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What masons share with the mafia

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  • What masons share with the mafia

    Daily Telegraph, UK
    March 21 2004

    What masons share with the mafia

    Why is it that some groups seem to do well in business while others
    fail to make economic progress? In many parts of the world,
    particular minorities dominate commerce, and often form a political
    elite too. Is it culture, religion or history that gives them the
    upper hand? Or simply a supreme self-confidence bred from past

    In many cases, capital, education and connections are sufficient to
    give certain ethnic minorities the necessary advantages. In Brazil,
    which has the worst distribution of wealth in the world, less than
    0.01 per cent of the population owns the vast majority of the land
    and controls the levers of power.

    These whites effectively operate economic rule over a peasant
    population - most of whom are descendants of slaves. A strong sense
    of inferiority and lack of resources prevent the common masses in
    Brazil from making real progress.

    Similarly, in the Philippines the ethnic Chinese make up less than 1
    per cent of the population but control a large proportion of the
    country's assets. They have worked hard, helped each other, learned
    how to borrow and raise investment, and how to influence political
    decisions. They intermarry and have retained a somewhat separate

    There is a similar concentration of wealth among the Chinese in
    Indonesia, and the pattern is repeated to a lesser extent in
    Malaysia, Thailand and Vietnam.

    The same phenomenon of an economically dominant minority occurs in
    other countries: Indians in Kenya, Lebanese in Sierra Leone and
    Gambia, and whites in South Africa. In some cases, immigrant
    entrepreneurs have settled, developed successful enterprises and
    gradually overwhelmed local competition.

    In others, certain tribes have inherited the fruits of colonialism
    and racist political systems. Such profoundly imbalanced societies
    are fundamentally unstable and can suffer damaging class warfare.

    The rapid spread of democracy and globalisation has only exaggerated
    the discrepancies between such ethnic groups. The rule of Winner
    Takes All tends to apply in such developing economies. This can lead
    to a backlash from the disenfranchised majority, as has happened in
    Zimbabwe against the white farmers, and against the Chinese minority
    in Indonesia.

    In both cases the ethnic violence and destruction of property have
    dramatically increased poverty and failed to solve the problem of

    Of course there are networks that try to use their advantages in
    every society - be they masons, old Etonians or the mafia. Such is
    human nature. But in a democracy the most successful elites do not
    form a closed organisation: they integrate with the majority and
    share the fruits of progress.

    Such policies can be imposed, as with the black economic empowerment
    rules in South Africa. Or the "weaker" majority can be
    institutionally protected, as they are in Malaysia.

    But such solutions only work properly with huge investment in
    education for the poor. And some analysts maintain that
    entrepreneurial instincts cannot be taught - they are simply
    ingrained in some civilisations and not others.

    Moreover, the track record of affirmative action programmes is mixed
    at best - rather like punitive taxation on the rich.

    Perhaps intensive research into what makes ruling elites rise to the
    top would yield useful lessons in trying to help the disadvantaged.

    Why, for example, have Lebanese, Jewish and Armenian diasporas spread
    all over the capitalist world and done so well? Hard work, good
    credit and a strong family structure have helped - but there must be

    And why did the Ugandan Asians who arrived in Britain after Idi Amin
    ejected them in the 1970s prosper, when some other immigrants have
    not? These are difficult but important questions, which need answers
    if dangerous inequalities are to be addressed.

    Of course each winning culture will have its own formulas, but there
    must be common features across these groups. Why do Koreans - around
    0.1 per cent of New York's population - dominate the neighbourhood
    retail trade there? It cannot just be luck.

    More serious work needs to be done to discover the secrets of
    entrepreneurial groups, so that their techniques can be copied among
    the less well off. Such efforts might go some way towards rebalancing
    the odds between the winners and losers in the game of global

    - Luke Johnson is chairman of Channel 4 and Signature Restaurants