In making his controversial argument that “culture” was the main reason Israelis were wealthier than Palestinians, Mitt Romney cited two authors who had written major works on the wealth of nations, Daniel Landes and Jared Diamond. The latter took to the New York Times op-ed page on Thursday to clear the record, saying Romney’s account of his argument was wildly inaccurate. While Romney saw Diamond as arguing that “physical characteristics of the land” like iron deposits were the key determinants of a nation’s success, Diamond’s book Guns, Germs, and Steel instead emphasizes water access, local plant and animal life, and geographical features like latitude as being determinative. Diamond calls Romney’s interpretation “so different from what my book actually says that I have to doubt whether Mr. Romney read it.”
But, in Diamond’s view, this misrepresentation isn’t “the worst part.” Rather, it was his reduction of an immensely complex subject to a simplistic, one-word explanation:
Even scholars who emphasize social rather than geographic explanations — like the Harvard economist David S. Landes, whose book “The Wealth and Poverty of Nations” was mentioned favorably by Mr. Romney — would find Mr. Romney’s statement that “culture makes all the difference” dangerously out of date. In fact, Mr. Landes analyzed multiple factors (including climate) in explaining why the industrial revolution first occurred in Europe and not elsewhere.
Just as a happy marriage depends on many different factors, so do national wealth and power. That is not to deny culture’s significance. Some countries have political institutions and cultural practices — honest government, rule of law, opportunities to accumulate money — that reward hard work. Others don’t. Familiar examples are the contrasts between neighboring countries sharing similar environments but with very different institutions. (Think of South Korea versus North Korea, or Haiti versus the Dominican Republic.) Rich, powerful countries tend to have good institutions that reward hard work. But institutions and culture aren’t the whole answer, because some countries notorious for bad institutions (like Italy and Argentina) are rich, while some virtuous countries (like Tanzania and Bhutan) are poor.
Diamond concludes on an even harsher note, saying “Mitt Romney may become our next president. Will he continue to espouse one-factor explanations for multicausal problems, and fail to understand history and the modern world? If so, he will preside over a declining nation squandering its advantages of location and history.” This isn’t the first time scholars of national wealth have repudiated Romney’s remarks — Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson, authors of the seminal Why Nations Fail, also argued that Mitt got the subject wrong, saying “Mitt should do some more reading.”