Reply To: Flaws of Western Civilization


We live in an analog world, not a binary world, so there are few concepts one can point to that have no counterpart-examples in other parts of the world. Multiculturalists and various others (Amartya Sen is very good at this, in his The Idea of Justice) can point to episodes or examples in various non-western civilizations to say that “see, this idea or that idea is not the exclusive province of the West” (usually these people also engage in invidious comparisons through selective use of historical examples to try to paint a picture that non-western societies are or were better than the West). But usually what they end up constructing is an image of non-western societies as precursors to the sort of 20th century Progressivism that is taught at, say the LSE (where, say, Sen both learned & taught), or in Western legal scholarship (Ghandi was a English Lawyer before he was any kind of Indian Nationalist).

All that is by way of saying: Nothing I might point to as unique to Western Civilization is unique in any absolute sense. Western Civilization has just been more (or less) successful in developing certain concepts. Among these are:

1) the idea of the worth of the individual, which is ultimately derived as much from Christianity as from any philosophical traditions (certainly one doesn’t find much weight given to the individual in Plato’s “Republic” or “Laws”). From this developed a greater emphasis on individual liberty.

2) city-states and political pluralism became much more highly developed in the west, in part because of the constant tension between the demands of the “polis” (political authority) on the one hand vs the demands of “faith” on the other. This sort of ‘split’ never really developed in, say, Islam, in part because even when the Caliph-as-spiritual-leader was separated from the Sultan-as-political-leader, one was always clearly overshadowed by the other. In places like China, despite some early promising concepts that developed (many Austro-Libertarians see Taoist theory as kindred), unitary authority was always very strong.

3) Out of the above developed concepts of “private property + the rule of law” that were more or less better observed in the West than elsewhere. Many other places long retained the idea that the Monarch or the Celestial Emperor owned everyone, including the people, and could expropriate anything and everything by simple decree or whim, without having to follow an established procedure and norm open to all. Now, in the West there is also this concept, embodied in, say, Eminent Domain – which just further highlights that we live in an analog world rather than a binary one. But in the West, over time, property and persons received greater space for autonomy and thus spontaneous orders had a better chance to develop than in other places.

Quite often it is qualitative distinctions, rather than absolute distinctions, that end up making quite a bit of difference. One can find, for example, entrepreneurial spirit in populations all over the globe. However, the degree to which this is allowed to flourish varies considerably.

4) entrepreneurial independence leading to economic development. Quite often it is – very accurately, actually – pointed out that the government in, say, China did this or that wonderful thing, or the Mughal Emperor ordered the construction of that wonderful thing, and so on. But this emphasizes the very top-down approach that has been common in most non-Western civilizations. While this also happens all too often in Western history, there was a critical degree of difference, and this allowed Western-derived cultures to ultimately leap ahead.

5) Ultimately a much lesser dependence upon “magical” explanations for events. While there are “rational thinkers” in all cultures, the sort of causal explanations people look for matter. Even civilizations like China, which did not have much of a divine-based religious tradition, did have a sort of animism. Animism is often celebrated by multiculturalists today, because of it’s supposed emphasis on “nature-as-a-living-thing.” But this inhibits scientific explanations. Conversely, Western Christianity had the concept of a “miracle,” but while some may scoff at “miraculous” explanations, there is a critical difference between a “miraculous” explanation for unusual events, and “magical” explanations; “miracles” are “exceptions” to an underlaying pattern of normality, while “magic” or “the spirit of this river, this rock, this lake, this swamp” (“Oyashiro-sama’s Curse”) inhibits the growth of scientific thinking. (The Western, Hebraic-derived, version of monotheism probably deserves more credit for Western successes than modern-materialist theorists generally credit it with. Note also in this sense, Christians and Muslims do not really ‘worship the same God’ – even if one accepts that in other senses, they do. This in part has to do with what might seem like an almost trivial distinction/difference in the ways in which Islamic philosophers and Western philosophers interpreted neoplatonism & Aristotelian metaphysics and incorporated it into their theology. However, when it comes to philosophical ideas & concepts, seemingly small differences can end up making enormous differences – see also how “positive freedom” is derived, and leads to near total statism, vs. the classical liberal definitions of liberty – and note how some very influential & well-meaning early classical liberals, with small errors in how they described & defined liberty, led people to extrapolate liberty-destroying statist Dewyite “positive-liberty” out of it [of course, Dewey was also a Progressive, but he could “legitimately” lay claim to following the implications of some versions of classical liberal theory to their natural conclusions, precisely because of the small, seemingly trivial errors some – many – early classical liberals made. But, I digress – by way of illustrating the earlier point).

6) relative ease of sharing of knowledge & information – this starts with the fact that Western civilization adopted an alphabet that is comparatively easier to learn than some alternative scripts. It continues forward with the ongoing Western idea that knowledge is not just the province of a select claque (something that ultimately inhibited, say, the Ottoman Empire – which shut down printing presses) or mandarinate. This too lead to scientific growth.

7) Much better organizational expertise and personal, individual initiative down to relatively low levels. This enabled not just the growth of Western economics & science, but better skill at warfare. Now here we might also point out something: as Asimov wrote, “it’s a poor blaster that doesn’t point both ways.” Concepts, like any tool, have “good” and “bad” uses. The West’s organizational superiority, along with it’s entreprenurial spirit (several imperialist enterprises began as private joint-stock operations), and the like also helped the West dominate the rest of the world.

Now, multiculturalist progressives and other superficial thinkers will point to this and say that it is the big flaw in Western Civilization – it’s imperialism, colonialism, and history of dominating other cultures, and without the West there would have been peaceful cooperation as the world would have taken another path. Well, a real historian would note that simply because the West managed to succeed at these things to a greater degree than other cultures ended up doing; just about every civilization and culture has its history of dominion-seeking and libido dominem, certainly every major one.

But from a libertarian perspective, this doesn’t excuse any domination, either of people within the West, or non-Westerners. I suppose then the biggest flaw, from an Anarcho-libertarian perspective, is that while the West developed concepts of liberty and non-aggression to the highest degree, the West has been slow in not just recognizing but following the implications of these principles.

Now, as for my part, I’m not fully convinced by anarcho-libertarianism. But that’s a subject for another time – in the meantime this post is long enough (and probably I left some things out or muddled them, as I wrote this extemporaneously).