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Paul Johnson: Why West Is Best, Secrets or rather, obvious ingredients of the Good Society
National Review ^ | December 3, 2001 | Paul Johnson

Posted on 02/18/2004 10:50:49 AM PST by Tolik

Paul Johnson, the British journalist and historian, is the author of many books, including A History of Christianity and A History of the Jews.
 No such thing as a perfect society exists in the world or ever will. But the Good Society can and does emerge from time to time, and is far more likely to exist within the orbit of the Western system than in any other. Why is this?

To begin with, consider the historic blend of two valuable but imperfect and distinct moral/legal systems — the Greco-Roman and the Judeo-Christian — which together are much more than the sum of their parts. All of us desire moral order. All of us wish for justice. The chief problem that faces a civilization is how to translate morality and justice into a workable system of law. The Greeks took legal concepts from numerous ancient societies, notably the Medes and Persians, but they brought to the science of law the spirit of philosophic inquiry, their own unique gift to humanity. They probed the nature of justice and the validity of morals, and thus infused law-making with a new dynamic: the endless quest for truth, viability, and endurance.

The Romans, in turn, built on this method, evolving a code that worked effectively over the world's largest and longest-lasting empire, enduring in one form or another for two millennia. What the Romans struggled towards was the notion of rule by law, rather than by mere men, and this involved the supremacy of a political constitution, which men, however powerful, were obliged to obey. The attempt ultimately failed, Rome became an oriental dictatorship of god-emperors, the rule of law collapsed, and, in due course, so did Roman civilization itself, in both its Western and Byzantine forms.

However, from the 5th and 6th centuries onwards, Roman notions of law and its rule were reinforced and transformed by Judeo-Christianity. The Jews were as devoted to law as the Romans. They saw the law as God-made, and under its rule all, from kings and high priests to shepherds, were equal: That is why the great 1st-century Jewish philosopher, Philo of Alexandria, called Judaism a "theocratic democracy." The Christians took over the principle of equality under the moral law and applied it to both the law codes of the Germanic north, based upon tribal consultations, and those of the Romance south, based upon Roman digests. The clergy evolved their own canon law and, between the 11th and the 16th centuries, there was a struggle between secular and clerical systems. The result was a felicitous compromise: neither theocratic law (as in Islamic states), nor wholly secular law, since the codes recognized natural law (as interpreted by Christianity) as the basis of all justice.

The rule of law was not established in the West without conflict. The constitutional struggle that produced in 1215 the Magna Carta, the first English Statute of the Realm (still in force), the English Civil War of 1640-60, and the "Glorious Revolution" of 1688, the American Revolution of the 1770s and 1780s, producing the first modern written constitution, and the French Revolution of 1789, leading to the creation of the Napoleonic law code (both these last, as amended, still in force) are all episodes in the successful effort to make even kings and governments subject to the rule of law. The process continues, the latest salient event being the collapse of the supra-legal Communist dictatorship in Russia in 1991 and subsequent attempts, as yet incomplete, to establish the rule of law for the first time in Russia and its devolved territories.

From this long history, it has become evident that equality in law cannot be finally ensured without the mass participation of the public. But it is important to understand that the rule of law must be established first before democracy can successfully evolve. That is the great political lesson of Western civilization. It explains why democracy has quickly collapsed in all those (mainly Third World) countries where the rule of law was weak or nonexistent. A notable exception has been India, which — with all its weaknesses — still maintains democracy because the rule of law, thanks to the genius of Macaulay, took root there under British rule.

Where the rule of law exists, continually reinforced by an evolving democracy, liberty too takes root. The point was succinctly made by Thomas Hobbes, who, together with his follower John Locke, was the determining political philosopher in the evolution of both the British and the U.S. constitutions. "The silence of the laws is the freedom of the subject," wrote Hobbes: Where the law does not specifically prohibit, the citizen is free to do as he pleases. In unfree or Oriental societies, the assumption is reversed, and the freedom to do any individual action depends on favor, tradition (as interpreted by the absolute ruler or his agents), or corruption.

