AS THE WORLD TURNS
Apr 27, 1998, Vol. 3, No. 32 • By DAVID FRUM
Make a list of the world's twenty richest countries, eliminate the oil sheikdoms, and you'll see a stark fact: Despite twenty years of rapid economic growth on the Pacific Rim, only Japan is not predominantly European in its ethnic composition and at least nominally Christian in its religion. What, if anything, are we to make of this?
Forty years ago, we would have called it " the triumph of the West," and historians like William O'Neill wrote big books about it. Today, historians are still writing big books -- but they no longer call it a triumph. The colossal economic success of the white Christian West is to the history-writing profession a deeply shaming fact. The triumph has come to be seen as at best a fluke and at worst a crime -- that is, when it is not denied altogether by stories of ancient Egyptians flying gliders about the pyramids.
Three years ago, Oxford University's Felipe Fernandez-Armesto won great acclaim in England for his huge history Millennium, which contemptuously dismissed the rise of Europe and America as a four-hundred- year hiccup in the long run of Chinese world dominance.
Just last week, the 1998 Pulitzer Prize for non-fiction was awarded to Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs, and Steel, which argues that Europe's success is due merely to the good luck of geography. It's easier for plant and animal species to move east and west, within a climate zone, than north and south, across climate zones. That's why the peoples of Europe and Asia, the widest landmass on earth, enjoyed a greater selection of foods and acquired immunity to a greater variety of diseases than did the peoples of the long American and African continents -- which explains how the Europeans were able to conquer the indigenous Africans, Americans, and Australians.
So when David Landes and Thomas Sowell sat down to write their own versions of the rise of the West -- versions that put human beings and human choices back at the center of the story -- they were not just readying themselves to tell a story, but gathering pebbles to shoot at a towering intellectual Goliath.
Sowell, a practicing conservative, probably had a pretty good idea of what he was letting himself in for with his new Conquests & Cultures. But with The Wealth and Poverty of Nations, Landes -- a Harvard professor and the author of what is generally regarded as the best history of the Industrial Revolution in Britain, The Unbound Prometheus -- may well be in for a shock when the history profession lets loose on his book.
The Wealth and Poverty of Nations is a profoundly impressive book. It's crammed with learning, wonderful vignettes, lively writing, and valuable insights. Landes's hostility to religion, and especially to Catholicism, is pronounced, but he can still pay tribute to the Church's contribution to technological innovation in medieval Europe: "The desire to free clerics from time- consuming earthly tasks led to the introduction and diffusion of power machinery and, beginning with the Cistercians, to the hiring of lay brothers . . . to do the dirty work. Employment fostered in turn attention to time and productivity."
This is a book that effortlessly jumps from the monasteries of France to China's loss of technological world leadership. In the first two decades of the fifteenth century, the Chinese outfitted vast fleets and sent them on expeditions to the East Indies and Indian Ocean. Then suddenly the voyages were canceled, exploration abandoned, and China turned inward. Technological advance stopped. By 1500, the military advantage had passed decisively and permanently to Europe. Landes offers a succinct and powerful explanation:
To begin with, the Chinese lacked range, focus, and above all, curiosity. They went to show themselves, not to see and learn; to bestow their presence, not to stay; to receive obeisance and tribute, not to buy. They were what they were and did not have to change. They had what they had and did not have to take or make. . . . At the same time, desire to overawe meant that costs far exceeded returns. . . . The vulnerability of the program -- here today, gone tomorrow -- was reinforced by its official character. In Europe, that opportunity of private initiative that characterized even such royal projects as the search for a sea route to the Indies was a source of participatory funding and an assurance of rationality. Nothing like this in China, where the Confucian state abhorred mercantile success.
But sad to report, The Wealth and Poverty of Nations is not at last a successful book. Landes ultimately fails to deliver what he promised: an explanation of why the West is rich and most of the rest is not. Landes is a historian of technology rather than of law or institutions. Nobody knows more about cotton spinning in eighteenth-century England, but he seems uninterested in the legal institutions and social habits that gave eighteenth-century English cotton spinners confidence that the contracts they signed would be honored, the profits they made would not be confiscated, and the money in which they stored their wealth would hold its value. Without altogether meaning to, Landes ends up telling the story of how the West got rich, rather than why.
And even his account of how is not always convincing. Like many historians of industrialism, Landes is unimpressed by free-market economics. He sees the accumulation of surplus capital and its investment in technology as the route to riches, and consistently avoids discussing incentives and prices. This leaves him puzzled, for example, by the demise of the Soviet Union, which certainly cannot be accused of underinvestment: "Although the Russian state was capable of mobilizing resources for specific projects," he concludes, "technique was generally backward and overall performance shoddy." As for why technique was backward and performance shoddy, Landes has nothing to offer.
