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.