International comparisons can be extraordinarily revealing. Why, we might ask, is there such a divergence between Haiti and the Dominican Republic, two countries that occupy the same island? As the economist and prolific blogger Noah Smith has pointed out, as recently as 1960, the countries had roughly similar levels of per-capita GDP.
Today, in contrast, the Dominican Republic is eight times as rich. Indeed, its GDP per capita surpasses Brazil and Colombia and approaches those of Argentina and Mexico. Meanwhile, Haiti remains the poorest country in the Latin America and the Caribbean and among the poorest countries in the world.
What explains the discrepancy?
Is it Haiti’s and the Dominican Republic’s differing histories? Geography? Access to natural resources? Propensity toward natural disasters? Internal politics? Differences in social structure? Differing economic policies? Levels of education? Political instability? Outside political interference? Or something else?
Smith’s essay questions some of the standard explanations.
- No, it’s not the reparations that France imposed following the Haitian Revolution. These were finally repaid in 1947, well before the divergence in the two neighbors’ economies.
- Nor is it, according to Smith, land mismanagement. Jared Diamond attributes Haiti’s poverty to deforestation and soil erosion. But as Smith argues, Haiti still has more arable land than the Dominican Republic.
- Neither is it external debt. The Dominican Republic’s external debt is 40 percent of GNP. Haiti’s is only 15 percent.
- How about Haiti’s vulnerability to natural disasters? Both Haiti and the Dominican Republic are highly exposed to earthquakes, hurricanes and tropical storms.
- What about foreign intervention? The U.S. occupied Haiti from 1915 through 1934. It also occupied the Dominican Republic between 1916 and 1924 and again in 1965.
- What about governmental differences? A dictatorship under Rafael Leonidas Trujillo ruled the Dominican Republic from 1930 to 1961, followed by authoritarian rule under Joaquin Balaguer from 1966 to 1996, much like the Duvalier family ruled Haiti from 1957 until 1986.
In other words, no simple, singular answer suffices to explain the countries’ divergent patterns of development.
Although Smith acknowledges a variety of factors that have contributed to the differences between Haiti and the Dominican Republic, including the weakness of Haiti’s governmental institutions, incompetent and kleptocratic leadership, and U.S. hostility, his explanation emphasizes three key factors:
- Haiti’s higher level of political instability.
- The Dominican Republic’s superior success in implementing macroeconomic policy—encouraging education, promoting literacy, constructing infrastructure, encouraging exports and curbing inflation and stabilizing the economy.
- Cultural differences, including Haiti’s greater distrust of foreign nations (which discouraged the pursuit of foreign trade and exports), its greater reliance on subsistence farming, its dysfunctional politics (which failed to support environmental protection or spending on infrastructure and education).
Smith’s explanation isn’t fully satisfactory. As comments on his essay point out, in 1960, life expectancy in the Dominican Republic was already 10 years greater than in Haiti (indicating that per-capita GDP isn’t the same as standard of living). Nor does he confront anti-Haitian racism, which has meant that there are far fewer Haitian émigrés sending back remittances and no well-developed Haitian tourist industry.
In addition, Smith might have said more about differences in the two countries’ legal systems, especially in the strength of their court systems and the security of land title and contracts. Then, too, there are language differences. In Haiti, a majority of the population speaks Creole, which has left it linguistically isolated from its Spanish- and English-speaking neighbors.
A rigorous comparison of Haiti and the Dominican Republic must be multifaceted and multidimensional.
Let’s now turn to a second set of national comparisons.
Canada and the United States differ in ways small and large that go well beyond the fact that Canadians are more polite and prefer Tim Hortons to Starbucks. After all, Canada also possesses two official languages and four major political parties and is much more welcoming to refugees and immigrants. Canadians also have access to free health care and, partly as a result, have a higher life expectancy.
The standard source of comparisons is David Thomas and David Biette’s edited volume, Canada and the United States: Differences That Count, now in its fourth edition. Topics include differences in demography and immigration, race and language, governance, the judicialization of politics, federalism, voting, banking, taxation, regulation, foreign policy, economic mobility, unionization, gun control, gender, mass entertainment, and policies toward Indigenous peoples, the environment, health care and welfare.
