Niall Ferguson lists 6 reasons western societies with 19% of global population controlled 75% of the world’s resources. I think he missed one.
- Competition – Many corporations, similar to the City of London Corporation in the 12th Century, along other governments were competing with one another. Think about the number of western European languages spoken around the world today due to colonization.
- The Scientific Revolution – while we all know gun powder came to Europe from China, it was the Europeans that continued to experiment with it and mash together multiple scientific disciplines in order to improve it. Niall’s example is a German using Newtonian physics to improve the accuracy of bombs.
- Property Rights – I think this is probably one of the most fundamental rights in American history that contributed to stability and growth of the middle class. Even the poorest could own property which might remain for generations. Though, many injustices occurred over property disputes, those legal protections help the poorest prevail against the richest.
- Modern Medicine – ensuring people lived longer, healthier, and productive lives. Imagine the additional productivity of one person by nearly doubling their life expectancy. Just the simple act of surgeons washing their hands before getting elbow deep into another person’s abdomen probably saved a few million lives.
- The Consumer Society – Henry Ford paid much higher wages than other manufacturers at the time. He wanted Ford employees to afford Model Ts which in turn kept demand high for his product. For all the benefits of consumerism, there lurk many dangers as 2008 proved. The rising middle class in China and India creates demand for high-end western luxuries, but desires in the west for those goods at ever cheaper prices led to the decline of manufacturing in the west.
- Work Ethic – Western society’s work ethic turned virgin soil into vast acres of corn, cotton, tobacco and grazing land. Now the Native Americans that provided the seeds for tobacco and corn to the newcomers were equally (if not more) successful than Europeans at growing these crops. The difference was profit versus subsistence. It was the European demand for tobacco that encouraged a strong work ethic. Niall uses the examples of North and South Korea along with East and West Germany. The communist state produces markedly less quantity and quality than do non-communist states.
- Why? – I suppose you could lump this into the scientific revolution above, but really this is the ability to question authority, as well as, the desire to understand the reason an apple feels compelled to hurl itself toward earth. The inalienable rights of mankind to desire freedom and reject tyranny led to asking why. I think some of the basic tenets of Christianity contributed to this enlightened thought. Even though Catholicism suppressed western society for centuries, once peasants demanded the right to read and interpret the bible for themselves, The Church’s strangle hold loosened forever.
Niall fears (as do I) that the rest of the world will quickly catch up and overtake western society, but it is not too late. While governments are slow to react and bogged down in squabbles over Keynesian economics, we must act now to prepare our kids for challenges of the 21st century. Mark Twain said, he never let his education get in the way of his learning. Join me in teaching our children to be creative problem solvers that bravely seek answers to WHY.
- Niall Ferguson’s ‘Civilization’: They’re gaining on us (seattletimes.nwsource.com)
- Why did the West rise? (tigerhawk.blogspot.com)