J. Beliefs about humility and the value of learning from others

The society demonstrates a humble willingness to learn from other people, other nations, and members of other religions

One of the tragedies of the history of economic development is that many nations, for one reason or another, systematically excluded knowledge that they could have learned from other nations that had made new discoveries.

For example, as we explained earlier, Spain and Portugal, during the period of the Inquisition, made a great mistake—they excluded knowledge they could have learned from nations that were not Roman Catholic, and especially from Protestant and Jewish inventors and scientists (see 286-90).

China made a similar mistake. In 1551, the country made it a crime for anyone in China to go to sea on a multimasted ship, thus closing the nation to the possibility of learning from the remarkable discoveries and advances in manufacturing that were about to take place in Europe. This closure of the nation, sadly, “set them, complacent and stubborn, against the lessons and novelties that European travelers would soon be bringing.” Though Europeans were traveling to China, for centuries there were “no Chinese vessels in the harbors of Europe. . . . The first such vessel . . . visited London for the Great Exhibition of 1851.” When the Chinese eventually did travel, “they went to show themselves, not to see and learn; to bestow their presence, not to stay. . . . They were what they were and did not have to change.”[1] Northern Europe far outdistanced China in economic growth because, “unlike China, Europe was a learner” and was eager to adopt knowledge from any country in which it could be found.[2]

Fortunately for China, such prior attitudes changed in the late twentieth century, and today China is eagerly adopting (regretfully, even stealing!) ideas and technology from other nations.

Japan offers perhaps the most remarkable example of significant economic development because of a willingness to learn from other nations. When Europeans initially came to Japan in the mid-sixteenth century, they “got a much warmer greeting than they had received in China,” and “when the Japanese encountered the Europeans, they went about learning their ways.”[3] Unfortunately, in 1612, the Japanese Emperor Tokugawa Ieyasu banned the Christian religion, and hundreds of thousands were put to death. Soon, Japan closed itself to outside influence, and this significantly hindered its economic devel- opment.[4] Economic growth was stalled until the Meiji Restoration in 1867-1868.

After World War II, Japan once again began to prosper by humbly learning from and then imitating the best manufacturing processes from European and American examples. The Japanese learned how to make automobiles better than the Americans, and learned how to make better high-tech products, such as cameras and precision machinery and instruments. They learned these things by sending representatives “to visit western lands and humbly learn by watching and asking, photographing and tape-recording.”[5] Soon they were doing nearly everything better than those they were imitating.

  • [1] Landes, Wealth and Poverty, 96. See also 335-49.
  • [2] Ibid., 348.
  • [3] Ibid., 351-53.
  • [4] Ibid., 355-56.
  • [5] Ibid., 472.
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