Among the themes that run through this book is the extent to which Canadians self-consciously define their identity in opposition to the United States. Canadian ambivalence toward the U.S. is widespread. Another is that many supposed contrasts between the two countries are exaggerated, and many widely held stereotypes and generalizations prove inaccurate. In some cases, the obverse is actually correct.
Nevertheless, some contrasts do stand out: the relative absence in Canada of a culture of gun violence and incarceration or of a highly racialized politics. Pronounced differences in the prevalence of economic inequality and concentrated poverty and the incidence of single-parent families. The relative generosity of unemployment assistance and income-support programs in Canada.
Many of the essays focus on whether it is accurate to contrast the nations in terms of values and character traits. Is it true that the United States is consistently more individualistic, anti-statist, self-absorbed, moralistic, religious, ideological and imperialistic? Is it the case that Canadians are more British, elitist, deferential, bureaucratic, collectivist, orderly and conservative? Does Canada lack heroes and founding myths? Is Canada more or less preoccupied with maintaining national unity or with centralizing or decentralizing governmental power?
What about higher education? Here, there are some consistent differences.
- Canada has a higher percentage of young people with a college education.
- Virtually all Canadian universities are publicly financed.
- The admissions process is less intricate and, except at the leading campuses, much less competitive.
- The most highly ranked Canadian universities—McGill, Waterloo and the Universities of Toronto and British Columbia—admit many more students than the Ivy-plus institutions combined.
- Higher education in Canada is significantly cheaper. There is no difference in tuition between in-province and out-of-province students, and there are three-year courses of study for many bachelor’s degrees.
- Canadian universities are less stratified in terms of resources, although inequalities are increasing.
- Canadian campuses have a higher share of international students, in part because it’s easier receiving a permit to study in Canada and transitioning to permanent resident status.
- Neither Greek life, nor dorm life, drinking, intercollegiate sports, graduating class year or alumni culture occupy as important a place in Canadian universities as in their U.S. counterparts.
Three decades ago, Seymour Martin Lipset attributed differences between the two nations to their divergent responses to the American Revolution. Canadians embraced the “Tory values of ‘peace order and good government’ while Americans pursued classical liberal values of ‘life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.’” The result: one country is more communitarian; the other, more individualistic.
In an extraordinarily provocative 2017 New Yorker essay, Adam Gopnik, who is of Canadian birth, suggests that had the U.S. more peacefully and gradually separated from Britain, it might have evolved into a “more equitable and less sanguinary” country:
“No revolution and slavery might have ended, as it did elsewhere in the British Empire, more peacefully and sooner. No ‘peculiar institution,’ no hideous Civil War and appalling aftermath. Instead, an orderly development of the interior—less violent and less inclined to celebrate the desperado over the peaceful peasant.”
Published in the wake of Donald Trump’s election, Gopnik’s essay attributes the United States’ propensity toward “violence and disruption and demagogy” to the American Revolution, which was far more violent than popular culture imagines. It also unleashed an aggressive expansionism with disastrous consequences for Native Americans, enslaved Blacks (a million of whom were moved the coast and border states into the Cotton Kingdom) and Mexicans in what’s now the American Southwest and instilled a combative patriotism that continues to color American foreign policy.
Gopnik’s essay hails Canada’s virtues—“a largely faceless political class; a cautiously parliamentary tradition; a professionalized and noncharismatic military”—even as he acknowledges that “The Canadian experience was not free of sin—as the indefensible treatment of the First Nations demonstrates.”
If we truly want students to become critical thinkers who are sensitive to complexity and contingency, then we’d do more to integrate cross-national comparisons into our curriculum. How, for example, can we meaningfully teach civics without examining the United States through a comparative lens?
Let me conclude with an analogy: when we gaze into a mirror, we don’t see ourselves as we actually are. Nor do mirrors reveal what we look like to others. Mirrors, at best, only show one side at a time. And, anyway, mirrors only reveal our outward appearance.
If you want to see a society three dimensionally, comparisons are essential.