The Greece crisis: What’s Culture got to do with it?

No need to reiterate or even summarize the many accounts of how the draconian ‘deal’ with Tsipras’ Greece was conceived. We don’t know what we know or don’t know, until maybe in a few decades a few of the protagonists decide the world is really ready for their tell-all memoirs. What we do know, presumably of course, is that the measures that Greece will be struck with are unprecedented and maligned by some leading economists, such as Nobel Prize laureates Krugman and Stiglitz (who coincidentally happen to have more or less predicted the 2008 financial crisis), while the proponents of the deal claim that the country’s problems structurally stem from a government that is too inefficient and too large. Therefore, they state, a structural downsizing of the state bureaucracy is crucial.

We shouldn’t get into the economical side of this debate. Basically, we wouldn’t be able to say who’s right, because the economists do not only disagree on the methods, crucially they already diverge on the desired outcome. The ongoing public debate between Krugman and Alberto Alesina, of the American Bureau of Economic Research (NBER), is testament to this. Because economics is nothing, if not ideologically driven.

If that is the case, if we can’t reliable predict which economic policy is objectively best, on what do we, the non-economist Europeans, actually base our judgments then? What are the reasons behind the vastly different reactions of the public to this crisis, including the layman’s theories as to why it occurred in Greece, Spain, Portugal and admittedly also Ireland, and not in Germany, Netherlands or Finland? Many have already pointed out that there might be a clash of cultures becoming manifest, with the readily available stereotypes of ‘discplined, but harsh Northern Europeans’ and ‘spirited, but lax Southern Europeans’ in hand. Others claimed that Greece in particular was hampered by the prevalence of clientelism, supposedly ingrained by four centuries of Ottoman rule.

Such ‘national characterizations’ are seldom helpful, but more importantly their accuracy is strongly disputed. Concluding from their large-scale study, Terracciano et al. (2005) remarked that descriptions of national character were basically ‘unfounded stereotypes’ and didn’t even contain the ‘kernel of truth’ they are often credited with. And when we look more closely, a first indication to why Terracciano and colleagues might be right is of course the fact that countries aren’t homogenous in their opinions with regard to current debt crisis.

On the one hand, all across Europe, there are those who think the trouble that Greece is in, isn’t all of their own making and that the rest of the Union should be merciful against the Greeks. On the other side, we have those who say that letting Greece of the hook would constitute a dangerous precedent and debtors should repay their debts in principal. Both stances clearly refer to cultural values, so does culture play a role after all?

Research suggests it does. One’s personal values and one’s political preferences are related, but these values seem not distributed over national boundaries, but across the Union over culturo-ideological demarcations. Caprara, Schwartz, Vecchione and Barbaranelli (2008) examined voting intentions of Italians, boiled down to a choice between Silvio Berlusconi as the centre right candidate and Romani Prodi as the centre left candidate. They found that people who intended to vote for Prodi prioritized values such as universalism, benevolence and self-direction, while people who intended to vote for Berlusconi prioritized values such as security, power, achievement, tradition and conformity.

So, what does this mean? Is there a difference between personal and cultural values then? That is unlikely at best: we don’t attain our personal values out of a vacuum, nor are we truly autonomous beings that select or even create their own values based on our unique personalities. We are influenced by our cultural environments, that much is true. But we need to rethink what a cultural environment actually entails: not our nation, not even our region, but the communities we are brought up in, are our main reference for what is wrong and right.

Let’s make one thing abundantly clear: all of this does not provide any answers to the question of why the crisis occurred and why it occurred where it did. It may just show us why people react to it the way they did. Why they think we should be strict or lenient towards Greece. Political preferences are translations of personal, cultural values into the political domain. We fit our ideologies in our value domains, not the other way around. And maybe the same holds true for our preferences for economic policies…


• Caprara, G. V., Schwartz, S. H., Vecchione, M., & Barbaranelli, C. (2008). The personalization of politics: Lessons from the Italian case. European Psychologist, 13(3), 157-172. doi:10.1027/1016-9040.13.3.157

• Terracciano, A., Abdel-Khalek, A. M., Adam, N., Adamovova, L., Ahn, C. K., Ahn, H. N., … & Meshcheriakov, B. (2005). National character does not reflect mean personality trait levels in 49 cultures. Science, 310(5745), 96-100.

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