Because Landes puts so much emphasis on investment and remains so little concerned with price mechanisms and incentives, he naturally looks sourly on free trade. In his telling, Victorian Britain fell behind because it opened its home market to competition and failed to defend its industrial secrets from foreigners, and a similar fate now threatens America.
So hostile is Landes to free trade that he blames it for the failure of Latin America to industrialize in the nineteenth century -- and then never stops to wonder why world-record tariffs did not cause Latin America to boom in the twentieth.
Sowell's Conquests & Cultures has few of the anecdotes and witticisms of Landes's book, and reading it is work -- but work worth doing. With a courage masked by its seeming coolness, Sowell insists that we stop seeing history as a story of oppressors and victims, recognizing instead that for all the violence, cruelty, and injustice of history, the destinies of peoples lie in their own hands.
While The Wealth and Poverty of Nations must ultimately be judged a sprightly collection of essays, some convincing, others not, Conquests & Cultures is as precisely targeted as the air force's latest warhead, and nearly as explosive. As in his two previous books on similar subjects, Race and Culture (1994) and Migrations and Cultures (1996), Sowell attacks head-on
prevailing doctrines about " celebrating" and preserving cultural differences. Cultures are not museum- pieces. They are the working machinery of everyday life. Unlike objects of aesthetic contemplation, working machinery is judged by how well it works, compared to the alternatives. The judgment that matters is not the judgment of observers and theorists, but the judgment implicit in millions of individual decisions to retain or abandon particular cultural practices, decisions made by those who personally benefit or personally pay the price of inefficiency and obsolescence. That price is not always paid in money but may range from inconvenience to death.
Sowell is not blind to the element of chance in human affairs. He agrees that the economic backwardness of Africa -- and thus the enslavement of the Africans -- can be attributed in large part to the misfortunes of geography. While Africa is the second-largest continent, it has a coastline shorter than tiny Europe's, and not a single river navigable into the body of the continent. Africa is isolated from the rest of the world, and its jungles and mountain chains divide it from itself -- which is why Africa failed to develop strong states. And without states to protect its people, Africa fell prey to slavers.
Something similar happened in Eastern Europe: The world's secondmost enslaved population, the Slavs, also lived in a part of the world where geography made formation of states diffcult. The British, on the other hand, owed much of their industrial lead to their island's wateriness: "Britain's iron ore and coal deposits were located near to one another and both were located near the sea -- an enormous advantage over most continental European countries, where even a distance of ten miles between the two minerals was a formidable obstacle."
But while chance has its place, Sowell insists, it explains only so much. What are decisive are the values and institutions groups develop. What determines economic growth is not investment, as Landes believes, but skill sharpened by competition. Sowell observes of czarist Russia: "Lack of capital was not the source of Russian backwardness. Lack of entrepreneurship and technology were the crucial problems. . . . What was lacking in Russia was not capital but the ability to use capital."
The good news is that the ability to use capital can be learned: Human capital can be transferred. The bad news is that sometimes the price for the transfer is an immense cultural catastrophe. That is how Sowell sees the history of Africans in the New World. Deported, enslaved, degraded, the blacks in the New World -- and in the United States above all -- absorbed the European culture of their enslavers and, in the course of time, prospered and rose toward equality. "Haitian blacks, having been independent of whites for more than two centuries, should be the most prosperous in the hemisphere and American blacks the poorest, if racial oppression accounts for poverty, but in fact their respective economic positions are directly the reverse -- again suggesting that human capital has a greater effect than racial discrimination."
That is the sort of thought for which Sowell's critics will never forgive him. But I rather wonder whether it will not be Landes who finds himself in hotter water. For his book is a more direct assault on the favored doctrines of today's historical profession. Perhaps the most disturbing thing to be learned from Landes is how pervasive such beliefs are. One of his footnotes directs you to the Internet motherlode: "H-WORLD" (http://www.h-net.msu.edu/similar to world) , an "online initiative" that "facilitates discussion of research and teaching in world history."
I spent an alarming few hours online there, reading one professor after another explain, as one of them put it,
that Europe was no more highly developed than other civilizations prior to 1492, and had no unique "potential" -- intellectual, social, or environmental -- for modernization, . . . that the "rise" of Europe over other world civilizations occurred because of the wealth obtained in early colonialism, mainly in the mines and slave plantations of the Americas, . . . that the European conquest and exploitation of the Americas resulted from the fact that Europeans were geographically closer to the Americas than were African and Asian maritime-oriented civilizations, and that the conquest itself was facilitated by the great epidemics of Eastern Hemisphere diseases that decimated the populations and destroyed the civilizations of the "New World."
