Peter Berger: What the Eastern World Can Teach the West About Itself

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In this episode of World of Ideas, Peter Berger, an economist and professor of sociology and religion at Boston University, discussed democracy, capitalism and religion. A noted scholar of American society, Berger discussed how studying the “economic miracle” of East Asia can reveal some important truths about the state of our democracy and about the relationship of character to capitalism.


BILL MOYERS: [on camera] Good evening, I’m Bill Moyers. Walk into any bookstore these days and you’ll see at least half a dozen books on what American business executives can learn from Japanese managers. Walk into any parking lot or appliance store and you’ll agree they ought to learn something. But there’s more to the lesson than just the techniques of management. Tonight a noted scholar of American society tells us how studying the “economic miracle” of East Asia can also reveal some important truths about the state of our democracy and about the relationship of character to capitalism. Join me for a conversation with Peter Berger.

[voice-over] Peter Berger is as much at home on the streets of the world’s great cities,as he is in the ivory towers of the universities where he has been teaching most of his career. A renowned sociologist, celebrated and criticized for his advocacy of links between democracy and capitalism, Berger is also, by his own definition, a Christian and a conservative. But just about the time you think you can put a label on his thinking, he writes a new book that can turn your opinion of him and your own ideas upside down. Berger teaches religion and sociology at Boston University, and heads the institute for study of economic culture. We talked during a recent visit to New York, as he was on route to Japan to study the emerging capitalist economies of East Asia.

[interviewing] You’re spending a lot of your time these days in East Asia. You’re studying those societies, you’re visiting those societies, you’re writing about those societies. Why? Why are they so important to you?

PETER BERGER: Well, they’re not so much important to me personally. I find other parts of the world in many ways more congenial. But most of my professional life I’ve been concerned with modernization and development, and that’s where it’s really happening in the most dramatic way.

BILL MOYERS: And by modernization you mean?

PETER BERGER: The transformation of the world by modem science and technology. Japan, especially, is the most successful case outside the West. It’s a mirror for us in many ways, but Japan is no longer alone; you now have the other successful societies of Eastern Asia. And I think it’s terribly important to understand what makes them tick, not just because they are so important that we should understand them, but to understand ourselves. Looking at them, I think, we can see much more clearly what our own society is and is not.

BILL MOYERS: You said that they are a mirror. When you look into that mirror, what do you see about us?

PETER BERGER: Well, we see what is and what is not essential to certain institutions. I’ll give you a specific example: capitalism, which has been the dominant economic institution of the West. Many people have, either advocating capitalism or criticizing it, argued, for example, that capitalism is inevitably linked to individualism. Some people have said this is great, liberty, et cetera; others have said critics of capitalism, selfishness, egocentric, type of thing, it’s bad — but they’ve agreed this is a necessary linkage. You look at East Asian capitalism, there’s no question its capitalism. In Japan, for example, in Taiwan and Singapore; it’s not linked to individualism; it’s linked to a culture which is much more communalistic, in which —

BILL MOYERS: The group, much more concerned with the group; the goal is the welfare of the group as opposed to the profit of the individual.

PETER BERGER: Well, what the Japanese call groupiness. Apparently capitalism manages to link up with cultures that are much less individualistic than ours. So one not unimportant conclusion we get from looking in the East Asian mirror is that the necessary linkage between those two phenomena, individualism and capitalism, is not as necessary as both advocates and critics of capitalism in the West have thought. That’s important. And there are other such things.

BILL MOYERS: But if these societies are, as you say, group-oriented, community-minded, capitalism as I have known it, as you have defined it, as we have seen it, ultimately undermines, does it not, the group ethos, the group ethic, because ultimately it is my success, my cunning and my reward that makes capitalism payoff. Ultimately won’t capitalism in these East Asian societies undermine the very ethos, the very culture that has given rise to it, that has brought it to the fore?

PETER BERGER: Mr. Moyers, the reason I’m smiling is because the question you’ve just asked is the question I call the 64-billion-yen question-


PETER BERGER: Yen, yes. Good money, not our cheap Third World currency — because it seems to me it’s one of the most important questions about East Asia. Are they becoming more like us? Is capitalism — and capitalism is only one element: capitalism, democracy, the Western-dominated culture of the non-socialist world — are these forces going to change Japan and the other East Asian societies in a direction which would make them more similar to ourselves, in such matters as individualism? Terribly important question. I don’t think at this point we know the answer. Their economic culture has obvious traits which are useful to them in international competition; hard work, saving, the famous East Asian work ethic, et cetera. If they become more like us, they’re going to lose some of that. They’re going to lose some of their comparative advantage vis-a-vis us. And one way in which one could put this rather dramatically — I think there’s time to tell a short story.


