Why do countries have different economic policies and political institutions? One view, oft-expressed, is that people in different countries are different. For example, back in the early 1990s, many observers believed Russia was not ready for a transition to capitalism because Russians did not understand markets.
Around that time, economists Robert Shiller, Maxim Boycko, and Vladimir Korobov decided to examine this view using surveys of New Yorkers and Moscovites. They found that Russians did have significant misgivings about markets, but so did Americans. In fact, attitudes and understanding were, to a first approximation, the same.
In a recent update, Shiller and Boycko ask whether things have changed:
We repeat a survey we did in the waning days of the Soviet Union … comparing attitudes towards free markets between Moscow and New York. Additional survey questions … are added to compare attitudes towards democracy. Two comparisons are made: between countries, and through time, to explore the existence of international differences in allegiance to democratic free-market institutions, and the stability of these differences. While we find some differences in attitudes towards markets across countries and through time, we do not find most of the differences large or significant. Our evidence does not support a common view that the Russian personality is fundamentally illiberal or non-democratic.
So if underlying differences in attitudes and values do not explain differences in economic policies and political institutions, what does? Many factors presumably play a role, but my bet would be on historical accidents. In some times and places, the indviduals with greatest influence have valued freedom (e.g., the American Revolution), while in others they have cared mainly about their own power (e.g., Putin).
The broader significance is that claims like, “The citizens of country X will never accept capitlism / democracy,” or “transitions from statism to liberalism must be gradual,” do not seem well-supported by existing evidence.