Friday, July 19, 2013

Is the WEST in DECLINE? (Niall Ferguson)

It was the BBC video production CIVILIZATION--The West and the Rest that drew me to the compelling and cogent audiobook on which it is based. Author Niall Ferguson narrates this story of the rise and eventual fall of western civilization. He describes six "killer apps" that made the West win in the game of commerce and influence over the East, along with North America's success compared to South America's. First is competition: six hundred years ago China was the dominate progressive power, the seat of science and industry, with ships that dwarfed those of England and Spain. Even France was a squalid backwater by comparison. But China refused to decentralize its power or to extend its influence, while the West expanded and traded, establishing colonies and fighting for territory. (So fortunes were reversed.) Science is next. The Ottoman Turks lost against the West because they emphasized religion in government, while secular governance took prominence in Europe, with the Catholic church second. So Turkish sultans destroyed printed books in favor of religion-based calligraphy, thereby nullifying progress in science and the arts, while the West applied science to field artillery, and won the day over swords. Next is democracy and property rights. George Washington supported ownership of land by everyone (albeit not slaves), while Simon Bolivar's rebellion in the South (against Spain's elitist conquests) did not then grant ordinary citizens the same rights of property and votes. Thus, South America, even with equally vast natural resources, became mired in dysfunctional tyrannies and social unrest while the United States went forward into enlightened progress and freedom. The other killer apps are Medicine, Consumerism, and the Work Ethic. Ferguson places emphasis on this last, showing that Protestant religion (as opposed to Islamic or even Catholic faiths) has inspired industry, and has spread to China in recent years (while declining in Europe, resulting in fewer hours worked there, and an increase in debt.) The reason for the Protestant work ethic's decline in Europe is due to state sponsored (and fewer) churches, while in America there is competition among many churches, and full separation of church and state. (Which is not to say Protestant religion is not without corruption too.) The most important point Ferguson makes is that these apps apply to all societies, and history shows that no civilization has dominated for long. China is now applying these apps in ways they never have before, and gaining ground over the United States. Brazil has applied the apps to get out of debt, and while there is still social turmoil and corruption there, many Brazilians enjoy such prosperity that they have been buying second homes and condos in Miami by the hundreds, and at bargain rates after our near economic collapse (due in part to our substitution of predatory banking over manufacturing.) Are we doomed to fall soon? That is uncertain. What is certain is that Asian countries have discovered our roots, and are exploiting them now and for the first time, and this forebodes huge environmental hazards as well as a relative decline in Western standards of living. Ferguson's newest book is The Great Degeneration--How Institutions Decay and Economies Die. It's read by Paul Slack.

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