By Paul Rosenberg
[Editor’s Note: In early May 2009, I read a book, PRODUCTION VS PLUNDER, written by Paul Rosenberg, a subscriber to THE VOLUNTARYIST. (See www.VeraVerba.com for ordering information.)The short section entitled “The Foundation Is Established” (pp. 137-139) reminded me of an article that I considered writing a number of years ago (but which never came to fruition). The idea for such an article was sparked by another essay, one written by Jim Powell. It was titled “Why Has Liberty Flourished in the West?” and appeared in CATO POLICY REPORT, Volume 22, Number 5, Sept/Oct 2000. (Available in pdf format on the web.) One of the initial questions I had about Jim’s thesis was: Is it proper to assume that liberty did flourish in the West? Perhaps it is correct to say that it did, if you compare it to other world civilizations and cultures. The answer, however, would be much different if you compare it to an imagined world where there were no coercive governments. I wrote Paul to see if he was interested in addressing this topic. Here is his overview.]
1) Has liberty flourished in the West?
2) Why was it at least in the running (compared to other civilizations)?
Before we examine the answers to these questions, it is important to understand that the West has led humanity forward in many ways. Consider the following recent improvements in human life:
Â·More food and more variety of foods. (Modern grocery stores.)
Â·The ability to store food. (Refrigeration.)
Â·Better cooking techniques. (Stoves, ovens, microwaves.)
Â·Healthy environments. (Central heat, central air, no open fires inside.)
Â·The availability of immense power, almost anywhere. (Electricity.)
Â·The ability to travel. (Affordable autos, airplanes, etc.)
Â·Increased knowledge. (Books, newspapers, the History Channel.)
Â·Increased communication. (Radio, cell phones, Internet, etc.)
Â·Machines that perform mundane chores. (Washing machines, etc.)
All of the above were developed in the West, and are (more or less directly) the result of increased liberty. So, this is not only an interesting question, but an important one.
We must begin with the contrast between liberty and coercive governments. The idea that a government provides liberty is false, although it is close enough to a true statement to confuse many people.
Governments, at their very best, provide protection against external military threats. This may certainly have benefits, but it is not liberty – it is military protection. It is important to separate the two. Consider it this way:
Hitler attacked the USSR in 1941. The USSR eventually drove the Nazis back and won military safety for their people, but those people were certainly not “free.” The military victory did not establish liberty – it established the rule of Stalin, probably the number two killer in world history.
Liberty is the ability to live without interference, restricted only by the equal rights of others.
Being militarily safe is useful, but it is not the same as liberty.
The short answer is, “yes, it has.” The ideas of individual rights, secure private property, freedom of speech, a free press, freedom of religion, equality before the law and free trade are all Western ideas.
What I mean by “equality before the law,” is that justice applies to every person equally – rich or poor, from a good family or not, with powerful friends or without, and so on. Law, in general, can be useful in some forms and tyrannical in others. Law need not be conjoined with the State. Indeed, if law were separate from State (as was often the case in centuries past), it would be a great tool for justice and liberty. But, this is a long discussion, for another time and place.
While it is true that liberty flourished in the West, it most certainly has not flourished without restraint. We do have States, after all, and States are organizations that may only survive by forcibly taking the property of others – which is definitely contrary to liberty. Aside from a scattered few places – and for short moments at that – we have not had full liberty. We have, however, had partial liberties and have benefited from them.
Liberty has certainly not thrived as much as many of us would like, but it has thrived to a considerable and useful extent.
This is the interesting question. I have no single, absolutely certain answer, but there are many partial answers, some of them going back into pre-history. I’m arranging these in no particular order. I’m certain that all of these are significant, but I’m not sure how to rank them.
Western (Indo-European) grammar, with its categories of gender, its sharp distinction of person and number, and its great emphasis on chronological tense, instills a certain level of logical attitude toward life. In contrast, the languages of the Far East emphasize relative class levels.
This is probably a larger issue than you would first think it to be. What people assume in their very speech has a powerful effect upon them, even if thoroughly unnoticed. This is especially true because language is acquired in early childhood, with many subsequent ideas being built upon its foundation.
This is a well-know issue among professional manipulators. One of their key phrases has long been, “Control the vocabulary and you control the argument.” For example, as John Hasnas explains in Voluntaryist #123 (page 8), by associating the idea of voluntary order with the State, the possibility of a non-State order is almost completely eliminated. When someone with a new idea comes along, he or she is derided as being “self-styled,” as if anything unapproved by the established order is evil. Again, this is powerful stuff, and most people shortcut their thinking by repeating slogans that they have heard others use successfully.
The Western tradition features heroes who separated themselves from everyone else. Abraham was commanded to separate himself. Moses commanded Israel to be separate from all other peoples. Jesus commanded his students to remain separate from the teachings of the other Jewish sects. And so on.
