Geography and Prosperity

Apparently, Mitt Romney has mischaracterized the views of Jared Diamond, a scientist who is best known for his argument that geography is a major determinant of a society’s development. Whereas Romney emphasized culture and the physical characteristics of the land, Diamond’s thesis is more complex and nuanced. As he clarifies in the New York Times:

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.

A different set of factors involves geography, which embraces many more aspects than the physical characteristics Mr. Romney dismissed. One such geographic factor is latitude, which has big effects on wealth and power today: tropical countries tend to be poorer than temperate-zone countries. Reasons include the debilitating effects of tropical diseases on life span and work, and the average lower productivity of agriculture and soils in the tropics than in the temperate zones.

A second factor is access to the sea. Countries without a seacoast or big navigable rivers tend to be poor, because transport costs overland or by air are much higher than transport costs by sea.

A third geographic factor is the history of agriculture. If an extraterrestrial had toured earth in the year 2000 B.C., the visitor would have noticed that centralized government, writing and metal tools were already widespread in Eurasia but hadn’t yet appeared in the New World, sub-Saharan Africa or Australia. That long head start would have let the visitor predict correctly that today, most of the world’s richest and most powerful countries would be Eurasian countries (and their overseas settlements in North America, Australia and New Zealand).

The reason is the historical effect of geography: 13,000 years ago, all peoples everywhere were hunter-gatherers living in sparse populations without centralized government, armies, writing or metal tools. These four roots of power arose as consequences of the development of agriculture, which generated human population explosions and accumulations of food surpluses capable of feeding full-time leaders, soldiers, scribes and inventors. But agriculture could originate only in those few regions endowed with many wild plant and animal species suitable for domestication, like wild wheat, rice, pigs and cattle.

In short, geographic explanations and cultural-institutional explanations aren’t independent of each other. Of course, not all agricultural regions developed honest centralized government, but no nonagricultural region ever developed any centralized government, whether honest or dishonest. That’s why institutions promoting wealth today arose first in Eurasia, the area with the oldest and most productive agriculture.

So wealth and development have more to do with deterministic circumstances than with any intellectual, moral, or cultural superiority on the part of a given society. Obviously, sociocultural values matter to some extent, and their influence varies from nation to nation. But the point is that we can’t ignore the role that sheer luck  has played in allowing some civilizations to prosper while others of similar potential languish.

What does this mean for Americans? Can we assume that the United States, blessed with temperate location and seacoasts and navigable rivers, will remain rich forever, while tropical or landlocked countries are doomed to eternal poverty?

Of course not. Some tropical and subtropical countries have become richer despite geographic limitations. They’ve invested in public health to overcome their disease burdens (Botswana and the Philippines). They’ve invested in crops adapted to the tropics (Brazil and Malaysia). They’ve focused their economies on sectors other than agriculture (Singapore and Taiwan).

Conversely, geographic advantages don’t guarantee permanent success, as the growing difficulties in Europe and America show. We Americans fail to provide superior education and economic incentives to much of our population. India, China and other countries that have not been world leaders are investing heavily in education, technology and infrastructure. They’re offering economic opportunities to more and more of their citizens. That’s part of the reason jobs are moving overseas. Our geography won’t keep us rich and powerful if we can’t get a good education, can’t afford health care and can’t count on our hard work’s being rewarded by good jobs and rising incomes.

This would also explain the disparity in wealth that exists within societies as well. Those citizens born in neighborhoods or regions that lack resources, strong institutions, infrastructure, and opportunity are going to be worse of than those born in more prosperous parts of the country. Hard work and good values will only get them so far unless there is necessary public investment – hence why the most developed states in the world also display the highest commitment to building up public institutions.

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