Even after 1492, another H-WORLD professor writes, Europeans
had nothing to offer in exchange that anyone in Asia wanted -- except the money the Europeans were able to bring from the Americas after 1500. Yet for several centuries even that American money afforded the otherwise poor Europeans no more than a toehold anywhere in Asia and thereby a still only quite marginal participation in universal world history. That continued to be made preponderantly in Asia by Asians -- and certainly not by Europeans.
H-WORLD is no domain of cranks. It's funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities and maintained by Michigan State University, and the professors who post on it teach at perfectly respectable colleges and universities. But it opens up a strange, alternate universe, in which India would have developed a world-dominant textile industry if not for the beastly British, in which China led the world technologically until 1850, in which medieval Africa was a very considerable industrial power. The only advantage the Europeans had was a superiority in technology for killing and fewer qualms about putting it to use. European hegemony was only a brief episode, and it is now mercifully coming to an end. And to hasten that end along, even the word "Europe" is to be banished from the language, with the old concept of " Eurasia" replaced by the new one of "Afrasia" -- since Europe isn't a continent, really, but a peninsula: like India, only nastier.
This kind of thinking irritates both Landes and Sowell. "In a world of relativistic values and moral equality," Landes fumes,
the very idea of a West-centered (Eurocentric) global history is denounced as arrogant and oppressive. It is intended, we are told, "to justify Western domination over the East by pointing to European superiority." What we should have instead is a multicultural, globalist, egalitarian history that tells something (preferably something good) about everybody. The European contribution -- no more or less than the invention and definition of modernity -- should be seen as accidental or, to use the modish word, contingent.
"In our own times," Sowell writes,
cultural relativism has rewritten history. . . . The concept of discovery has become taboo, unless it is a "reciprocity of discovery" or the even more neutral word "contact" between the two worlds. Yet, plainly, Columbus discovered America in a sense in which the Indians did not discover Europe -- and it was an enormous event in the history of the human race, for good or ill. Quibbles about the fact that some other European explorers touched the hemisphere earlier, or that the Indians knew it was here all along, trivialize this turning point in the history of the world.
In calling the school of history they are attacking "relativist," however, Landes and Sowell may be missing the point. There is really very little relativistic about it. You never hear anyone say, "From our point of view it was wrong for Ferdinand and Isabella to expel the Jews from Spain, but you have to see it from the Spanish point of view," or "We might think it wrong to sell opium to the Chinese, but British India did need the money." Real relativism is intended to excuse; the new world history is intended to blame. Relativism takes no point of view; the new world history has a very specific point of view: the evil of Europe and its inferiority to everything else. This is not a commitment to "moral equality," as Landes claims, but a twisted form of ethnic chauvinism.
It is very strange to tap into a website (made possible only by American technology) to read postings -- in English by professors at Western universities paid for by European techniques of industrialism -- denouncing America, Britain, and the European West. But then again, why not? Human beings are creatures who hunger to belong to something larger than themselves: a community, a tribe, a nation. A history professor in the United States today would never confess himself an American nationalist, but there remains in him a premodern element that wants to be a nationalist for something. The history attacked by Landes and Sowell gives him that something -- something to hate (Europe and European America) and something to love (China, India, pre-Columbian America, Africa). It gives him heroes to glorify and villains to abuse. And it connects seamlessly his view of the past with his view of the present -- for it is not a coincidence that this new nationalism in history has arisen at exactly the same moment that America's identity as a European civilization has come into question.
There are happily few signs that the preoccupations of American academia are spreading beyond the borders of this country. The subtitle of Landes's The Wealth and Poverty of Nations is Why Some Are So Rich and Others Are So Poor, and for Singapore, Ghana, Taiwan, Korea, Chile, and other fast-developing countries, the answer is as obvious as it used to be to America: free trade at home and abroad, low taxes, the honoring of work, stable currency, honest government, good schools. It does not require much more than that.
The danger is that a crippling and unfounded self-hatred is being inflicted on millions of high-school and university students. This sort of thing has real- world consequences. If it is true, as Sowell argues, that America owes its freedom and prosperity to its European cultural inheritance, then what, we have to wonder, will America look like if it teaches its young people to feel ashamed of that inheritance? Landes's Ming Chinese shut themselves off from the world out of overweening arrogance; an equally unthinking self-abasement can be every bit as destructive. It is to that unthinking self-abasement that we seem to be heading. And these two remarkable books by Landes and Sowell are powerful brakes upon that self-destructive course.
By David Frum; David Frum is a contributing editor to THE WEEKLY STANDARD How the West Won