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Highly variable rainfall in a country is associated with less individualistic attitudes, according to a provocative paper by economist Lewis Davis (HT: Marginal Revolution). He leverages this relationship to estimate a positive impact of individual responsibility on economic development. Both results are potentially important, if somewhat controversial. Davis admits that he confronted a number of measurement issues and methodological complexities.

Davis notes that the variability of rainfall creates agricultural risk. He posits that countries having to deal with such recurrent, exogenous risks tend to develop institutions that might allow risk to be shared more broadly. In other words, such uncontrollable events as droughts, destructive flooding and uneven agricultural output lead to a social tendency toward collectivism, which is also reflected in the attitudes of individual citizens. He first builds a mathematical economic model with that implication:

… the model predicts the equilibrium level of collective responsibility will be greater where nature is more capricious.

Davis finds that the relationship holds up empirically using cross-country data on rainfall and surveys of social attitudes. His real interest, however, is to exploit that relationship to obtain estimates of the impact of individual responsibility on economic development. The complication he grapples with is that more favorable survey ratings of individual responsibility are themselves a function of economic development, so causation runs both ways. To tackle this problem, he uses rainfall variability to create an empirical “instrument” based on survey measures of individual responsibility, and in turn uses the exogenous variation in the instrument to explain differences in per capita income. Controls are used in the fitted equations for other social and economic factors. Again, he finds that his instrument for individual responsibility is positively related to income.

Another way to summarize Davis’ results is that natural risks are associated with greater acceptance of collectivism, but collectivist attitudes are associated with lower income levels. The empirical finding of a preference for heavy reliance on the state to insure against common risks is fascinating and it comports with the theory that the government has a legitimate role in the provision of public goods, social risk mitigation being among them. One should not place too much faith in the state as a reliable problem solver, however, or as an engine of economic growth. After all, there is a good reason for the second result: an economy dominated by the public sector is doomed to long-term decline. Individual initiative and capitalism, on the other hand, are more reliable in producing long-term economic gains and ending poverty, even when the rain is spotty. General prosperity might be more difficult to achieve when the weather is fickle, but prosperity is a much better cushion against risk than government.