This is a potent idea. Separation allows new ideas to develop and permits people to move forward with much less internal restraint. After all, following the examples of Abraham, Moses and Jesus has been an effective moral defense at most places and times in the West.
And there is one more crucial element here: The separation ideal declares that the group is not to be followed and that unity is not a morally-superior strategy. This undermines collectives of all types and the ever-so-common intimidation that keeps most people tethered to the tribe. It is this “tether” that often destroys individuality before it is fully formed.
The religions of the West – Judaism and Christianity – are subversive religions, even though most of their leaders would rather not admit it. (They must generally support the State in order to get favors such as tax exemption.)
Abraham fought kings; Moses defied the Egyptian king, and the twelve tribe of Israel lived without one for several hundred years; the prophet Samuel warned against a king; Jesus died as an enemy of the State; the first Christians were all enemies of the State; and so on.
Judaism and Christianity are not good religions for rulers, nor are they good for State cohesion. These are religions that very specifically enthrone justice above rulership.
For this reason and others, people who adhere to these religions are more likely than most others to risk their safety for righteousness and progress. “Seeking the praise of God rather than men” is a powerful thing.
An excellent example of risking one’s safety for what is right is the English hero “Freeborn John,” A.K.A., John Lilburne. (Jim Powell goes into some detail on this hero in the article referred to above.) Lilburne was brought into the English justice system for unlicensed publishing, and refused to plead until he had heard the charges leveled against him. In other words, he refused to incriminate himself, as was common at the time.
Freeborn John was whipped, dragged by an oxcart, placed in stocks (where he handed out pamphlets), and finally thrown in jail. He still refused to surrender his “freeborn rights.” Lilburne actually spent most of his adult life in jail, but, thanks to him, both English and American law features the right not to incriminate one’s self. Not surprisingly, Lilburne was a very religious man, at various times a Quaker and a Puritan.
Westerners have almost always been farmers, as opposed to herdsmen or hunters.
Farmers tend to see the world as a positive-sum game and nomads as a zero-sum game. The important thing about this is that positive- or zero-sum assumptions form in human minds and – if not analyzed and adjusted – color wide areas of thought. This affects all sorts of opinions and judgments. People take these basic views of the world as givens: things they don’t need to waste time examining; things that are considered to be known. This builds great differences in the thoughts of the farmers and the nomads.
Young nomads were instructed to take, from a world of limited resources.
Young farmers were instructed to use the world intelligently and to create food.
Farmers learn to live cooperatively. They help build each other’s barns, share tools, lend their expertise for repairing their neighbor’s equipment, and so on. They also respect each other’s property lines. Herdsmen, on the other hand, tend to mistrust their neighbors and to hide information from them. If the nomad finds good grazing land, he does not share that knowledge. If he finds a hidden water hole, he does not disclose the location. Cooperation is less likely and plunder more common among nomads. Rather obviously, liberty is the fellow-traveler of cooperation and the opponent of plunder.
Most Western cultures are also northern cultures. There have been a number of interesting theories put forth as to why most advances are made in cold places. Certainly the inability to be lazy without freezing plays a major role. Active people, after all, produce more than inactive people, and in cold places, inactivity can be fatal. This is an interesting area of study.
In the 17th Century, people in the West found an opportunity to flee all expectations and re-create civilization on a new continent. This was a very important and powerful force in the West. In our current situation, people with radically new ideas are considered dangerous to one extent or another. What if they could simply leave, go to some new, un-ruled place and try living their new way? What new strategies might be revealed as superior to thought-choking obedience?
In the 17th Century, freedom-seekers could leave their homelands. Bear in mind that this was a much more complete “leaving” than is possible in our time. A fitting example of this is the modern tax protester. We could say to him, “If you don’t like it here, go somewhere else,” but this is actually no choice at all for the tax protester – the deal is the same everywhere. If an American tax protester goes to Canada, he finds a nearly identical situation. If he goes to Germany, it is the roughly same, and the same can be said, more or less, for all of the earth’s two hundred States. If, however, there was an empty continent available, the same tax protester could simply leave and do his best to build a new life however he wished.
So, a great many such people came to the New World, bringing their wild new ideas and transformative energies with them. The New World of North America owes a much bigger debt to the ‘Crazies’ of Europe than many ‘respectable’ types would like to acknowledge.
This answer goes fairly deep into speculation, but it is worth mentioning.
For the last half-million years, our planet has experienced a string of at least four ice ages. In each of them, a huge portion of the earth has been covered with ice and snow and the rest of the planet was much colder than it is now. In the last ice age, what are now Indianapolis and St. Louis were covered with glaciers – a lot like Greenland’s current condition. Even the areas where soil was exposed were much colder than they are now.
The Ice Ages were mega-disasters in the north, but not for the equatorial areas. The entry and exit from an ice age is problematic for tropical areas, but that was a very short time compared to the overall 100,000 year cycle, and still no comparison to areas farther from the Equator.
