What are the Fundamental Tenets of Confucianism…Culture as Destiny?

Over the past few weeks, we have addressed the debate regarding the relative explanatory power of cultural versus institutional and rational choice approaches to the analysis of political phenomena.  In the book excerpt, “A Brief History of Human Liberty,” Newsweek editor Fareed Zakaria analyzes the cultural argument regarding economic growth and democracy. He quotes the former Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew:

“…if you want to see how culture works, compare the performance of German workers and Zambian workers anywhere in the world.  You will quickly come to the conclusion that there is something very different in the two cultures that explains the results.”

Zakaria has some sympathy for this argument, but then argues that it is strange that Lee Kuan Yew is such a strong proponent of cultural arguments* given that while Singapore is culturally very similar to its neighbor, Malaysia, Singapore has been much more effective in its economic policies than has its neighbor.  In fact, I would add that a strong argument against cultural explanations of democracy and economic development are the differences between East Germany and West Germany (in the post-WWII-era until unification) and the present difference between North and South Korea.

The 38th parallel may be just a line on a map, and the division of the nation of Korea into two separate states may be a historically contingent act, but it demonstrates the tremendously powerful impact of institutions on a society.  South Korea was able to develop good political and economic institutions, while North Korea has not.  The cultural foundation of each state was similar (although I’m not an expert on Korea, so maybe there was a cultural difference between the “north” and the “south” that can account for the vast differences in the two states today–although I’m highly skeptical) before the division and we know, in a methodological sense, that a constant can not explain an outcome that varies.

Getting back to Zakaria and Lee Yuan Kew, Zakaria writes that

“the key to Singapore’s success…is Lee Kuan Yew, not Confucius.  The point is not that culture is unimportant; on the contrary it matters greatly…But culture can change…A hundred years ago, when East Asia seemed immutably poor, many scholars–most famously Max Weber [we’ve read his Protestant Ethic argument]–argued that Confucian-based cultures discouraged all the attributes necessary for success in capitalism…A decade ago, when East Asia was booming, scholars had turned this explanation on its head, arguing that Confucianism actually emphasized the traits essential for economic dynamism. Today the wheel has turned again and many see in ‘Asian values’ all the ingredients of crony capitalism.”‘

What are these Confucian and ‘Asian values’ about which there has been so much discussion.  Well, needless to say Asia is a vast land mass, with exceedingly high levels of diversity–culturally, linguistically, religiously, racially, etc.  So the concept of ‘Asian values’ may be so amorphous as to http://onpoint.wbur.org/2006/08/15/china-and-confucian-democracy http://onpoint.wbur.org/2006/08/http://onpoint.wbur.org/2006/08/15/china-and-confucian-democracy/china-and-confucian-democracy.  Confucianism, however, is a distinct and compact body of ideas that has a comprehensive philosophical foundation.  What are Confucian values, then and do they help or hinder China’s precarious journey towards democracy and economic development?  Well, here’s an answer from political philosopher Daniel Bell, who insists that ultimately, Confucianism is about three core values.  What are these?  Listen to the first ten minutes of the audio podcast from this episode of “On Point.”  Here’s a link to the URL on which you can find an archived version of the show.

**Here, it should be noted that a reason Lee Kuan Yew is strongly predisposed to arguing on the basis of culture is his contempt for the licentiousness of Western values and his desire to prevent demands for those kinds of freedoms (as long as political liberty) to take root in the strongly authoritarian state of Singapore.  Just read his statements during the infamous Michael Fay incident.

It wasn’t long before Singapore patriarch Lee Kuan Yew weighed in. He reckoned the whole affair revealed America’s moral decay. “The U.S. government, the U.S. Senate and the U.S. media took the opportunity to ridicule us, saying the sentence was too severe,” he said in a television interview. “[The U.S.] does not restrain or punish individuals, forgiving them for whatever they have done. That’s why the whole country is in chaos: drugs, violence, unemployment and homelessness. The American society is the richest and most prosperous in the world but it is hardly safe and peaceful.”

Here’s another story on the incident.