Why The West?
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.]
TWO QUESTIONS AND THEIR IMPORTANCE
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:
cooking techniques. (Stoves, ovens, microwaves.)
environments. (Central heat, central air, no open fires inside.)
availability of immense power, almost anywhere. (Electricity.)
ability to travel. (Affordable autos, airplanes, etc.)
knowledge. (Books, newspapers, the History Channel.)
communication. (Radio, cell phones, Internet, etc.)
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.
WHAT IS LIBERTY?
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.
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:
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.
the ability to live without interference, restricted only by the equal
rights of others.
safe is useful, but it is not the same as liberty.
HAS LIBERTY FLOURISHED IN THE WEST?
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.
certainly not thrived as much as many of us would like, but it has thrived
to a considerable and useful extent.
WHY IN THE WEST?
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.
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.
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
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.
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.)
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.
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.
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
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.
have almost always been farmers, as opposed to herdsmen or hunters.
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
were instructed to take, from a world of limited resources.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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:
“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.)
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
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.
were always strained and hazardous, but they did provide free space
for liberty to grow… 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
I can give
you two partial answers:
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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!