Everyone is familiar with the dictum “This is the way we’ve always done it” or “It’s always worked this way so why change it?” or “If it ain’t broke don’t fix it” or “It’s our tradition”. When you next hear these, or any variation thereof, alarm bells should be going on in your head. Anything which is called “traditional” is, almost by definition, inefficient. Its ‘traditionality’ is its raison d’etre (no one calls breathing a tradition, while waiting for someone else to pour your drink before taking a sip is considered tradition in many quarters). It therefore stands to reason that countries with fewer traditions are more economically efficient, correct?
Well, this is partly true. We would argue that countries’ traditions tend to become embedded during times of prosperity – it’s more common to say ‘let’s not forget our past’ when one is well off than when one is starving – so it stands to reason that (developed) parts of the world that have been developed the longest are the least efficient. Let’s see if this is true.
One part of the world that sprouts to mind is Western Europe. This part of the world has been well-off more or less since the renaissance, with a break during the first half of last century. So most European ways of doing things have been around for a long long time (although espresso only became an italian drink in the 1950′s, after the war and when Italy was once again becoming prosperous, thereby affirming our theory) which should make Europe relatively inefficient. The United States, on the other hand, has been around for less time. In fact, it became prosperous between 100 and 200 years ago, so it has had less time to have established habits and ways of doing things.
So, if Longer Period of Prosperity = Less Efficiency then the United States should be more economically efficient than Western Europe. For those who have lived in both areas, this should not be news. Try setting up a phone line, bank account, and insurance in France and then try again in the US; the efficiency in America will become obvious. Most of your work can be done online, while in France you will find yourself waiting in several lines in various offices (the difference is evident even for tourists: just look up Paris Syndrome).
But what about other areas? Does our theory still hold? It can get complicated when one looks at East Asia. This area has long been associated with many traditions. Most of these traditions were established much earlier than European or American traditions, and were followed by over 100 years of hard times (involving invasions, world wars and communism, among other things). Many of the traditions held their ground and others went by the wayside, although people are trying to keep them alive these days. On the other hand, prosperity in this region kicked in much later than either Western Europe or America, so it should be more efficient, correct?
The answer would have to be Yes. As far as we know there are no economic indicators for overall efficiency, but in terms of convenience, not only is East Asia much more advanced than the US (let alone Europe), but parts that are newer (such as the city of Shanghai) are much more efficiently run than older parts (such as Tokyo).
When a new area becomes prosperous after a long time of suffering, it tends to cast aside traditions and excuses such as “We’ve always done it this way” and will try its best to compete and do the best it can, thereby becoming more economically efficient and more convenient a place to live in for its residents. So if you’re considering moving, you might want to consider a modern city rather than an older one.