June 25, 2009 [LINK / comment]

Imagining an alternate Argentina

Argentina has made headline news for the past couple days, which doesn't happen that often, and once again, an unflattering image of that country has been spotlighted. Gov. Sanford's dalliance quickly became fodder for late-night TV talk shows, which pander to popular stereotypes about a foreign culture of which most of us know little. It's a shame -- both the scandal and our ignorance.

But this painful situation does at least provide an occasion for me to to mention an intriguing intellectual project I learned about recently. One of the biggest debates in the field of Latin American studies is whether and to what extent culture has an effect on socio-economic development. The orthodox North American perspective follows Max Weber, who argued that the "Protestant work ethic" explains why Northern Europe and North America are more successful economically than Southern Europe and Latin America. In the scholarly world, Lawrence Harrison is associated with this line of thought, that culture determines development. (His books Underdevelopment Is a State of Mind and The Pan-American Dream explore this theme.) I think there's something to it, but I refrain from making too much of culture as a variable, because it's too hard to measure.

Well, a few months ago I was contacted by a guy who has taken this argument to a new plane, using alternate history to explore what might have happened in the Southern Cone region if a few key naval clashes between Spain and Great Britain during the late 18th Century had turned out differently. Britain has designs on the southern tip of South America (that's why they took control of the Falkland Islands), and it could very well have ended up as another part of the British Empire. In short, Argentina today would be much like Canada as we know it: prosperous and stable, with English as the official language and an occasionally restive but usually compliant minority-language population. Take a look at British Argentina, and ask yourself whether that's a plausible scenario. As someone who sees historical events as often hinging upon small twists of fate, I'm inclined to think that it is.