The cultural foundations of capitalism

by on May 15, 2007 at 10:46 am in History | Permalink

Sahil, a loyal MR reader, asks:

read your blog post about Roger Scruton’s new book, which you praised
for giving a "good sense of just how much cultural background is needed
to sustain liberty."  That’s an interesting notion.  Do you have
recommendation for books that examine this very idea in a more
systematic way?  I’m sure they’re out there, and I’d be interested to
read them.

I’ll offer a few suggestions: all of Max Weber, the books by Lawrence Harrison, Alan MacFarlane on English individualism, Jonathan Israel on the Dutch Republic, Joseph Conrad, Levi-Strauss’s Triste Tropiques, Rene Girard on Christianity, anything good on English history, Hoskyns on Russian history, Albion’s Seed, IQ and the Wealth of Nations, Gilbert Freyre on Brazil, de Tocqueville, Sarmiento on Argentina, Louis Hartz, and John Gunther on America.  The book "The Influence of the African-American Tradition on the American Ideal of Liberty" remains to be written.  Nor have I scratched the all-important and largely non-European notions of liberty from the Nordic regions, which fed into the English success.

Pro-commercial norms are not scarce, as is evident here in Zanzibar.  But those norms get you only to a medieval standard of living; as Mancur Olson stressed, they do not on their own support the structures of large-scale capitalism.  It is harder to convince people to place larger abstract ideas above immediate duties to friends, family, and clan, but that is indeed the central feature of the problem.

Comments are open, what do you all recommend?

1 mae May 15, 2007 at 11:05 am

The final chapter of “1491” titled “The Great Law of Peace” suggests that American tradition comes not only from Europe but also from the Native American traditions.

2 sd May 15, 2007 at 11:27 am

“It is harder to convince people to place larger abstract ideas above immediate duties to friends, family, and clan, but that is indeed the central feature of the problem.”

Um, Judaism? Christianity? Islam? Buddhism? Etc.?

Placing abstract ideals above immediate concerns of friends, family and clan doesn;t seem to be the missing piece of the puzzle. Seems abundant enough.

3 rameau May 15, 2007 at 11:46 am

For various arguments pro and con the significance of cultural background to social modernization, especially in England:

Hume, _Essays, Moral, Political and Literary_
Hobsbawm, _Industry and Empire_
Poovey, _History of the Modern Fact_
Marx, the last three or so chapters of _Capital_
Montesquieu, _The Spirit of the Laws_

4 adrian May 15, 2007 at 11:56 am

“IQ and the Wealth of Nations”

What’s this I see you recommend? Have you ever posted about this book before? because it is one of the most mindboggling important books ever written.

5 tom s. May 15, 2007 at 12:18 pm

Amartya Sen has things to say about this in his “Development and Freedom”.

6 Matt May 15, 2007 at 1:27 pm

I’m surprised nobody considers Inglehart relevant here, given that he has led the best effort to get an empirical handle on this question, and also reverses most of the common arguments about causality when it comes to the relation between culture and economics:

7 Buce May 15, 2007 at 2:00 pm

Uh, author Hoskyns and subject Russia brings up nothing at Amazon. Can you clarify?

8 adrian May 15, 2007 at 2:22 pm

For a great Historical-fiction look at all Russian history definitely read Edward Rutherford’s Russka. You’ll learn more about ordinary Russians than in any ‘real’ history book, and it’s fun!

9 Mari Kuraishi May 15, 2007 at 2:30 pm

All of Isaiah Berlin’s books, but most of all The Crooked Timber of Humanity ( Still one of the most insightful writers out there on Russia and therefore liberty, and he’s been dead 10 years …

10 dearieme May 15, 2007 at 5:00 pm

Adam Ferguson “An Essay on the History of Civil Society”

11 doctorpat May 15, 2007 at 8:40 pm

“non-European notions of liberty from the Nordic regions”

So scandinavia is not part of Europe now?

12 Aron May 15, 2007 at 9:35 pm

The Island at the Center of the World: The Epic Story of Dutch Manhattan and the Forgotten Colony that Shaped America

The author makes the case that much of what we think of as the American character has its roots in Dutch history.

13 Richard O. Hammer May 16, 2007 at 8:52 am

I argue that geography plays a critical role in the development of liberty, in my paper The History of Free Nations. Isabel Paterson provided the central thesis in this paper.

14 Robert Scarth May 16, 2007 at 3:02 pm

Property and Freedom by Richard Pipes is a history of the idea of property with particularly look at and comparison of how the ideas developed in England and Russia.

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16 dihydrox May 22, 2007 at 10:47 am

How about Daniel Bell’s “The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism”, especially since one of the main themes he focuses on is how we have gotten away from Max Weber’s Protestant work ethic. Also check out “The Coming of Post-Industrial Society” even though it might seem somewhat dated now

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