The Magazine

How the West Won: Freedom and ‘killer apps’

Nov 28, 2011, Vol. 17, No. 11 • By ELIZABETH POWERS
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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.