The Magazine

How the West Won: Freedom and ‘killer apps’

Nov 28, 2011, Vol. 17, No. 11 • By ELIZABETH POWERS
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Painting of Christopher Columbus planting a flag on American shores

Christopher Columbus arrives in the Americas

Niall Ferguson’s newest book is chock-a-block with striking comparisons. For instance, if the Soviet Union was able to manufacture warheads, it could surely have produced blue jeans. But satisfying the desires of its citizens was not part of its agenda. Nor, adds Ferguson, of the other competitor for world supremacy in the 20th century, German national socialism. Thus, one arrives very quickly at why “the West,” basically liberal capitalist democracy, beat out these two formidable agents of destruction. It offers freedom to citizens, not only in the choice of goods but also in the possibility of crafting their own destiny. The West has been able to achieve this, unlike any other civilization or empire in history, and in the process surpass “the rest,” by virtue of what Ferguson calls six “killer apps”—competition, science, property rights, medicine, consumption, and work ethic.

Make no mistake: The rise of the West was not foreordained. Indeed, in 1400, there wasn’t even a West as such: In that year mankind across the earth was more or less equal, living at subsistence level, as agriculture could never get beyond feast or famine cycles. What was gained one decade by good harvests would be wiped out the next by plague, war, or natural disaster. No one anywhere got over this hump. Yet a century later, a takeoff occurred: Agricultural production increased beyond the subsistence level and allowed people to plan beyond the next harvest and to divert their energies into other productive activities. The takeoff did not take place in China, which (as Ferguson points out) had a well-established infrastructure of canals for transporting rice, possessed numerous splendid inventions, and was politically and socially unified, with the same laws and standards in force throughout its empire. It did not occur in the Ottoman empire, which only a half-century before had conquered Constantinople. It was, instead, in the politically and socially fragmented countries on “the western edge of Eurasia,” in which competition was by necessity a virtue, that the killer apps took root. The result, by 1800, was a rise in living standards, health, life expectancy, and scientific control of nature, not to mention that these countries came to dominate the world and, in the process, created by the late 20th century a common way of life—“Western civilization.”

Ferguson, a chronicler of financial history, is not embarking on new territory here. The West’s rise and the genesis of “the Great Divergence” between East and West have been the subject of numerous books in recent years. He does, however, portray in a highly readable fashion the paradoxical nature of “progress.” The most compelling chapter is the one on medicine, which begins not with a medical breakthrough but with the French Revolution, which gave France “a political script of unequaled drama.” Thus, while Britain was allowing local elites to rule its empire, France sought to export its revolutionary ideals, making Frenchmen of its subjects. The climates of Africa and Asia were such as to spur further advances in wiping out tropical diseases and gains in life expectancy, but such progress had a dark side in the rise of eugenics, particularly among Germans. The “methods of total warfare” carried out by Germany on its subjects in Namibia are straight out of Heart of Darkness. The Nazis learned lessons from this colonial experience and extended barbaric treatment to the peoples of Eastern Europe. The Lebensraum of the Nazis was the epitome of colonial exploitation.

Thus, Ferguson does not sugarcoat the effect that the rise of the West had on the rest of the planet. Indeed, his subtitle might read “The Best and the Worst.” Yet, despite the prevalent animus against the West, most prominently in the West itself, Ferguson seeks to balance the downside with the achievements: the sustained improvement in the lives of citizens and the institutional structures that satisfy their material needs, not to forget recognition of the value of individual lives. Like many others these days, however, he worries not simply that non-Western nations—for instance, China, having (as it were) downloaded the killer apps—are catching up with the West in power and wealth, but that Western civilization is in decline.

Ferguson begins by saying that we have to study the past in order to discover the future, and it is not surprising that, being a historian, he thinks in terms of the rise and fall of empires and civilizations. The West, however, is unlike all previous civilizations, which have built monuments meant to enshrine their accomplishments in perpetuity. In contrast, the competition and endless proliferation of choices on which the Western economy is based is a project of de-monumentalizing—in other words, forgetting the very achievements that created our way of life. The “spirit” of capitalism is, at its core, destructive of what went before; Joseph Schumpeter called this “creative destruction.” Even the Reformation, which Ferguson couples with the rise of the sixth killer app, the work ethic, was destructive. Despite the encouragement it gave to individual reading and the rise of printing, the spread of information, especially of a scientific nature—indeed, the entire “cascade of intellectual innovation”—had among its carnage the destruction of countless manuscripts from monastic houses, the houses themselves, the religious art of Roman Catholic churches, the legacy of previous generations.

Nevertheless, Western civilization was built in the same way as past civilizations, and if it is to continue with its core intact—the liberty of the individual—it requires that one save, if not heirlooms, at least money. One must be able to put off today for tomorrow, sacrifice, work hard, harness all the qualities that built past civilizations. Thus, Ferguson’s concluding chapter, which concerns the West’s financial insolvency, paints a bleak picture: Nations that solved the perennial human problem of starvation within the last century now have the greatest number of fat people in history.

Still, it is difficult to imagine that the infrastructure of a global economy that spreads affluence—the banking system, the money markets, the real estate industry, the telecommunications—could be eradicated, even in the event of a nuclear conflagration. Ferguson doesn’t mention it, but the average annual GDP of the world’s industrialized countries grew throughout the 20th century, despite two world wars and the Great Depression. It might take time to rebuild this infrastructure, but the knowledge on which it is based would not, like Greek science in the Middle Ages, be lost. Our technological and scientific mastery derives from an understanding of nature that was first discerned in the 17th century; mankind will not intellectually return to the limited sphere of knowledge of 1500.

Moreover, “the West” as template to which most of the world aspires—Ferguson lists the organization of medical science, patterns of marketing and consumption, diet, clothes, housing—will not soon be replaced with a new one. Even in Tehran, most people work from nine to five and play on weekends. Which is not to say that the core of Western Civ—civil and individual rights, along with the institutions that protect contracts, inventions, intellectual and private property—could not suffer severe setbacks. The Soviet Union already proved that.

Ferguson quotes twice from a speech by Winston Churchill which begins by asserting that civilization “means a society based upon the opinions of civilians.” Churchill went on to say that the “central principle” of civilization is “the subordination of the ruling class to the settled customs of the people and to their will as expressed in the Constitution.” The great threat at present comes not from the traditional tyrants and dictators of whom Churchill warned—we have the institutional and technological resources to end their machinations—but from the current political class. To fuel its power, derived from the votes of the unproductive and the alienated, it strangles the engine of wealth creation, entrepreneurship, with regulatory burdens, while appropriating the fruits of the industrious with taxation. It kills the goose that laid the golden egg.

Will the people rise up and reassert the principles that are at the heart of the West’s achievement: individual liberties and limited government? The answer is still out.

Elizabeth Powers is editing a collection of essays on the intellectual origins of freedom of speech in the 18th century.