Persistence of Culture (and Institutions)

“How persistent are cultural traits? Using data on anti-Semitism in Germany, we find local continuity over 600 years. Jews were often blamed when the Black Death killed at least a third of Europe’s population during 1348–50. We use plague-era pogroms as an indicator for medieval anti-Semitism. They reliably predict violence against Jews in the 1920s, votes for the Nazi Party, deportations after 1933, attacks on synagogues, and letters to Der Sturmer. We also identify areas where persistence was lower: cities withhigh levels of trade or immigration. Finally, we show that our results are not driven by political extremism or by different attitudes toward violence.”

That is Voigtlander and Voth writing in the Quarterly Journal of Economics.

Their paper speaks to my previous post on the challenges of institutional engineering given the stickiness of institutions (and by extension the cultures that create and then reinforce them). Of course culture is a dicey subject that is often misused to explain economic and social outcomes. Instead of using the amorphous term “culture” I prefer to hear more about the reward systems that make it beneficial for individuals and communities to engage in certain cultural practices.

On a more positive note, the paper provides some evidence of the power of economic opportunities to dis-incentivize engagement in hateful cultural practices:

“Instead of reinforcing persistence, we argue that economic factors had the potential to undermine it…… Our results also lend qualified support to Montesquieu’s famous dictum that trade encourages ‘‘civility.’’

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