It’s the Values, Stupid!

The World Values Survey, in its own words, “demonstrate that people’s beliefs play a key role in economic development, the emergence and flourishing of democratic institutions, the rise of gender quality, and the extent to which societies have effective government.”

In other words, our collective beliefs, our values and norms shape us as human beings, and as nations. The Inglehart-Welzel cultural map, showed above, presents cultural variations in the world using two specific dimensions: (1) Traditional versus secular-rational values (vertical axis in graph) and (2) Survival versus Self-expression values (horizontal axis).

While ‘traditional values’ are linked to religion, traditional family values and submission to authority, ‘secular-rational values’, are found in societies that “place less emphasis on religion, traditional family values and authority”. ‘Survival values’ are found in societies with a high concern for security (economic (poverty), physical (food, health, shelter)) and are low on trust and tolerance (low on social capital). On the opposite side of the axis, ‘self-expression values’ means high levels of tolerance, gender equality, environmental protection, high levels of social capital and demand for participation in political life. (

OK, so this graph shows that although, in the words of the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights, “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights”, we are different in our beliefs. And what if our beliefs, our norms and values, dictate what type of economic, social and political systems are viable and sustainable in our societies? In other words, is it possible that some values and norms are more conducive to democracy, a free market economy and a civil society, while other values and norms favor authoritarianism, oligarchical economies and societal conformity?

Let’s start with the economy, often measured by its level of competitiveness. I use the World Economic Forum’s annual Global Competitiveness Index to learn which countries have the strongest economies in the world. The GCI’s indicators include “Basic requirements”, such as institutions, infrastructure, macroeconomic environment and health and primary education, “Efficiency enhancers” – higher education and training, goods market efficiency, labor market efficiency, financial market development, technology readiness and market size, as well as “Innovation and sophistication factors”, i.e. business sophistication and innovation.

Comparing the top 15 economic performers in the world with the World Value Survey, we can conclude that almost half of the economic top performers are from ‘Protestant Europe’ (Switzerland, Netherlands, Germany, Sweden, Finland, Norway, Denmark), one third are from ‘English speaking’ group (United States, United Kingdom, New Zealand, Canada) and the remaining countries (Singapore (not in WVS survey), Japan, Hong Kong and Taiwan) are in the ‘Confucian’ group. All the non-Confucian countries score high on self-expression values, while the Protestant Europe group and the Confucian countries score high on rational values. So clearly the ‘protestant work ethic’ is an integral part of the Scandinavian character, but could it also mean that rational and self–expression values are pre-requisites for a country’s economy being competitive in our global economy? Probably.

Let’s now look at the bottom 15 countries in WEF’s Global Competitiveness Index. 13 of the 15 worst performing economies are in Sub-Saharan Africa, while one is in Latin America (Venezuela, no surprise) and one in Middle East/North Africa (Yemen). Among these 15 economies, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Yemen are included in the World Value Survey, in the ‘African-Islamic’ group, which is shaped of ‘traditional’ and ‘survival’ values, diagonally opposed to the values of the ‘Protestant Europe’ group. It appears that building a competitive economy in a global economy is more challenging within a context dominated by ‘traditional’ and ‘survival’ values.

And what about the public sector and level of functionality in state institutions, are they a reflection of existing values and norms in society? For that I turn to Transparency International’s “Corruption Perception Index 2016”, measuring to what extent “citizen face the tangible impact of corruption on a daily basis.” Transparency International Index measures to what extent citizens regard public institutions as trustworthy and to be functioning properly, and whether or not citizens are faced with bribery and extortion situations in their daily lives. In such a context, large scale corruption may flourish, often driven by a corporate-political elite, to the expense of overall societal development and human rights. To counter corruption societies need a high degree of transparency in public affairs, access to information and press freedom, upheld by an independent judicial system. The level of corruption in a society indicates how weak the judicial system is, and to some extent also how weak state institutions are, in the eyes of the citizens.

Again, as with the competitiveness index and values, comparing the top 15 least corrupt countries in the world with the World Value Survey, we can conclude that more than half of the top performers are from ‘Protestant Europe’. In fact, all eight countries in this group (Switzerland, Netherlands, Germany, Sweden, Finland, Norway, Denmark, Iceland) are among the least corrupt societies in the World. A little less than a third of the societies are from the ‘English speaking’ group (United Kingdom, New Zealand, Canada, Australia) and the remaining countries are Luxembourg and Belgium representing the “Catholic Europe” group, and Singapore. (Singapore is not in WVS survey). All the countries in the ‘Protestant Europe’ and ‘English speaking’ groups (80% of top 15 least corrupt countries) score high on self-expression values, while the Protestant Europe group also score high on rational values. Could this mean that rational and self–expression values are pre-requisites for a well-functioning state and judicial system? Most likely.

