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Gary Becker Says "Economics Trumps Culture"



At the Chicago American Economic Association (AEA) meetings, I attended an 8 AM session on Sun., Jan. 8, 2012 in honor of the 30 anniversary of Gary Becker's Treatise on the Family. At the end of the session, Becker discussed five issues related to the book.

One of these was the question of whether the features of the family are best understood on the basis of economic issues or cultural issues. He mentioned two examples: the Irish family and the Asian family. In the past it had been claimed that the Irish family would have enduring features due to religion and culture, features such as many children and women who stayed at home. Today, Becker noted, the Irish family looks much like other European families. He then paraphrased Singapore's former ruler Lee Kuan Yew as having claimed in the past that the Asian family is superior to the Western family in its cohesiveness and loyalty. Today, Becker noted, Asian families look much more like Western families. Becker concluded that in the short run cultural factors may dominate, but that in the long run economic factors dominate. He said "Economics trumps culture."

Becker's discussion has broader relevance. One of the issues that I am grappling with in my research and teaching is the extent to which success at entrepreneurial innovation depends on cultural differences and the extent to which it depends on differences in constraints and policies.

If policies matter more, then it is easier to see a clear path toward progress, than if murkier cultural issues matter more.





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