Thursday, April 5, 2012

Some Thoughts on “Civilization: The West and the Rest” by Niall Ferguson

I’ve written quite a bit lately that a shared concept of truth is necessary to establish trust in society; and that a shared sense of trust leads to a better society. In particular, in personal and business relationships it is imperative that the counterparty or friend can be trusted at their word.

Reading Harvard historian Niall Ferguson’s latest book, Civilization: The West and the Rest, I was struck by this yet again.

In Civilization, Ferguson objectively examines why so-called western nations have been so successful over the last five hundred or so years. He points out that in 1500, China was far ahead of western countries by any standard of measure.[1] He proposes that the western use of what he calls “killer apps” - competition, science, democracy, medicine, consumerism and the work ethic were the source of this rise of western countries.

At the end of the book Ferguson looks at the reasons why the western countries are now losing their way, while nations like China are rising.

Ferguson does not list Christianity as one of “the killer apps” of western civilization. But that is perhaps because it is deeper than that. He points out that capitalism and consumerism without limits can be equally destructive. Much of the western world has spent itself broke. He points out that Christianity encourages competition and entrepreneurship coupled with asceticism. That is to say, one can work hard and generate profit, but still have a firm belief that personal gain is not the end goal. He writes that in China the explosion of capitalism going hand in hand with a high personal savings rate is a key to the rise of China.

Here is an excerpt Civilization talking about how the rise in productivity in China has been correlated with the rise in Christianity there. In particular, the shared moral framework that is part of Christianity helps engender trust, which in turn results in more business transactions.
Yuan Zhiming, a Christian film-maker, agrees: ‘The most important thing, the core of Western Civilization… is Christianity’. According to Professor Zhao Xiao, himself a convert, Christianity offers China a new ‘common moral foundation’ capable of reducing corruption, narrowing the gap between rich and poor, promoting philanthropy and even preventing pollution. ‘Economic viability requires a serious moral ethos,’ in the words of another scholar, ‘more than just hedonistic consumerism and dishonest strategy.’[3]
And again quoting Zhuo Xinping, a Chinese academic:
Only by accepting this understanding of transcendence as our criterion can we understand the real meaning of such concepts as freedom, human rights, tolerance, equality, justice, democracy, the rule, universality, and environmental protection.[4]
I believe that capitalism has shown itself to be the greatest means of creating wealth. However, building shareholder value, profit, without any moral boundaries can be dangerous. We have witnessed in the housing bubble and ensuing crisis a great number of financial institutions and individuals pursuing accumulation without prudence - living for today. Christianity, through what Ferguson refers to as the “work ethic” encourages believers to do their job to the best of their ability without forgetting that, this world is not all there is; that each individual is of infinite value; that we must answer for our actions some day before God. Thus, a Christian does not have to be ashamed to be an investment banker or venture capitalist, but as he or she does her job they must keep in mind that their life will not be summed up by looking at their bank account at the end of the day. Moreover, the increased perception that the financial industry has ethical issues has led to increased distrust. This will result in individuals being less willing to trust others to invest their money and so lead to a decrease in the capital available to invest in new ideas that can help take the economy forward.

Ferguson also points out that Christianity underlies the democratic freedoms enjoyed in the western world. He states that the democracy brought about by the French Revolution and its cult of “Reason” and prohibition on the worship of God lead to terror.[2]

Free democracies have proved to be the best systems to allow humans to realize their aspirations. But, do legal documents, such as the U.S. constitution that underpin democracy, guarantee our freedom, or is it the respect for the rule of law and the opinions of others? As political differences increase, what tempers the urge to take our political beliefs and violently press them on those who disagree with us? Without the core principal that each person is of infinite worth, will the temptation to believe that our political vision will so better society that the end justifies the means bring us to the guillotine?

And we complain about the lack of ethics on Wall Street and the problems with our democracy. Perhaps we should take a closer look at the moral framework, or lack thereof, undergirding our democracy and corporate sector.

Since this moral framework appears to be in decline simultaneously with the decline of belief in the western world in Christianity, perhaps we should look again at Christianity.

You can purchase Civilization here.

[1] Niall Ferguson, Civilization: The West and the Rest, The Penguin Press, New York (2011); 4-5.

[2] Ibid. 153.

[3] Ibid. 287.

[4] Ibid.

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