As mentioned earlier, Western culture is primarily northern culture as well, and it is certainly a culture with strong disaster images, as exemplified by the story of Noah’s flood. This type of image cultivates a feeling of non-stability – all things will not remain as they always have been. They have massively changed in the past and they will massively change again in the future.
It can be argued – though I’m not aware of any really pertinent evidence – that tropical cultures lacked this disaster model, and were more likely to accept the status quo, as “things have always been this way, and always shall.” A northern Christian, for example, would be far less likely to accept this argument; assured that – at the very least – the Second Coming would be likely to occur soon and totally reset everything. Even the Roman Catholic Church the grand enforcer of sameness during the Middle Ages – struggled with this problem.
God Versus State
Since the Judeo-Christianity of the West was a subversive religion (as mentioned above), it has very often struggled against the State. Normally this is thought of as the State preventing the Church from turning into an oppressive theocracy (which has certainly occurred), but that is only one side of the issue. When massive ideologies (like Church and State) oppose each other, it opens up cracks, where liberty can flourish. (And they do oppose each other, since both compete for the full respect and devotion of the people.)
God has been a significant idea throughout western history – the big idea at the top of the ideological “food chain.” That makes it very useful as a moral and intellectual weapon against other ideologies that wish to control men. The idea of God is very difficult to overpower. This allows “God” to serve as a protection from other dominators. Such uses of the God-idea provides open space in which liberty can prosper and grow. This is exactly what happened in the West between the 14th and 20th Centuries. Here are a few examples:
Â·The “rule of law” formed when the Church saw it as a tool they could use to keep princes in line. Remember that there was very little man-made legislation during the Middle Ages, and that “naturally” discovered law was not the handmaiden of the State. In those times, the law was actually sovereign above the prince. (But, again, this subject requires a more detailed explanation than we can give it here.)
Â·One of the pivotal elements in the growth of western civilization has been the role of personal initiative. Individuals took it upon themselves to pursue the things they wanted. They did not wait to get permission from the civil or religious authorities. One of the first places where this initiative surfaced was in the universities of Western Europe. For example, men like Peter Abelard (founding father of the University of Paris), took it upon themselves to create better ways of learning, and sold their services to individual customers. Although the universities eventually received charters from popes, emperors, and kings, they were originally self-governing private enterprises in which the teachers had to please their customers (the students) or otherwise lose their patronage.
Â·The medieval guilds played Church against State and existed in the gap between the two spheres, first aligned more with Church, then more with State, and always with a foot in each. Some of these guilds, such as the Merchant’s Guild, built massive trade networks throughout Europe, especially in the north. They were careful to publicly express their piety, which kept some princes at bay. (“We’re close with the Church, don’t mess with us.”) And being adaptable merchants, they were able to shift tactics frequently. Not all guilds were as effective and decent as the Merchant’s Guild, but they were able to create some open space between Church and State, within which they could operate.
These situations were always strained and hazardous, but they did provide free space for liberty to growâ€¦ and grow it did!
I am confident that this list contains most of the core reasons why liberty flourished in the West, but I would like to deal with a few loose ends before I finish:
Why Not The East?
I can give you two partial answers:
Â·The languages. Looking at the world in terms of status puts humans in mental chains and sometimes in physical chains as well. It keeps minds from functioning freely. This slows the growth of liberty to a very significant degree.
Â·Less farming. Nomadic civilizations are less conducive to liberty, and there have been more of them in huge areas of the East. The fact that large areas of the East were less than ideally suited to farming was merely chance.
Is The West The Ideal Culture?
No, it certainly is not. We have plenty of deeply ingrained problems in our midst. The difference with the West is that is was less bad, not that it was ideal.
Regardless of all the obstacles, liberty is always powerfully present in some men. In the majority, however, it is present to an extent, but is mostly suppressed. Even in the “less bad” West, liberty only flourished at moments, and was usually stomped-out at the earliest convenient time. Most modern Westerners would run in horror from full freedom; many would beg for a strongman to crush it.
Huge numbers of Westerners care more about six-packs and big-screen TVs than they do about liberty. They don’t even know what real liberty is; nor would very many be willing to sacrifice anything for it.
The truly stunning thing about liberty is that it harmonizes with the highest and best functions of human nature. A book would be required to address this subject decently, but the point is an important one: The parts of men’s natures that do not resonate with liberty are those which have been manipulated, corrupted, or left undeveloped.
Liberty is the essential soil for an advanced human existence. It can flourish in no other.
Thank God liberty found some cracks in the West. It is our job to understand this and to create new cracks, then to break up the pavements and let liberty thrive unhindered – in both the West and in the East.
We have been like plants that struggle to grow through the cracks of a concrete parking lot. Humanity will never rise toward its awesome potential until we clear space to spread our roots and branches. Liberty, and liberty alone, provides the fertile ground we need.
Get to it!