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A thrilling read but cops out on key question
on 25 November 2010
Ian Morris' "Why The West Rules--For Now" is a thrilling read. Morris is an accomplished stylist and his romp through the last fifteen-thousand years of human activity is fun, informative and--with one or two qualifications, explored below--convincing. I would recommend the book to anyone looking for a tour d'horizon of world history and pre-history.
Morris, however, is after bigger game, seeking to bring up to date a debate on the roots of Western leadership. One theory is "long term lock-in", which would have it that the West was always destined to enjoy primacy and possibly always will. Different examples of this would be Jared Diamond (Guns Germs and Steel, 1997), who made much of geography, in particular the distribution of domesticable plants and animals; or David Landes (The Wealth and Poverty of Nations, 1998), who dwelt on ideas, in particular those arising out of the northwest European enlightenment which encouraged enterprise by rewarding it with lawful property. Alternatively there is the "short-term accident" view, which would have it that Western primacy is something of an aberration, shortly to be corrected, following Joseph Needham's classic study of Chinese technology, or such more recent works as Martin Jacques' 2009 "When China Rules the World".
Morris is an archaeologist, so much of what is exciting in the book has to do with recent findings from his discipline. These enable us to learn much, even when records are absent: examples include the incidence of shipwrecks and lead pollution as surrogates for economic activity. Archaeology helps Morris fill in the gaps between the accounts of Diamond, who looks particularly at the period shortly after the ice retreated, and Landes, who instead focussed on just the last few hundred years.
Morris presents his conclusions via some home-grown sums and a trio of beguiling aphorisms. The sums are his own index numbers of human development, which he uses to illustrate the grand sweep of history and prehistory, showing that the West has been consistently ahead except for an interval from c600CE to c1800CE. He attributes this largely to geography, following Diamond. His aphorisms, "change is caused by lazy, greedy frightened people looking for easier, more profitable and safer ways to do things"; "people (in large groups) are all much the same"; and "each age gets the thought it needs" combine to reinforce his determinism, in which ideas and free will count for little.
As for the future primacy of East versus West, Morris cops out. He makes no bones that he expects the East, that is China, to overtake the West, that is the US. But, he says, by then it won't matter. Failing catastrophe (nuclear war, climate change), we will all be so much better off that the problem will dissolve in a more or less unimaginable technological utopia.
By Morris' own account, this won't haul the freight. Even after China overtakes the US on his index numbers, Americans will still be far better off. Morris is not the first to envisage a utopian future but none has so far turned up. As to his determinism, he follows Landes to note that the Chinese state was strong enough to enforce a policy of isolation for four hundred years after it abandoned intercontinental exploration in the fifteenth century, while the absence of a single European power led to competition and defensible economic and political rights, extending innovation and enterprise. Is it too much to draw conclusions about the rights and wrongs of large versus small states, institutions prizing stability versus competition, or economic and political concessions versus rights? China is still on the wrong side of history by all these measures.
To conclude with an analogy on primacy. Twenty years ago, we were bracing ourselves for Japanese primacy, with innumerable books, articles and even films on the subject. In the event, that gig got cancelled. If I had to, I would bet that so will this one: the prospect of Chinese primacy will founder on an over-strong state which will decline to permit competition or defensible property rights. Morris should know that.