Culture Still Matters

Victor Davis Hanson

5/31/2012 12:01:00 AM - Victor Davis Hanson

RUDESHEIM, Germany -- This week I am leading a military history tour on the Rhine River from Basel, Switzerland, to Amsterdam. You can learn a lot about Europe's current economic crises by just ignoring the sophisticated barrage of news analysis and instead watching, listening, and talking to people as you go down river.

Switzerland, by modern standards, should be poor. Like Bolivia, it is landlocked. Like Italy, it has no real gas or oil wealth. Like Afghanistan, its northern climate and mountainous terrain limit agricultural productivity to upland plains. And like Turkey, it is not a part of the European Union.

Unlike Americans, the Swiss are among the most homogeneous people in the world, without much diversity, and make it nearly impossible to immigrate there.

So Switzerland supposedly has everything going against it, and yet it is one of the wealthiest nations in the world. Why and how?

To answer that is also to learn why roughly 82 million Germans produce almost as much national wealth as do 130 million Greeks, Portuguese, Italians, and Spaniards. Yet the climate of Germany is somewhat harsh; it too has no oil or gas. By 1945, German cities lay in ruins, while Detroit and Cleveland were booming. The Roman historian Tacitus remarked that pre-civilized Germany was a bleak land of cold weather, with little natural wealth and inhabited by tribal savages.

Race does not explain present-day national wealth. From 500 B.C. to A.D. 1300, Switzerland and Germany were considered brutal and backward in comparison to classical Greece and Rome, and later Renaissance Venice and Florence.

Instead, culture explains far more -- a seemingly taboo topic when economists nonchalantly suggest that contemporary export-minded Germans simply need to spend and relax like laid-back Southern Mediterraneans, and that the latter borrowers save and produce like workaholic Germans to even out the playing field of the European Union.

But government-driven efforts to change national behavior often ignore stubborn cultural differences that reflect centuries of complex history as well as ancient habits and adaptations to geography and climate. Greeks can no more easily give up siestas than the Swiss can mandate two-hour afternoon naps. If tax cheating is a national pastime in Palermo, in comparison it is difficult along the Rhine.

I lived in Greece for over two years and often travel to northern and Mediterranean Europe and North Africa. While I prefer the Peloponnese to the Rhineland, over the years I have developed an unscientific and haphazard -- but often accurate -- politically incorrect method of guessing whether a nation is likely to be perennially insolvent and wracked by corruption.

Do average passersby throw down or pick up litter? After a minor fender-bender, do drivers politely exchange information, or scream and yell with wild gesticulations? Is honking constant or sporadic? Are crosswalks sacrosanct? Do restaurant dinners usually start or wind down at 9 p.m.? Can you drink tap water, or should you avoid it? Do you mostly pay what the price tag says, or are you expected to pay in untaxed cash and then haggle over the unstated cost? Are construction sites clearly marked and fenced to protect pedestrians, or do you risk walking into an open pit or getting stabbed by exposed rebar?

To put these crude stereotypes more abstractly, is civil society mostly moderate, predicated on the rule of law, and meritocratic -- or is it better characterized by self-indulgence, cynicism and tribalism?

The answers to these questions do not hinge on race, money or natural wealth, but they do involve culture and the way average people predictably live minute by minute. Again, these national habits and traditions accrued over centuries, and as much as politics or economics, they explain in part why Bonn is not Athens, and Zurich is not Naples, or for that matter why Cairo is unlike Tel Aviv or why Mexico City differs from Toronto.

There is one final funny thing about contemporary culture. What people say and do about it are two different things. We in the postmodern, politically correct West publicly pontificate that all cultures are just different and to assume otherwise is pop generalization, but privately assume that you would prefer your bank account to be in Frankfurt rather than Athens, or the tumor in your brain to be removed in London rather than Lisbon.

A warm sunset with an ouzo on a Greek island beach may be more relaxing than schnapps on the foggy Rhine shore, but to learn why Greeks will probably not pay back what they owe Germany -- and do not believe that they should have to -- take a walk through central Athens and then do the same in Munich.