Skip to comments.Why West is Best
Posted on 11/19/2001 6:02:04 AM PST by walden
Why West Is Best Secrets or rather, obvious ingredients of the Good Society.
By Paul Johnson, the British journalist and historian, is the author of many books, including A History of Christianity and A History of the Jews. From the December 3, 2001, issue of National Review
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.
Hello, Islamic nations? Catching on yet?
Bumping my recent Defense of Liberty companions.
Fascism. communism. Two World Wars. Colonialism. The Nation state. The atom bomb.
I'm not saying that the West hasn't brought many good things to the world as well. But the self-adulation in this post makes me want to puke.
Oh. By the way, Islamic fundamentalism has one and only one cause: the perversion of Islamic culture caused by more than a century of Western meddling and colonialism. The earlier Jihadism had been dead for a thousand years until we came along.
Because Jim Morrison said so??
I think you missed the point of the article, though. The point is not that western civilization is perfect, the point is that it is light years better than the alternative. You may disagree with that conclusion-- being a westerner, as I assume you are, you are quite free to leave and go to the third-world nation of your choice. However, I notice that plenty of violently anti-western "intellectuals" choose to live in the west, despite its evil, and not in the third world they venerate (Edward Said and Susan Sontag come to mind, but there are thousands of others.)
Unfortunately, these people had to turn their back on their countries in order to have a future in the modern world. I can sympathize, but it seems to me that the brain drain out of the Islamic world has left behind mostly intelligent thugs (as leaders and terrorists) and untutored peasants. If the middle east is to have a future, they desperately need to retain and regain their intellectual elites, but to do that, the governments and systems of law will have to be fixed first. It's a conundrum.
If people are too angry or stupid or arrogant to appreciate this great nation, this great, generous, free nation, they can just take a hike and make room for folks who do appreciate it.
Look, I don't want to get into too much an argument about this. I found the self-congradulatory tone to be infuriating. I still do.
Capitalism and the idea of liberty first arose in Europe because of its unique historical advantages. The geographic location - a large agricultural plain crisscrossed by rivers. The only other area of the world that fits this bill is Eastern North America. But North America suffered from two disadvantages: 1) no large domesticable animals 2) it is separated from the only possible civilization cradle (Mexico) by desert. In contrast, European had horses, sheep, cattle and easy transportation to both Egypt and Mesopotamia.
Roman Law and Christianity had nothing to do with it. The Common Law is superior to the Roman version. Any other religion would have adapted itself to the new realities of emerging capitalism, just as Christianity did. It is not a coincidence that the Reformation came shortly after the Renaissance.
Exactly so. But the way for this to happen is for us to leave them alone and let them find their own way forward. The most exciting developments in the Mid-east today are probably in Iran, which seems to be finding its own path towards liberty and modernity. Thirty years of a US-supported thug regime were followed by twenty years of 11th century theocracy. But they seem to be about to throw off the past and move on. If only we let them be...
Evil people don't want the moral order, nor do they want justice--unless they think it is in their interest. I thought the chief problem that faces a civilization is how to get people to love goodness and justice even when it conflicts with their perceived interests, or to educate them to the true value of goodness and justice.
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