February 11, 2003

BEGGING THE QUESTION:

Why Liberty Flourished in the West (Jim Powell, Spring 2001, Policy)
Despite the claims of those who say one culture is as good as another, the West is clearly superior in at least one crucial respect: it brought liberty into the modern world, and liberty has made possible many other good things. [...]

[A]side from some fragmentary thoughts attributed to the Chinese wise man Lab Tzu, almost all the ideas of liberty are Western: individual rights, secure private property, freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of association, freedom of religion, freedom of trade, separation of powers, equality before the law, and so on.

Similarly, all the protections for liberty, such as a written constitution, a bill of rights, an independent judiciary, privatisation, and term limits, developed in the West. The West was the first civilisation to abolish slavery. While there have been conquerors in the West, there has also been a distinguished anti-militarist tradition, with dissidents courageously speaking out against military conscription and for peace.

Why, then, did liberty originate and develop furthest in the West? [...]

When all is said and done, liberty flourished where enough courageous independent thinkers risked their lives for it. We in the West are the fortunate beneficiaries of the courage of somebody who stuck his neck out first and encouraged another and another until the tradition of liberty became well established.


Okay, why did the West produce those thinkers? Posted by Orrin Judd at February 11, 2003 8:08 PM
Comments

A theory is in the book "The Wealth and Poverty of Nations" by David Landes. He contends that the fragmentation of post-Roman Europe created thousands of experiments in social organization. In the resulting competition between fiefdoms, any edge could be crucial.



Those crucial edges accumulated into what we consider Western Civilization. Compare with China, which had virtually no internal or external competition, the result being centuries long stultification.



Sincerely,

Jeff Guinn

Posted by: Jeff Guinn at February 11, 2003 8:55 PM

One word answer: Christianity. It acts as a kind of brake and check on the indiviualism and dynamism generated by geography and climate, without an oppressive government, as in the East. All in all, not worth trashing to insure that a few perverts do not feel bad.

Posted by: Lou Gots at February 11, 2003 9:07 PM

Where did ideas of liberty develop in the West?



In Britain.



Why was that?



Because unlike the rest of Europe, central power was weak. You can also credit the printing press, the Enlightenment and Protestantism as a counter to the stifling hand of the Vatican.

Posted by: M Ali Choudhury at February 11, 2003 9:59 PM

William McNeill, in a little book that I believe is out of print, found the starting point in the surplus of olive oil and wine in the Aegean that allowed a leisured class to grow up who found amusement in political ideas.



Why they did so is unclear. Anyhow, if he's right -- and

he is one of the two historians of my time I most admire -- Christianity was not the key ingredient.



McNeill also thinks marching was important. All these leisured guys were warriors in a disciplined band.



I like this, in part, because it requires a whole lot of free will.

Posted by: Harry at February 11, 2003 10:09 PM

All of these have some plausibility, except the olive oil.

Posted by: pj at February 11, 2003 10:15 PM

Are you suggesting there was not excess oil, or

that it would not have had consequences?

Posted by: Harry at February 12, 2003 11:40 AM

In other words: "It's all about oil"?

Posted by: H.D. Miller at February 12, 2003 1:12 PM

Mr. Judd;



I don't believe that the West was unique in producing these kind of thinkers. I think it was unique in that their thoughts took root. It is in fact a distinguishing characteristic of the West that it is formed from the everyday actions of the citizens, not from the plans of the intelligentsia or central bureaucracy.

Posted by: Annoying Old Guy at February 12, 2003 4:51 PM

Modern democracy has one fundamental basis - cheap firearms. Firearms finished off the military aristocracy by making expensive armor a liability rather than an asset.



While political power does not instantaneously respond to changes in the way force is applied in society, it will respond, and ideologies will arise that justify the new order. Political power has only been broadly based when the ability to apply force has been so as well. The Greek demos was limited to the Hoplites, just as the Roman Republic reflected the agrarian roots of the Roman Army, and ended when the "yeoman farmer" was impoverished by the wars of the 200-100 BC period.



Having said this, the difuse political structure in Europe was also important, as it prevented a powerful state from supressing the technology (see China).

Posted by: Paul at February 12, 2003 5:01 PM

Modern democracy has one fundamental basis - cheap firearms. Firearms finished off the military aristocracy by making expensive armor a liability rather than an asset.



While political power does not instantaneously respond to changes in the way force is applied in society, it will respond, and ideologies will arise that justify the new order. Political power has only been broadly based when the ability to apply force has been so as well. The Greek demos was limited to the Hoplites, just as the Roman Republic reflected the agrarian roots of the Roman Army, and ended when the "yeoman farmer" was impoverished by the wars of the 200-100 BC period.



Having said this, the difuse political structure in Europe was also important, as it prevented a powerful state from supressing the technology (see China).

Posted by: Paul at February 12, 2003 5:02 PM

Apologies for the double post. Anyway, to answer the question posed - why did the West produce these thinkers? - it is because the combination of competing states and a democratizing military technology allowed them to find a safe refuge to publish their ideas, and created an audience for them that could act with some hope of success.

Posted by: Paul at February 12, 2003 5:10 PM

Paul:



The longbow took care of that stuff even better than guns:



http://www.brothersjudd.com/index.cfm/fuseaction/reviews.moviedetail/movie_id/17

Posted by: oj at February 13, 2003 12:08 AM

I don't know about cheap firearms. They were available in China, too, and in Japan Hideyoshi was able to ban them to protect his despotism. So that argument has some legs but does not really explain why the West turned out different.



The political fragmentation of the West was important, as also its traditions of voluntary corporate action (what Glenn Reynolds now calls "a pack not a herd").



A lot of "western" culture, including most of its religion, is really from western Asia. The same beliefs that remained in western Asia or spread to Africa or hither Asia did not result in "another west." No matter how you slice it, the fundamental difference was Greeks.



But why Greeks?I don't have a clue

Posted by: Harry at February 13, 2003 1:47 PM
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