The freedom enjoyed in Western society under the rule of law and constitutional government explains both the quality of its civilization and its wealth. In the early Middle Ages, Islamic societies enjoyed some freedom in transmuting the Greeks' knowledge and spirit of inquiry, but this came to an end in the 13th century, which was precisely the point when the Western university system took off. Where the quest for knowledge is relatively, and now almost absolutely, unrestrained, the public benefit will be great, especially where the certainty of the law ensures that knowledge is rewarded. This is exactly the combination that is the foundation of wealth-creation.

Society in the West was establishing a consistent pattern of wealth-making even in the Middle Ages. From the 15th century, two factors — the invention of double-entry bookkeeping and of printing from movable type — were joined by six others, all consequences of the rule of law and of (virtual) equality under the law. These were the invention of the legal corporation (later including the limited-liability company and the trust); the development of a clear legal doctrine of marriage and inheritance; the invention of freehold in real estate and of banks operating as sure deposits for liquid wealth (both serving as the basis for lending and investment in mercantile and industrial enterprise); the development of copyright law; the inability of government to confiscate or tax individual property except by due process; and, finally, the invention of an immense range of legal devices, from commercial and personal insurance to stock exchanges (to promote, protect, maximize, and employ savings efficiently).

From these dozen or so advantages and their interaction, capitalism evolved. It is not, strictly speaking, an "ism," but a process of nature, which at a certain state of human development — the rule of law and a measure of personal freedom being the most important ingredients — occurs spontaneously, as millions of ordinary people go about their business in as efficient a manner as they know how. It is, then, a force of nature, which explains its extraordinary fecundity, adaptability, and protean diversity. It is as much a product of Western civilization as the university and the library, the laboratory and the cinema, relativity theory and psychotherapy. Coca-Cola and McDonald's are not alternatives to the Metropolitan Opera and the New York Public Library: They are all four products of a wealth-creating and knowledge-producing process based on freedom and legal certainty.

Moreover, because capitalism is based on human nature, not dogma, it is self-correcting. The freedom of the market enables these corrections to be made all the time, to short- and long-term problems. The expression "the crisis of capitalism" is therefore misleading. Capitalism moves through continual crises, major and minor, absorbing their lessons and so continually increasing productivity and living standards in the long run.

Indeed it is the protean ability of Western civilization to be self-critical and self-correcting — not only in producing wealth but over the whole range of human activities — that constitutes its most decisive superiority over any of its rivals. And it is protean not least in its ability to detect what other societies do better, and incorporate such methods into its own armory. All the other systems in the world, notably the Japanese, the Chinese, and the Indian, have learned much from the West in turn, and benefited thereby. The Islamic world has been the least willing to adopt the West's fundamental excellences. That is why it remains poor (despite its wealth of raw materials), unfree, and unhappy. Its states are likely to have uneasy relations with the West until Islam reforms itself, embraces the rule of law, introduces its own form of democracy, and so becomes a protean player in the modern world.

For more Paul Johnson on NRO, see “Relentlessly and Thoroughly.”


TOPICS: Constitution/Conservatism; Culture/Society; Editorial; Government; Philosophy
KEYWORDS: capitalism; civilization; pauljohnson; west
From the December 3, 2001, issue of National Review
1 posted on 02/18/2004 10:50:50 AM PST by Tolik
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To: Tolik; walden
This is a repost. Paul Johnson's excellence demands repeating and spreading.

Previous post can be found here:

Why West is Best
Posted by walden
On News/Activism 11/19/2001 9:02:04 AM EST with 93 comments

NRO ^ | 12/3/01 | Paul Johnson


2 posted on 02/18/2004 10:52:04 AM PST by Tolik
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Icon A History of Christianity
by Paul Johnson

Icon A History of the Jews

Icon A History of the American People

Icon Intellectuals

Icon Modern Times Revised Edition

Icon The Renaissance

Icon Art

Icon Ireland

Icon Napoleon

Icon The Civilization Of Ancient Egypt

3 posted on 02/18/2004 10:52:44 AM PST by Tolik
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To: Tolik
Moreover, because capitalism is based on human nature, not dogma, it is self-correcting. The freedom of the market enables these corrections to be made all the time, to short- and long-term problems. The expression "the crisis of capitalism" is therefore misleading. Capitalism moves through continual crises, major and minor, absorbing their lessons and so continually increasing productivity and living standards in the long run.

