This article was originally published by Lipton Matthews at The Mises Institute.
Appreciating cultural nuances is difficult without understanding the stories that provide insight into a society’s soul. Stories reflect a nation’s values, aspirations, and ideals. Songs, poems, and literature illuminate the tastes of citizens and even political and economic preferences. Economist and polymath Deidre McCloskey in her bourgeois trilogy argues that the evolution of a promarket rhetoric was central to the wealth explosion in the West.
Indeed, economists are becoming amenable to cultural explanations for differences in development. However, few explore how engaging national tales can aid the development process by availing information that fills the gaps in official narratives. Stories help to bridge the gap between experts and locals by tackling sensitive issues.
The failure of reforms in some countries exhaust international experts, but if they read stories extolling the virtues of dishonesty and trickery, then they would appreciate why proposals to improve governance are usually futile. Tales of deception are universal, but trust is higher in countries where tricksters are punished. A story lionizing the escapades of a trickster may indicate that dishonesty is valued, and an effect of endorsing dishonesty is tolerance for corruption.
But on a deeper note, the implicit message of stories that laud trickery is that playing by the rules is punitive. Therefore, tales with tricksters as heroes are highlighting the rotten nature of institutions. So, the real problem is that people are badly incentivized in societies where trickery is embraced. When bad behavior is rewarded, decent people are discouraged from following the rules, since doing so is costly.
In America, people lament that institutions are declining. Yet they are still proud to pay their taxes and comply with the law because for the most part, America is still a country that is unafraid to penalize the powerful for misbehaving. This is in stark contrast to Jamaica, where a former politician said that “the man who plays by the rules is the man that gets shafted.”
Unlike Americans, Jamaicans are poorly incentivized. Jamaicans don’t have an innate tendency to be corrupt, but they live in a place where despite frequent allegations of corruption, officials are rarely charged. Accordingly, this dubious situation has created an environment with such sweeping tolerance for corruption that a former officer can boldly declare that 20 percent of police officers are beyond help and 60 percent will engage in corrupt practices “if the circumstances arise.”
Corruption is a major impediment to development, and international analysts would gain a better grasp of the Jamaican environment by reading the riveting tales of Anancy, in which the tricky spider is often victorious. The Bahamian counterpart to Anancy is the equally cunning B’ Rabby. B’ Rabby often employs deceit and fraud to displace competitors. The success of characters like B’ Rabby and Anancy causes people to equate commerce with rent-seeking and antisocial behavior.
This observation is particularly useful considering the colonial history of the Bahamas and Jamaica. During colonialism, businesses were linked to the fortunes of the state and white planters were privileged at the expense of the black majority. So even though some stories predate colonialism, the injustice perpetuated by colonial regimes serves to reinforce the relevance of trickery for success.
According to Bahamian academic Virgil Storr, the tales of B’ Rabby describe the values celebrated by Bahamians and explain their proclivity for certain businesses:
It is perhaps not surprising then that the same communities that applaud B’ Rabby because he is a master trickster, would fail to have any moral qualms about erecting fake lighthouses and the like. Indeed, for a time, wrecking, which involved luring unsuspecting ships to their ruin on the coral reefs that surround the Bahama Islands and “salvaging” their cargo, was the dominant “industry” in the Bahamas.
In societies like Jamaica and the Bahamas, with a history of injustice, antiheroes like B’ Rabby and Anancy demonstrate how disempowered populations can use trickery to supplant the status quo and attain high status by outwitting the establishment. Because people believe that the “system” is stacked against the ordinary man, characters who become prosperous through deceptive means are celebrated for breaking the rules instituted by an unfair system.
Jamaicans even coined a term to describe the process of beating the system: “bandolooism.” The reasoning is that if the system is unjust, then a smart man should ensure that it is rigged in his favor. Due to the philosophy engendered by this culture, in some parts of Jamaica, drug warlords are respected because they managed to acquire considerable wealth by outsmarting the “system.”
Invariably, tailoring policies to improve the fortunes of struggling countries is hard. However, experts will be better equipped to offer recommendations that account for local realities by being receptive to learning from the wisdom of national tales.