PETER BERGER: Okay. Last time I was in Japan I tried this on a bunch of Japanese scholars who didn’t quite get the thing I was driving at. I happened to read the history of ancient Rome the other day for uninteresting reasons, uninteresting to this discussion. And I came upon a very nice story. In the early days of the Roman Republic, when Rome was at war with Greek kingdoms in Southern Italy, the Roman envoy, sort of a robust old Roman type, was sent to the court of the Greek king. He was next to, at dinner, an epicurean philosopher who explained to him the epicurean philosophy that the purpose of life is happiness. The Roman listened to all of this and then said, I hope that you continue to hold these beliefs as long as you are at war with Rome.

I suggested to these Japanese people looking at Western culture they should say to us, “We hope that you Westerners continue to hold these beliefs as long as you are in competition with us.”


PETER BERGER: Because our cult of self-realization, individual happiness, sort of the pursuit of happiness of the founding fathers carried to an almost crazy extreme, is not helping us economically. Their hard work, ascetic, self-denying group-oriented ethos I think has helped them economically. It’s to their advantage that we continue to be as we are, economic advantage; it would be to our economic advantage if they became more like us.

BILL MOYERS: Now, there’s a paradox, at least I heard a paradox in what you said, that this individualism is at the heart of our democratic capitalism, is in fact the dynamic behind our affluence, our wealth. And then I heard you say, however, it’s not serving us that well now, or did I hear you wrongly?

PETER BERGER: Yes, I don’t think it’s a paradox. I mean, the old individualism of the West had a different ethos attached to it. It was what Max Weber called the Protestant ethic, the Puritan — but even in non-Protestant countries the old bourgeois virtues, which were much more individualistic than East Asia, but it was an individualism that was coupled with hard work, saving and discipline.

BILL MOYERS: An ethic of responsibility to the whole.

PETER BERGER: An ethic of communal responsibility, not like the East Asian one, but certainly not like what is much more common now in the West, an ethos of self -realization and never mind the community. No, I don’t think it’s a contradiction. We’re talking about different phases of Western culture.

BILL MOYERS: But do you think this rampant individualism, this celebration of individual cunning in the pursuit of status and wealth, as somebody said, is making us less competitive with these East Asian societies that are now emerging?

PETER BERGER: Well, what is making us less competitive, I think, is a culture in which common effort for the purpose of a collective goal-I don’t mean of the nation as a whole, but the company, the firm, et cetera -is much less strong than it was, I think, in our own culture, say, a half-century ago. Loyalty to one’s enterprise, things like saving, et cetera. Yes, I think that is an economic disadvantage.

BILL MOYERS: What’s happened, then, because there has been, it seems to me, a loss of the community ethic, a loss of the sense of republic, the “We, the people” approach. Even though those terms are much heralded rhetorically, they are also often violated in practice. Do you think something fundamental has happened?

PETER BERGER: Well, I think it’s less fundamental than some critics of contemporary America have argued. I don’t think we are all engaged in a kind of mindless, greedy pursuit of wealth. I think there are sectors of the society of whom this is true. But one thing that strikes one about America, especially if one goes abroad a lot, is the amount of concern that this country has for every conceivable sort of disadvantaged group, and I don’t mean the country in the sense of the government, but in the sense of people, churches, associations. So I don’t think it-I would not take a sort of generally gloomy position as to how all these old wonderful values have decayed. They have decayed in certain sectors, and they are unfortunately strategic sectors.

BILL MOYERS: Where, for example?

PETER BERGER: Well, there are certainly — to take what has been much in the news lately — there is certainly a sector, so-called yuppie sector, of the business world, in which you have a group of young people who seem to be severed from all moorings, certainly all religious moorings, and who are in there no matter what, criminally or otherwise, to make money. That’s a very unfortunate development. In my opinion, even more serious is an alienation of important sectors of the cultural elite from the values that originally shaped the society. I like to call it the knowledge class. Which in many ways has been severed, in a very different way from young yuppies cheating their customers on Wall Street, but have also been severed from the moorings that used to hold this culture together and that made the market economy something else than simply a machine for accumulating money.

BILL MOYERS: And what are those moorings they’ve become separated from?

PETER BERGER: Well, the most important are religious. I mean, if you look at the United States cross-nationally, it is the most religious country in the West by any religious indicator. We are something like India in terms of how many people go to services, give money to religious institutions, elect to be ministers, et cetera, church attendance. The cultural elite is very different, the most secularized portion of the population. Like Sweden, if you will. I mean, looking at the cultural elite, compared to America as a whole, one could use the image it’s a Sweden superimposed on an India. But the decline of religion in certain populations has had some social consequences that are unfortunate. Conversely, religion in most of the world, certainly in Asia, is a very potent force.

BILL MOYERS: As Protestantism played a role in this country, religion is playing a role in the capitalist explosion in East Asia?