Paul Johnson bump.

The populists on FR don't understand that capitalism is a force of nature. They think the "haves" rich made it up to keep the "have nots" down.

External locus of control. The whole problem is an external locus of control.

4 posted on 02/18/2004 10:59:37 AM PST by Taliesan
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To: Taliesan; FairOpinion; DestroytheDemocrats; quidnunc; .cnI redruM; The Wizard; upchuck
Paul Johnson, EXCERPTS:

.....Moreover, because capitalism is based on human nature, not dogma, it is self-correcting. The freedom of the market enables these corrections to be made all the time, to short- and long-term problems. The expression "the crisis of capitalism" is therefore misleading. Capitalism moves through continual crises, major and minor, absorbing their lessons and so continually increasing productivity and living standards in the long run.

Indeed it is the protean ability of Western civilization to be self-critical and self-correcting — not only in producing wealth but over the whole range of human activities — that constitutes its most decisive superiority over any of its rivals. And it is protean not least in its ability to detect what other societies do better, and incorporate such methods into its own armory. All the other systems in the world, notably the Japanese, the Chinese, and the Indian, have learned much from the West in turn, and benefited thereby. The Islamic world has been the least willing to adopt the West's fundamental excellences. That is why it remains poor (despite its wealth of raw materials), unfree, and unhappy. Its states are likely to have uneasy relations with the West until Islam reforms itself, embraces the rule of law, introduces its own form of democracy, and so becomes a protean player in the modern world.


5 posted on 02/18/2004 11:07:04 AM PST by Tolik
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More Paul Johnson articles discussed here: http://www.freerepublic.com/focus/f-news/k-pauljohnson/browse
6 posted on 02/18/2004 11:08:16 AM PST by Tolik
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To: Tolik
Let me just recommend his recent book "ART: A NEW HISTORY".

Which allows me to show off for having read such a big book.

But seriously, a great read.

7 posted on 02/18/2004 11:09:24 AM PST by Taliesan
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To: Taliesan
By some FReepers' recommendation I bought and have not chance to read yet his "A History of the American People" and "Modern Times Revised Edition". I have another two books lined up in-front of these :))
8 posted on 02/18/2004 11:12:43 AM PST by Tolik
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To: Tolik
Where the quest for knowledge is relatively, and now almost absolutely, unrestrained, the public benefit will be great, especially where the certainty of the law ensures that knowledge is rewarded. This is exactly the combination that is the foundation of wealth-creation.

Very well said. Bump!

9 posted on 02/18/2004 11:14:45 AM PST by PatrickHenry (The universe is made for life, therefore ID. Life can't arise naturally, therefore ID.)
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To: Taliesan
The populists on FR don't understand that capitalism is a force of nature.

What do you mean by that? If I go out to the Galapagos Islands I'm going to see capitalism in nature?
10 posted on 02/18/2004 11:15:20 AM PST by lelio
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To: lelio
Human nature.
11 posted on 02/18/2004 11:25:54 AM PST by Taliesan
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To: lelio; Taliesan
Lenin and his followers came up with the "Scientific Communism" to distinguish it from what they saw as naive Utopian Socialism of 17th-19th centuries. They were claiming that socialism and then communism are natural steps in human development, more just and better economically than preceding capitalism and feudalism. They are proved wrong, because their system needs to be forced on people to survive. It is not self-organizing and self-correcting as capitalism, which is indeed more "natural" if we can say so.
12 posted on 02/18/2004 11:29:01 AM PST by Tolik
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To: Tolik
Self-organizing.

If you put a dozen people on a desert island, and the only rule is you can't hurt anybody else or force anybody else to do anything, you get a capitalistic society.

Pretty simple.

13 posted on 02/18/2004 11:36:56 AM PST by Taliesan
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To: Tolik
Bump to read. Thanks.
14 posted on 02/18/2004 2:32:23 PM PST by HowlinglyMind-BendingAbsurdity
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To: Tolik
I made his "History of the American People" my eldest daughter's homeschool-highschool history text
15 posted on 02/18/2004 3:22:48 PM PST by SauronOfMordor (No anchovies!)
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