Humility and Regional Economic Development

In everything that I have read on regional economies and regional economic development, it is a passage on self-righteousness that is perhaps my favorite. At a minimum it is the passage that I find myself returning to most frequently.

The reason that I return to this passage again and again is because of how frequently I observe the described behavior in the real world. The self-righteous mindset is extremely common in local business communities, particularly among data analysts who dig up descriptive statistics and produce soundbites for local politicians and journalists. The soundbites bounce around local newspapers without peer review or debate. While rooting for one’s jurisdiction is not an issue, misinterpreted data resulting from a sense of moral superiority can lead to poor policy. This is to say that regional economic development and those in leadership roles should always remain humble.

The following passage is from pages 185 and 186 of Albert O. Hirschman’s book, “The Strategy of Local Economic Development” (1958) —

“Thus the successful groups and regions will widely and extravagantly proclaim their superiority over the rest of their country and their countrymen. It is interesting to note that to some extent these claims are self-reinforcing. Even though the initial success of these groups may often be due to sheer luck or to environmental factors such as resource endowment, matters will not be left there. Those who have been caught by progress will always maintain that they were the ones who did the catching; they will easily convince themselves, and attempt to convince others, that their accomplishments are primarily owed to their superior moral qualities and conduct. It is precisely this self-righteousness that will tend to produce its own evidence: once these groups have spread the word that their success was due to hard work and virtuous living, they must willy-nilly live up to their own story, or at the least will make their children do so. In other words, there is reason to think that the “protestant ethic,” instead of being the prime mover, is often implanted ex post as though to sanctify and consolidate whatever accumulation of economic power and wealth has been achieved. To the extent that this happens, a climate particularly favorable to further growth will actually come into existence in the sectors or regions that have pulled ahead, and this will confirm the economic operators in their preference for these regions and make it somewhat less irrational.”

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