Romney’s Historical Misunderstanding, Continued

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David Frum has reviewed three — count ‘em, three — books about the economic development of Italy. Frum oddly does not connect the analysis in the reviews with Mitt Romney’s Guns, Jews, and Steel argument about why rich countries are rich and poor countries are poor. (Perhaps it’s a precaution to avoid being seen as a link whore, always a danger when you’re chasing after the cheap clicks that invariably follow discussions of early-twentieth-century Italian economics.) Having no such compunction myself, I will steal his hard work to point out that the books — at least according to Frum’s review; I’m not going to read three histories of Italy just for a couple lousy blog posts — shed a lot of light on the questions that Romney stumbled into in Jerusalem.

Romney argued that culture explains why countries grow prosperous, or don’t, an explanation he not only stretches beyond all plausibility but also ignores the deeper question of what creates that culture in the first place. (Romney cited “the hand of providence.” Hmm.) Italy offers a more interesting case study. Within Italy, there is an enormous economic and cultural divide between the relatively prosperous north and the more impoverished south, the latter of whom are known as “terroni,” a kind of slang signifying lazy, poor and dirty.

But why? Southern Italy has two of the linked traits that tend to be founded in poorer countries. It’s hot and vulnerable to diseases like malaria, which exerted a massive toll not only on quality of life but on work patterns, settlement patterns, and the relationship between labor and reward. Also, and relatedly, hotter climates tend to encourage the growth of slave labor, and indeed, summarizes Frum, “The South was poor because it had always been poor, dating back probably to when the Romans imposed their system of huge grain estates worked by slave labor.”

As it happens, David Landes — the historian Romney cites as his intellectual inspiration — cites both the disease-circulating effects of heat and its tendency to spawn exploitative labor patterns as causes of Third World poverty. In his Jerusalem remarks, Romney dismissed the notion that “the physical characteristics of the land account for the differences in the success of the people that live there.” But even according to the author Romney cites, the cultural characteristics he sees as totally determinative are themselves the historical residue of the physical characteristics of the land.

Romney is obsessed with a theory of world history he does not appear to grasp. And this seems to confirm a general pattern of Romney picking out very good books and completely misunderstanding them.