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Greeks v Franks – why culture still matters

30 June 2015

3:13 PM

30 June 2015

3:13 PM

During the period of the crusades Greeks would refer to western Europeans by the generic term ‘Frank’, derived from the name of the leading barbarian tribe of the west. The word still lives on as a name for white people in Urdu and Hindi – Firangi – as well as Thai and Vietnamese, for whom US soldiers were called Farang (or ‘black Farang’ for African-American troops). According to Norman Stone’s history of Turkey, the word for syphilis in Turkish is likewise derived from Frank (it was also called ‘the French disease’ in 15th century Italy).

‘Frank’ is a useful term that really needs to be brought back to illustrate the great divide between the Greeks and their opponents in this current crisis, the people of what is sometimes referred to as ‘core Europe’, roughly the boundaries of Charlemagne’s empire – France, Germany, the Low Countries and northern Italy.

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As Greece collapses, why I am looking at maps of 9th century Europe? Because at the heart of the current tragedy is the inability of the ruling class to appreciate that history and culture matter (and because I’m weird, obviously). The European Union was cobbled together on the premise that people are basically the same everywhere and therefore open borders would simply reduce costs and larger states would produce economies of scale.


But people across Europe, let alone outside it, really are different. As this blog by Michael Story illustrates, because the ‘internationalised class’ tend to meet and socialise with people who are like them, they ignore how unusual people like them are.

He writes:

‘If everyone you meet from around the world has been screened to leave only the most sober, rational and future oriented people, then your heuristic sense of what people are like will be way off. If you were an economist looking at Greece’s joining the Euro, you would examine their national data, plans for reform and economic growth and conclude that it might be a good idea- the Greek economists you are dealing with seem very sensible, there’s every reason to think that the proposed reform might work.

‘But what you’d be ignoring is that the non-economist Greeks might have a very different view.

‘This is the key finding from a fascinating study about a game in which players can profit by cooperating and punish players on their team who do not cooperate. What the researchers found is that cooperation and willingness to punish non-cooperators was highest in, well exactly the countries that you’d predict. But most interestingly, in some parts of the world players actually chose not just to ignore those who were free-riding, but actively punish their own team-mates who were cooperating the most (the red bars).’

In Greece, for example.

What the paper shows is that people in different parts of the world act in very different ways, and these social norms have an impact on institutions – and the economy.

As Michael concludes:

‘Back in 2008, these researchers unearthed something crucial- that culture is actually pretty important. Not just the culture at the top but particularly in democracies, the culture throughout society. If Greek game players are not just willing to avoid contributing, but to actively punish those who try to help the team, what chance has the country of righting itself? This is the sort of lesson that has to be relearned by the elite- that people are different, and you can ignore it at your peril.’

Trying to build a polity that includes both Greeks and Franks is obviously fraught with problems, because their cultural norms are so different. Union barely works even in Italy, which has a vast gulf in culture between the north and the south (which was Greek-speaking for a lot longer than it has been ‘Italian’). Across the whole of Europe it’s a hopeless idea. As game theory shows, joining together corrupt and non-corrupt political cultures makes the latter behave more like the former.

Partly because such cultural differences were wilfully ignored, the Greek people are going through hell. But not to worry, for some enterprising Londoner aims to rescue the country by raising €1.6bn through crowdsourcing. So far they’ve got about  €25,000, which is quite impressive, but with seven days to go they’ve some work to do.

The problem is that, as much as I like the Greeks and love Greek culture and civilisation, the country is 69th on Transparency International’s Corruption Index (tied with those other non-Frankish countries, Bulgaria and Romania), so I may well spend my money on a bottle of ouzo for all the good it will do the poor Hellenes.


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