PETER BERGER: Yes, well, Confucianism, some people argue, is not a religion; I would say it is a religion. Certainly if one means by religion philosophical and moral systems, absolutely, no question about it, including Buddhism and Shinto and probably very important elements of folk religion.

BILL MOYERS: Folk religion?

PETER BERGER: Yes, the people’s religion.

BILL MOYERS: And what is religion there, how is it connecting to capitalism? Because I think of it as such an outgrowth of the Protestant ethic and Catholic organization.

PETER BERGER: I think that it is time for a short story. The last time I was in Singapore, which was last year, it was the Chinese — I didn’t even know this — the Chinese festival of hungry ghosts. Once a year — a hungry ghost is the ghost of someone who died, who doesn’t have children who perform the necessary sacrifices, who therefore doesn’t get fed in the other world, and comes back and does mischief. At the festival of hungry ghosts, the community feeds the hungry ghosts, so that they will go away and create mischief. Well, I had dinner with some friends, went back to my hotel, which was a big, it was a Hilton hotel, Western-type hotel, and there was a little tent next to the hotel. The union, the workers’ association, employees association of the hotel, had a shrine for the hungry ghosts. That in itself was not surprising; what surprised me, we went in, there was this Chinese man selling paper money, which you bum, which then is transferred to the other world for the use of the hungry ghosts, but back of where he sat he had a big piece of paper in which were entered the exact amounts that each person had given for the hungry ghosts. It was a bookkeeping arrangement. That is very Chinese; that is East Asian folk religion, a pragmatic, indeed capitalistic attitude in dealing with the next world. I mean, the ghosts can actually go and look at the balance statement, all right? That is very important, I think, that lies underneath. It’s a hard-headed practicality in dealing even with ghosts. And I think that has a lot to do with economic attitudes, with economic culture.

BILL MOYERS: Have you also been surprised to discover capitalism taking root in authoritarian societies, because reading Peter Berger, one comes to the strong impression that democracy and capitalism are necessary partners, and in Japan to a lesser extent, more so in Hong Kong, Singapore, Taiwan and Korea, those are authoritarian societies.

PETER BERGER: No, that does not contradict my view. My views are not at all infallible and often contradicted by facts. These facts do not contradict my views. What I think is this: that capitalism, I have come to the conclusion, is the necessary but not adequate condition for democracy. That is, as far as I read the evidence, you need a market economy in order to have a successful democracy. But the other way around is not correct, although I would wish it were true, since I very much believe in democracy, and indeed in capitalism, that one could also say democracy is a necessary condition for capitalism. It clearly is not.

BILL MOYERS: It’s not?

PETER BERGER: It is not. We may not like it but it is not. You can have successful capitalism under authoritarian auspices. In fact, this has frequently happened, beginning, incidentally, in Japan at the time of the major restoration, which was the beginnings of Japanese capitalism. What you can say to give comfort to us democrats, I mean that with a small “d,” is that successful capitalism, even if it begins under authoritarian auspices, tends to release democratizing pressures. Well fed children of peasants tend to become politically uppity. And we can see this in Taiwan and South Korea, so there is some effect of capitalism toward democracy, but not in the way that people think who say that, you know, you can’t have capitalism without democracy; unfortunately that is not true. But I think one has to add, and Japan again is the most important case, that you can have a full-blown democratic system — Japan by any reasonable criterion is a democracy like the United States in its formal political structure — but linked to a non-individualistic culture, which makes these democratic institutions actually function in quite a different way. So the option for democracy, as for capitalism, does not necessarily mean opting for our individualistic culture.

BILL MOYERS: So where’s the future? Is it going to come down to a competitive race between capitalism and something else, and capitalism and democracy?

PETER BERGER: Well, I’m not so much worried about the survival of capitalism and democracy in general in the world, I’m fairly optimistic about that. I’m worried about how different societies will relate to each other.


PETER BERGER: Well, specifically how the West will cope with the challenge of Asia, and what I think we cannot afford, politically, culturally, is to think of the problems of our own society as if we were alone in the world. For example, we cannot continue to have an infinite expansion of entitlements -infinite is the wrong word — a more, a greater and greater expansion of the welfare state, with no regard to how that affects us vis-a-vis our major international competitors. Now, I’m not speaking for the dismantlement of the welfare state and I’m not a right-wing reactionary. We need the welfare state; the question is, how large is it going to be, what is it going to include? That’s just one concrete example. I think we can also not afford to have a cultural elite whose values are inimical to economic productivity.

BILL MOYERS: But there are cultures, societies, countries in the world, where the welfare state is much more protective and pervasive than ours, that are growing, that are economically viable, that are prosperous, that are making their way in the world. One doesn’t have to choose welfare state or no welfare state, does one?

