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Reject the Success of the West at Your Peril

By: Javier Garay - @Crittiko - Nov 10, 2014, 12:32 pm
Westerners have forgotten the values and principles that allowed their societies to prosper.
Westerners have forgotten the values and principles that allowed their societies to prosper. (Rafael Alvez)

EspañolRecently, in one of the masters classes I teach, I referenced a book by Niall Ferguson. The famous historian has proposed the idea that the West is in danger, not because of an economic crisis or the rise of other global powers, but because it has forgotten that its societies were built on values, principles, and processes that have allowed this civilization to become the most advanced in human history.

A student in the class made the claim that the underdevelopment of continents such as Africa is the result of European political and economic models supposedly imposed on the region. While this is a typical, superficial argument regarding development, what’s important here is who said it and why.

The student is a young Frenchman who is completing his graduate studies in Colombia. He is someone who was born and raised in a country with status as a highly developed Western power. He is also a person who is enjoying a benefit of globalization: moving from country to country to achieve his goals.

His reasons for making this statement are, however, much more concerning. On the one hand, he claims that the conception of development as the creation and accumulation of wealth for material needs and desires of the masses is an exclusively Western idea, imposed on the rest of the world. On the other, he suggests this approach has only succeeded in creating destruction, war, and degeneration.

The first claim, besides being wrong, is arrogant and potentially dangerous.

If we claim that increased production of goods and services is exclusive to a single worldview, and not the result of constant discovery as human beings act to improve their material wellbeing (as Ludwig von Mises demonstrated) then we must conclude that not all human beings can be equal. There are some that are able to survive and prosper, while others are simply incapable and will always be the victims of death and hunger.

Furthermore, if we believe that capitalism and liberalism are Western impositions on the rest of the world, we would also have to believe that all institutional arrangements are capitalist and liberal, including those that currently exist on the African continent. That is to say, when discussing the imposition of models and beliefs, the totalitarian regimes that exist would have to be an expression of the same concept.

This twisted thinking — that human beings are stratified according to their birthplace and that we all live under capitalist and liberal regimes — fosters the reemergence of the same appalling statism that marked the worst expressions of fascism, national socialism, and communism in the 20th century.

There is also the claim that the evolution of Western civilization has given rise to war and degeneration, although I don’t know how one comes to such a conclusion. Here the problem lies in understanding what the characteristics and achievements of Western civilization actually are.

It is true that during this process of wealth creation and improvement in the lives of millions of individuals, who we now consider Westerners, there were wars, destruction, and conquests of peoples who were considered inferior at the time. However, this was not the result of Western principles and values, but rather the denial of these ideals.

Western states were the ones who conquered, destroyed, and imposed — not capitalism and freedom. Insofar as businesses participated in this process, they were helped by these same states.

Beyond demonstrating how misguided and dangerous these ideas are, the principal concern, as Niall Ferguson has noted, is that a growing number of Westerners reject the West’s role — not as a “superior” civilization, but as an example of the potential to create wealth and improve the lives of millions of people.

The future of Western civilization will be determined by whether its members renounce the same institutions that allowed them to enjoy the most advanced society in history. Those in the West should recognize the importance of their legacy, including the successes and failures, as an example of what can be done to improve quality of life throughout the world.

Translated by Alex Clark-Youngblood. Edited by Fergus Hodgson.

Javier Garay Javier Garay

Javier Garay is a professor at the Externado University of Colombia. He has written two books on international issues, such as development, after his doctoral dissertation focused on the same topic. Follow him on Twitter @crittiko and through his personal blog, Crittiko.