Sunday, November 13, 2005

Will the West Survive?

I look around today, and I wonder whether capitalist liberal democracy is sustainable. On the surface, it seems an odd question. Capitalism has brought the world more wealth--at all levels--than the world has ever known. At the same time, liberal democracy has brought the world more freedom. What Jefferson called the "natural aristocracy of talent" has largely supplanted the old aristocracies of title and property. People can worship as they please, dress as they please, eat what they please and generally live as they please. This is highly uncommon in human history, and yet it is what we have created. The idea of the "noble savage" is mostly a myth. Left to their own devices, humans are simply very intelligent animals. The overwhelming majority of humans who have ever existed lived lives which were nasty, brutish and short. Our lives are not any of the above, and yet we are unquestionably the same animals as our ancestors.

It would seem, then, that some of us have finally figured out how to live together, and to do so at least mostly in harmony. It's axiomatic that white-skinned people aren't inherently more civilized than brown-skinned people. The mild-mannered, turtleneck-wearing, Ikea-shopping scandinavians of today are the direct descendants of the bloodthirsty vikings who terrorized Europe just a few centuries ago. At the same time, Baghdad, the site of so much brutality today, was the cradle of our own civilization a few millenia ago. Ultimately, it is all about culture, and capitalist liberal democracy is demonstrably superior to other systems of human organization on a number of fronts, including at least wealth generation and human freedom. Our system is not perfect, but it is better than all the others at least as to these metrics.

America is not perfect, but it is unquestionably the best example of a noble nation the world has ever known. We have made mistakes. Americans have done many evil things. Millions have died at the hands of Americans. Millions more have died at the hands of our allies. We should not deny this or minimize it. We should accept it for the reality that it is. Where we have made mistakes, we should learn from them. At the same time, the evil our country has done must be kept in perspective. Only if our nation's evil deeds outweigh its good deeds should any American feel ashamed.

In truth, no reasonable person can make the case that the weight of America's evil comes close to the weight of its good. In the 20th century, America helped to save the world from German and Japanese fascism as well as Soviet communism. Once the fascists were defeated, America undertook the monumental task of building western capitalist democracies in Japan and Europe from the ground up. America saved South Korea from the North Korean communists. America liberated Afghanistan from the Taliban. These are all massive weights on the "good" side of the balance. I would argue that liberation of Iraq from Saddam and creation of an Iraqi democracy also belong in this category.

America has anything but an uncheckered past. Early in this country's history, Americans of European descent drove the Native Americans from their own land, even those who wished to assimilate with the Europeans and join their communities. America's people allowed slavery to exist for the first 80 years of American history, and segregation to exist for a century after that. Even during the course of its good deeds, America aligned itself with some very unsavory characters, including Joseph Stalin, Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein. Although America ultimately did the right thing in the 1940s, America stood by and watched continental Europe and the Pacific fall to the fascists until the fascists were right at the doorsteps of Britain and Hawaii. More recently, America failed to stop massive genocides in Cambodia, Rwanda and Sudan. Today, America is strongly aligned with repressive regimes in Saudi Arabia and China, in order to guarantee the free flow of cheap oil and cheap shiny noisy crap.

Even with all the bad, America's track record, and that of western democratic capitalism in general, compares very favorably to any other system to which it might be compared. Given this, it puzzles me how little pride Americans seem to have in their own country and their own culture. It think part of it is inherent to our system. Constant analysis and self-criticism is necessary for continuous improvement. We constantly make ourselves aware of the shortcomings of our system. This is reasonable and prudent if we want to improve our system. At the same time, we should constantly make ourselves aware of the benefits and strengths of our system as it exists today. At the extreme, a constant focus on the negative can make the status quo seem so completely unacceptable that any change is a change for the better. Of course, the status quo that we all live within is anything but "completely unacceptable" by any historical standards of human existence. We can reasonably and understandably lament that many of the poor don't have health insurance. We should not, however, ignore the reality that the uninsured of today in many cases receive better health care than the wealthiest Americans could have possibly received 50 years ago.

My point here is that I am concerned that, if we aren't careful, the self-criticism and drive for constant improvement inherent in western democratic capitalism may sow the seeds of its own demise.


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