In our efforts to reduce poverty and spur economic growth, it can be easy to be consumed with top-down policy solutions and debates about the proper allocation of resources. Yet as many economists are beginning to recognize, the distinguishing features of flourishing societies are more readily found at the levels of culture – in our attitudes, beliefs, and imaginations.
According to economist David Rose, for example, “it is indeed culture – not genes, geography, institutions, policies, or leadership – that ultimately determines the differential success of societies.” Or, as economist Deirdre McCloskey explains, it is “ideas and rhetoric,” not capita ( or even our institutions) that deserve our utmost praise and attention. “Our riches did not come from piling brick on brick, or bachelor’s degree on bachelor’s degree, or bank balance on bank balance,” McCloskey writes, “but from piling idea on idea.”
But while many societies have prospered due to distinct cultural features – common virtues, social trust, attitudes about property, markets, and entrepreneurship – others have languished by ignoring or actively subverting them. When the state seeks to manage and plan its way to equality and prosperity from the top down, what becomes of culture in those “middle layers of society”?
In a new study titled “Persistence through Revolutions,” researchers explore this question through the lens of China’s Communist and Cultural Revolutions, observing their various failures and successes in eradicating particular ideas, attitudes, and virtues from Chinese society. Their conclusion: culture matters far more, and thus, is far harder to control or erase, than we typically imagine.
Unlike many of our modern attempts at social engineering, China’s revolutions were extreme efforts to reorganize society. They were designed to snuff out any lingering “capitalist” or “traditionalist” sentiments and impede “cultural transmission” among the privileged classes of society through penalties and legal constraints. As the authors explain:
These two revolutions represent two of the most extreme attempts in human history to eliminate the advantages of the elite, to eradicate inequality in wealth and education, to close down formal channels of intergenerational transmission such as inheritance and schooling, and to erase cultural differences in the population, especially between the rich and the poor. More specifically, during the Communist Revolution and the subsequent Cultural Revolution, land assets were expropriated from the rich and redistributed to the poor, secondary schools and universities were shut down throughout the country, and the values of traditional education were heavily stigmatized. In other words, the revolutions were meant to homogenize economically and culturally the entire population of China, including by breaking the transmission of wealth and values within families.
At first glance, such efforts were largely effective in achieving their goals – steamrolling existing institutions, redistributing property, and imposing strict cultural conformity at the expense of human dignity, freedom, and prosperity. Over the long term, however, we see that even these extreme efforts did not succeed. Despite the intensive economic management, the violent waves of repression, and laws aiming to discredit and dismantle pre-revolution elites, remnants of “traditionalist” Chinese culture still proved resilient.
Based on historical data on land asset ownership, inequality, socioeconomic outcomes and cultural values, the researchers found that specific “pro-market” attitudes and other cultural traits still seem to have successfully “transmitted” to future generations, particularly among pre-revolution elites and their descendants, and most likely within the confines of the home:
Despite the immediate “success” of the Communist and Cultural Revolutions, the patterns of inequality that characterized the “grandparents” generation are re-emerging among the “grandchildren.” The grandchildren of the pre-revolution elite earn about 17 percent higher income each year, and have completed more than 10 percent additional years of schooling than those from the non-elite households … The persistence rate of the elites over three generations is much higher than zero, and the Chinese revolutions did not raise China’s social mobility above the levels reached by two capitalist economies.
Cultural transmission is an important reason that explains this rebound. The grandchildren of the pre-revolution elite exhibit different cultural values: they are less averse to inequality, more individualistic, and more likely to consider effort as important to success. This is in line with a revealed preference for working longer hours during workdays and spending less time on leisure during weekends. Consistent with vertical transmission of values, these patterns are much stronger among grandchildren who co-live with their parents, and absent among those whose parents have passed away early, suggesting that time spent together through co-residence could be a critical condition for cultural values to be passed down through generations …
This suggests that while the Communist and Cultural Revolutions have successfully stigmatized some cultural traits publicly expressed, privately held beliefs could still be transmitted across generations through actual behavior. The intergenerational transmission thus allowed cultural traits to survive perhaps the most aggressive attempt to eliminate differences among people in recent history.
You can read the full study here.
The Chinese revolutions committed massive cultural destruction, to be sure. But the study reminds us that we are not powerless in the face of oppression. Despite decades of abuse from the Communist regime, Chinese families have continued to teach and disciple their children with remarkable persistence and ingenuity. Although some of those foundational ideas still transmit secretly, moving quietly behind token public acknowledgements of the preferred propaganda, they remain powerful and transformative.
“The vertical transmission of cultural values (‘informal human capital’) is extremely resilient,” the researchers conclude. “[E]ven stigmatizing public expression of values may not be sufficient, since the transmission in the private environment could occur regardless. The cultural transmission within the family seems to have survived extraordinarily broad and deep institutional and political changes, with an extraordinary resilience.”
In Acton’s PovertyCure series, Michael Fairbanks notes that it is this sort of “cultural capital” that truly enables societies and economies to flourish:
The most important type of capital is cultural capital … How does a group of people attach meaning in their lives? Are they tolerant of people unlike themselves? Are they optimistic about the future? Do they believe in competition? It’s trustful relationships … loving new ideas, loving the idea of serving the client very, very well. This cultural capital tells you if the country has the conditions to be prosperous in the future.
The persistence of cultural capital is part of a broader story, but as researchers and economists continue to uncover lessons such as these, it’s a theme that warrants our attention.
We would do well to respect the role of culture in creating prosperity.
(Photo credit: shankar s. CC BY 2.0.)