On the other side of the corruption spectra, we find the world’s 15 most corrupt countries as perceived by their own citizens, which are all located in either the “African-Islamic” or “Latin America” groups, and include countries, such as Iraq, Libya and Somalia where the state institutions are very weak, and there are even on-going civil conflicts.

However, is a strong economy and well-functioning state the same as a societal system capable of generating a sense of well-being among a majority of the population? Or in other words, are people living in societies with higher levels of rational and self–expression values, also more prosperous? For that we turn to the Legatum Prosperity Index. This index measures a variety of economic, social, health and political indicators in countries, with the aim of pinpointing ‘drivers of progress’ and nations that are capable of “turning their wealth into greater prosperity.” The Legatum Prosperity Index measures economic quality, business environment, governance, education, health, safety and security, personal freedom, social capital and natural environment, a collection of variables required to live a good and long life, in security, with freedom and rights, and in the pursuit of opportunities and happiness.

Again, and this probably does not come as a surprise to anybody, all 8 countries in the “Protestant Europe” group, are among the top 15 most prosperous countries in the World. Societies with pre-dominantly secular-rational and self–expression values are clearly also those with the highest prosperity. 30% of the countries with the highest prosperity belong to the “English speaking” group, still strong on self-expression values, but less so on secular-rational values, when compared to the countries in the “Protestant Europe” group. The remaining two slots in the top 15 ranking on prosperity are Luxembourg and Austria, representing the “Catholic Europe” group.

The 5 of the 15 countries with the worst prosperity are included in the World Value Survey’s “African-Islamic” group (Mali, Nigeria, Pakistan, Iraq and Yemen). Again, there appear to be a link between traditional and survival values, and a society’s inability to convert wealth into prosperity.

But, in the end of the day, if people are happy in their societies and with their institutions, shaped by their sets of beliefs, values and norms, what’s the issue? Well, let’s discover how happy people are across the globe, and who are the most and least happy respectively. Don’t expect any surprises here either!

For this news we turn the World Happiness Report which has been published for 15 years now.  Since 2012, the UN is increasingly considering happiness as the most “proper measure of social progress and the goal of public policy. The OECD defines subjective well-being as “Good mental states, including all of the various evaluations, positive and negative, that people make of their lives and the affective reactions of people to their experiences.

The “Protestant Europe” group in the World Value Survey lead the way once more, this time in happiness and sense of well-being. Except for Germany, all the other countries in that group (Sweden, Norway, Finland, Denmark, Iceland, Switzerland, Netherlands) are among the 15 most happy societies in the world. We remind ourselves that this group score high on secular-rationale and self-expression values. The “English speaking” group has 5 countries in the top 15 (Canada, New Zealand, Australia, US and Ireland). The remaining three happy societies are Austria, Israel and Costa Rica.

Moving to the 15 most unhappy countries in the world, we land firmly in the geographical areas of Sub-Saharan Africa, and conflict zones of Yemen, Afghanistan and Syria. While the majority of these countries are not recorded in the World Value Survey, Yemen and Rwanda are, and they are in the “African-Islamic” group with higher levels of traditional and survival values.

Does certain values and norms automatically make us happier or is it that certain values and norms create a foundation of human priorities and actions upon which social, economic and political systems can be engineered, which in turn are conducive to producing human happiness? Very likely.

In conclusion, it may be safe to say that values and norms matter. Building economic, social and political systems that generate maximum well-being for the population is not only a reflection of the populations’ collective beliefs, values and norms, but clearly values and norms are important, and to some extent dictate what type of economic, social and political systems can be built and sustained within a specific society. Of course, this is so because societies are mere reflections of the people that live there. Our individual actions and collective beliefs matter, we shape and form our own social, economic and political systems.

This also means that if and when values change in society, perhaps away from secular-rationale towards traditional and/or from self-expression towards survival, or the other way around, the social, economic and political systems will most likely change with them. And if the social, economic and political systems don’t change to accommodate the emerging new values and norms in society, there will most likely be conflicts and strife.

Multiculturalism, in all its theoretical glory, but unless new arrivals in the societies of “Protestant Europe” and the “English speaking” group are introduced to and adopt secular-rationale and self-expression values, values that are often completely alien to their native societies, the social, economic and political systems in “Protestant Europe” and the “English speaking” will be undermined, and as a consequence the systems will begin to falter, the famous social contract between state and citizens will break, and sub-systems will emerge in society to accommodate a population with predominantly traditional and survival values.


About Jakob Modéer

22 years of corporate and international investor experience as well as private sector development project management, consultancy in private sector policy and business advisory services, and direct consultancy to companies in South East Europe (and now a blogger on socio-economic issues)
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