“Law and force cannot change a man's heart”
Thursday, April 5, 2012
Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson

Well that’s what President Dwight Eisenhower supposedly said to Chief Justice Warren after the Supreme Court passed Brown vs. Board of Education which ruled that segregated schools were unconstitutional.

But Brown vs. Board of Education, together with landmark federal legislations such as the Civil Rights Acts of 1957 and 1964, and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, was supposed to be a death knell for the institutions of the US South and it was.

Why didn’t Eisenhower get it?

He didn’t because he had the wrong theory of why the South was the way it was. He thought that it was all due to southern culture, which was racist and which intrinsically thought of blacks and whites as being different. According to this cultural theory, the differences between the north and the south, for example in terms of race relations and institutions, were ancient and immutable and dated back to the creation of these societies in the 16th and 17th centuries. You can’t change people’s culture with a law. At least that’s what the theory says.

In economics this type of theory is most popular in the context of the difference between the north and south of Italy — though it has recently become more popular as an explanation for why some countries are prosperous and some are not. The south of Italy is much poorer and, so the argument goes, this is because southern Italians lack “social capital”, don’t trust each other, and do not have the type of culture and values necessary to have a modern economy.

What can you do about that? Not much unfortunately (though as we saw in the context of Haiti, some like the New York Times columnist David Brooks propose wholesale “cultural change”).

This literature, which dates back at least to Edward Banfield’s Moral Basis of a Backward Society, published in 1958, and has been popularized by Robert Putnam’s Making Democracy Work, sees the roots of this difference between the north and south of Italy in medieval history and the fact that the south of Italy was invaded by the Normans who created feudalism. Take a look at these pictures from Banfield’s book of suspicious looking southern Italians.

Would you trust them? Case closed.

But wait a minute, didn’t the Normans invade England and impose feudalism there as well? Do the English have the same “culture” as southern Italians?

Many things are rooted in history, but the “culture” of the US South was actually not one of them as the historian C. Vann Woodward showed in his brilliant book, The Strange Career of Jim Crow, published a year after Eisenhower’s remark.

Woodward showed that all of the supposed facets which distinguished southern society, particularly racial segregation and its institutionalization, did not date from deep history but were created de novo in the 1890s when southern states re-wrote their constitutions to control the black population which had been emancipated at the end of the Civil War (see also Suresh Naidu’s research on the impact of disenfranchising blacks).

 Just as laws had created what subsequently appeared to be immutable southern “culture,” laws could get rid of it. The South changed, black people recovered their dignity and freedom and, guess what, the South got a lot richer — largely because exploiting people and discriminating against them is not a good way of creating prosperity.

Article originally appeared on Why Nations Fail by Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson (http://whynationsfail.com/).
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