it forces its people to live according to their worst stereotypes. When there’s nothing good to work for, people really do become lazy and untrustworthy. You probably would too. Those old-time Germans and Koreans had more in common, culturally, with the Guatemalans and Ghanaians of today than they do with their own great-grandchildren.
Cultures really can make people nasty and lax – it’s not an illusion. But the thing we forget, and the thing we should remember in our immigration and foreign-aid policies, is that cultures are constantly changing, often in 180-degree turns, and if we can make their economies work, they change very, very fast.