Scott Sumner has some comments relating to a vague allusion to “culture”…but I want to be more specific:
Trust is positively correlated with wealth, and happiness. Denmark (a wealthy country), for instance, is the “happiest” place in the world (if you believe in happiness measures)…and not surprisingly, also has high levels of societal trust. Trust is also positively correlated with better institutions, including freer markets. Indeed, if everyone was highly skeptical of eachother, it is unlikely that a highly-functioning market would be able to evolve. Trust is also correlated with high levles of robust social norms, and the rule of law. Frances Wooley of Worthwhile Canadian Initiative has a piece on evolutionary theories of markets — which relies heavily on the development of trust between people.
Look at the countries in the lower-left quadrant of the chart. Most are from Africa, and all are relatively poor. But what else do they have in common? A rampant lack of trust between people. This lack of trust prohibits functional institutions from forming (both public and private).
Rich countries, of course, dominate the upper-right quadrant…having achieved very high levels of both income and life expectancy…and the cause? High levels of societal trust, which is the seed that causes wealth-generating institutions to arise…which in turn, increases health outcomes (as wealthier people can eat better, have more leisure and less physical and mental stress, and have access to better health care).
Countries in southeast Asia are also traditionally very “trusting” societies, even though some are poor…they also rank high-ish on the life expectancy side.
Zak, P. J. and Knack, S, Trust and Growth.