PETER BERGER: No, no. That would be a false dichotomy. It’s not that kind of absolute choice. The question is how large the welfare state and what kind of welfare state.

BILL MOYERS: Are these East Asian societies more competitive because they place less emphasis on the welfare state?

PETER BERGER: I think historically that has been the case. I mean, if you look at Japan, Japan went through its great period of economic growth with a minimal welfare state, and what was equally important, a virtually nonexistent defense budget, because we took care of the defense.

BILL MOYERS: That seems to me a very important factor.

PETER BERGER: Now, they can continue neither indefinitely, though they are certainly trying to keep the defense budget down, but their welfare state is mushrooming, because they have a rapidly aging population, for one thing, which they’ll have to take care of. So they will lose that comparative advantage. But you see, I would like to, if I may, shift this just a little bit. I would not like to give the impression of saying because something is economically successful, therefore we have to do it, and that’s a very big danger in this comparison with Asia that’s going on. The assumption is, look how successful they are, therefore we must become like them and then we’ll be just as successful. Now, first of all, that premise is a little doubtful, because we are not them, we have a different culture. And for an American manager to try to imitate a Japanese manager, apart from being funny, may not work. But more seriously than that we cannot do it, maybe we don’t want to do it, and there are values of our own culture, such as the values of individual liberty, which I would not want to give up even if they turned out to be economically unsuccessful. I would not want the United States to become like East Asian societies in many ways. I wouldn’t want us to become as materialistic, not just not as communistic or groupy, but not as materialistic, not as obsessed with hierarchy, perhaps most of all not as diabolically meritocratic. I mean this inhuman examination system they have, where essentially at age 12 an individual’s life is decided, I wouldn’t want us to become that. And if the price for our values, such as individual liberty, was that we are going to be number two or even number three in the world in the 21st century, so be it. It might even be somewhat of a relief.

BILL MOYERS: A relief!

PETER BERGER: Yes, let the Japanese worry about the Persian Gulf, for example. I don’t think that would be so bad.

BILL MOYERS: They don’t seem to want to.

PETER BERGER: No, of course not, it’s much more convenient for them that we do the patrolling and the worrying and the paying for all of this.

BILL MOYERS: Are these East Asian societies more materialistic than ours?

PETER BERGER: Oh, much more, I think. I would say compared to East Asia, the Chinese even more than the Japanese, that compared to all of East Asia, Americans are mystical dreamers.

BILL MOYERS: They must not watch our television, prime time, with all the commercials or —

PETER BERGER: But that’s entertainment.

BILL MOYERS: No, but the commercials.

PETER BERGER: Well, then, that’s commercials.

BILL MOYERS: The getting and grasping, and — I mean, I think of the United States as a materialistic culture.

PETER BERGER: Well, you have to ask, compared to what? Compared to India, the United States is a materialistic culture, I think. Maybe even that isn’t true, but certainly not compared to East Asia. I think they are much more hard-headed. We are very sentimental, and it’s very easy to sway Americans with appeals to compassion and to all sorts of, let’s say, soft values. They’re very hard-headed.

BILL MOYERS: Are you, Dr. Berger, are you in any way worried about this multi-cultural future, this clashing, competitive, discordant world that’s emerging from so many different sources?

PETER BERGER: I think it will require some change in attitude and in two different directions. Again we come back to class. Most Americans who are not terribly well-educated, still tend to believe in the old America-is-superior ethos, which in many ways is healthy. It’s in many ways mistaken, but it’s also kind of healthy. Then you get the cultural elite, which at least the essential elements of it, have tended to think of America as the worst possible place, I mean, blame-America-first type of thing, which is also a terrible mistake. And I think that in looking at Asia particularly, we have to avoid both extremes, the old sense of we are superior and you have to learn everything from us, from democracy to hamburgers, is not very good. On the other hand, the kind of, how wonderful is Asia, we have to learn from them, we have to become more like them, the expatriate kind of romanticism, is also terribly wrong. And I think what we have to do, especially if we have some pretensions to intellectual sophistication, is to be very conscious of what we are, of what we accept and identify with in our own tradition, but yet to be open to what comes from elsewhere, and there are, apart from these economic things we’ve been talking about, there are wonderful things to be learned from Asian culture. So no, on the whole, I am quite optimistic about this.

BILL MOYERS: What’s — and this is the last question. What’s one wonderful thing you’ve learned from Asian culture?

PETER BERGER: Oh, a greater sense of the, how should I put it, the vastness of time and of the universe, and not taking the historical scene on earth as seriously as we Westerners tend to do. That, I think, you get in Asia.

BILL MOYERS: From New York City, this has been a conversation with Peter Berger. I’m Bill Moyers.

This transcript was entered on March 30, 2015.

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