Over at Asymmetric Information (via Instapundit) Jane Galt says:
“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.
7 thoughts on “Aberrations”
I’ve always figured my old boyfriend whose specialty was medievalism (his specialty was Sienna) did not have it exactly right when he thought that the worse thing that had happened in all history was the Reformation. And I don’t think it was an accident that he also had a somewhat medieval view of women’s (and men’s) roles.
Thanks Shannon. This is the kind of thing that has to be pointed out to my children every once in a while as they come back from their U.T. courses in anthropology longing for the time of the hunterers and gatherers, when they think they would have been happy. (Actually they probably would have been dead by the age they have already reached – though of course if they were alive they wouldn’t be bothered by my opinions because for sure I’d be dead.) I always figured that life expectancy trumps a hell of a lot.
Every competent economic historian (with training in economics) believes and teaches some variant of what you said. [China may be the exception as it got the closest to what we call the IR with clearly non-Western institutions.] Yet the most violent reactions are heard from members of the public who are still being taught that the West is rich because the rest of the world is poor.
This has been disproved on so many levels and discussed in so many prominent books (take Rosenberg and Birdzell or North and Thomas for starters, not to mention Mokyr, Landes, McCloskey, etc.) Even within my own university, students come to my classes hearing the opposite from other disciplines. They are quickly disabused, but it is a great problem.
The number of people who’ve swallowed unhistoric gar bazzhh about economic history seem to outnumber by far the ones we reach with careful teaching.
Other groups are deeply invested in the notion that slavery or colonialism “paid for” Western growth, no matter how mistaken the notion is.
What to do, what to do.
This nonsense about Western capitalism causing Third World poverty was preached as gospel by 20th century Marxists. When the predicted immiseration of the working class didn’t happen (in fact, they prospered most where markets were freest), it had to be explained somehow. An error by Marx was unthinkable. So in what might be considered an early example of offshoring, the Marxist theoreticians looked around for misery, found it overseas, and ascribed it to capitalism.
Don’t bother trying to explain this to an anti-globalist. It will only puzzle or annoy them without denting their certainty.
One minor quibble.
You said…Places that were never colonized and which have no legacy of western institutions at all are even worse off….
Thailand was never colonised or controlled by any western power. But it is one of the most developed and best ordered societies in Asia, after Japan. It is a long step down from Japan in wealth, but progressing very rapidly.
Minor addendum: it was no accident that the West became the world’s first free society in history. Our ancestorsworked hard, saved, and invested in the future because they thought that was the way to get to heaven. They were “sending up the timber” in the words of that old negro spiritual: assembling the materials with which to build their heavenly mansions when they died. Max Weber called it the Protestant Ethic. But that is not quite right. It was the Christian ethic, the ethic of self-sacrifice for the sake of the future as the only escape from scarcity, servitude, and oppression. Those poor blokes believed. They figured that if there was a God, they would get their reward in the end. “Thy will be done, thy kingdom come, on earth as it is in heaven.” Whether we share their faith or not, we should be thankful. And mindful, too. ‘Twould be a shame if we blew it all.
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