“The appalling poverty of Sri Lanka or Mozambique is not some bizarre aberration that can be tracked to a cause we can cure. We are the aberration; Sri Lanka and Mozambique are the normal state of human history.”
Judging by the comments, many did not get her point at all.
Many people do not understand what is a “normal” state — i.e., one that requires no special explanation — and what is “abnormal.” We tend to look at our immediate environment, both in terms of space and time, and declare that environment the normal baseline for the rest of humanity. Many people in the developed world tend to think that the attributes of the developed world we take for granted, such as the rule of law, political equality, democracy, material abundance and long episodes of peace are the normal baseline for human existence. They look at the material poverty and political oppression in the developing world and ask, “What’s abnormal there that they lack the attributes that we have?”
The sad truth is that nothing is “abnormal” in the developing world. Rather, it is the developing world that is the normal baseline for humanity.
If one were to compare the greatest pre-industrial civilizations of any time or place to the standards of the developed world, every one of them would look like a squalid, third-world hellhole. The great civilizations of the past are regarded as “great” because of how they compared to the surrounding peoples of their times, not because of how they measured up on some absolute scale of social, political and economic development. An average citizen of the Roman Republic or Tang China had a better life than those who lived outside the boundaries of their respective societies, but compared to even the poorest person in the developed world today, their lives were a horror.
Whether one looked at ancient Rome, China, Japan, the Caliphate, medieval Europe, meso-America, etc., one would see societies where the vast majority of the population lived in dire material poverty and where political power rested in the hands of a narrow and usually hereditary elite. Staggering human rights abuses like slavery and execution by torture were common practices everywhere. Justice was largely dependent on patronage and class. Mass education did not exist. Work was physically demanding, tedious and continous. Wars, plagues and famine were common, and every generation could expect to experience at least one of the three if not all three in concert. Uncivilized peoples faired even worse.
Medieval Europe was every bit as poor and cruel as the worst areas of the present day world. It was no better than, and in some ways worse, than the civilizations of its contemporaries. However, starting with the Renaissance something in Europe changed. Europe began to diverge from the “normal” human experience. Political power began to devolve to the masses. Commerce grew and with it rising material standards of living. Knowledge of the material world exploded. In the span of three-hundred years (a time span of one Chinese dynasty or a third of a Pharaohic one) European civilization became something never seen before.
It is easy to see that poverty and oppression in the nations of the developing world occur in direct proportion to the degree in which those nations’ social, political and economic systems diverge from the Western model. The Japanese succeeded by the widespread adoption of Western ideas. Their greatest disaster befell them when they tried to resurrect pre-industrial Japanese ideals in the modern context. The degree to which former colonies of the West maintained the political and legal institutions left by colonizers largely predicts their current level of prosperity and freedom. Places that were never colonized and which have no legacy of western institutions at all are even worse off.
Had the Renaissance, the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution never occurred in Europe, the non-western world be even worse off than it is today. They would have all the material poverty and political oppression they have always had without any of the amelioration (such as vaccines and other medicines) offered by the existence of the West. People who think otherwise are engaged in childish romanticism.
It is the western divergence from the norms of poverty and oppression that requires explanation, not the continuance of poverty and oppression in most of the non-western world. Unfortunately, this idea creates uncomfortable questions for many. The elites of many lands refuse to accept responsibility for the fate of their peoples, preferring instead to blame outsiders. Leftists within the West, as a matter of religious faith, reject any idea that the West has any better ideas or methods than the rest of the world. As a result, Leftists and kleptocrats become de facto allies fighting against the progress and development of 3rd-world peoples.
We will not make much headway until we get enough people to stop asking what is “wrong” with the developing world and instead ask what is “right” with the developed world. Just as it is better to stop asking, “What causes wars?” and instead to ask, “What causes peace?” it is better to stop asking, “What causes poverty and oppression?” and to start asking, “What cause prosperity and freedom?” Before we can move forward must explain the positive aberration that is the West.