Western Civilisation’s Merits and Perils

“We are servants of the law, so that all may be free”
Marcus Tullius Cicero, 106-43 BC

 “Freedom is special, for it brings out the best in us”
Immanuel Kant, 1724-1804

western civThere are many good reasons to renew public discourse in this country about the merits of, and perils to, Western civilisation. To do this with some clarity, it is important to define what is meant by ‘civilisation’ – a term that has had a great variety of meanings at different times and in different languages. Although many pages have been covered in ink to distinguish between ‘civilisation’ and ‘culture’, I have become an agnostic and use the terms interchangeably. 

Civilisation –– Salient Features:

In discussing Western civilisation and its relevance for life in Australia, it seems necessary to begin by making six didactic points:

[a] Civilisation is based on shared rules. Civilisations rest on foundations of shared, overarching rules, attitudes and aptitudes. By obeying these rules, members of a civilisation can pursue their own self-chosen purposes and interact effectively most of the time as if co-ordinated by an invisible hand. The set of abstract rules (institutions) is not only a community’s shared inheritance, but also a generally accepted, unifying vision (Kasper et al., 2012, pp. 173-178). It may be called ‘cultural DNA’, as it helps or hinders the production of specific goods and amenities to avoid pain, enhance pleasure and inspire truth and beauty. The cultural (which form the often invisible software of civilisation) thus shape the material manifestations (the hardware of civilisation), as well as its peace, social harmony and security. The ‘cultural software’ also determines how a civilisation can cope with challenges, such as external hostility, epidemics, unforeseen technical changes, and environmental and social adversities.

This essay appeared in a recent edition of Quadrant.
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Understanding civilisation as a concept that is based on informally and formally enforced rules has, incidentally, the advantage of yielding a clearer understanding of what Australians expect of immigrants and of informing operational procedures to bring about a necessary degree of integration. By contrast, the prevalent ‘political value waffle’ about integration and citizenship is so vague and hard-to-define that it fails to achieve policy objectives, which Australian authorities often seem too timid to even spell out clearly.

[b] Civilisation evolves ceaselessly, but slowly. Like biological DNA, much of our cultural DNA can be stubbornly persistent. Yet, civilisation evolves gradually over long time periods due to occasional mutations, which result from the discovery and the testing of new solutions to societal challenges, or from the adoption of useful ideas from another civilisation – a kind of ‘cultural gene splicing’.

The evolution can be illustrated by the case of Western civilisation, which – strictly speaking – began in the 11th and 12th centuries, when Papal reformers “launched the rocket called Occident” onto an enduring trajectory, as eminent French philosopher-historian Philippe Némo memorably wrote in the best recent study of what is meant by Western civilisation. The West began to diverge from Orthodox Christianity with its more mythical, more static frame of mind (Némo, 2007; Kasper, 2011; Némo – Aizpún Bobadilla, 2017; also Brown, 2003, chapters 15 and 16).

Western civilisation has never stood still since. When Medieval scholastic concepts became sterile, could no longer be reconciled with new geographic and scientific discoveries and existing rules were abused by religious and temporal elites, the Renaissance and the Reformation created a new institution set. Attempts to uncover the work of God, the Creator, led to the scientific revolution (Mokyr, 2017; Kors, 1998), followed by the Enlightenment, which encouraged people to think critically without being patronised by others. Reason replaced revelation and the Occident’s cultural DNA was gradually secularised. In 17th and 18th century Europe and North America, our civilisation metamorphosed yet again under the influence of the ‘Republic of Letters’. As thinkers promoted a clear sense of intellectual and personal liberty during the 18th century, political and judicial reforms produced modern democracy and defined private property rights, giving rise to capitalism and a new spirit of enterprise and productivity. This paved the way for the industrial revolution. Britain and soon the United States led the way. Northwestern Europe promptly followed.

Western civilisation had begun with the Carolingian Renaissance (ca. 800 AD) and the path-breaking Papal reforms., which emphasised individual responsibility and rationality. It drew on four tap roots:  (i) the contribution of classical Greece – the polis, schools and academies, as well as philosophy and the scientific explication of natural phenomena, (ii) Roman law, particularly private law, (iii) Judeo-Christian notions of empathy and equality of all in the eyes of God, rational compromise, and the concepts of original sin and progress; and (iv) the Germanic spirit that favoured rule by consent and customary law[1]. Western civilisation, as we now know it, was given sharp contours with intellectual liberalism, democracy and the capitalist market economy (Némo, 2007; Némo – Aizpún Bobadilla, 2017). Many nowadays contend that Western civilisation can lay claim to universality. However, over the most recent half-century it is also confronted by new tribulations. Globalisation, new social media, space discoveries and profound demographic changes are challenging our long-lived civilisation yet again.

It is also worth underlining that Western civilisation is much more than the rightly extolled Anglosphere, although it has played a dominant role in shaping the West over recent centuries. Over the past millennium, the Occident’s cultural creativity flowed most intensively and consistently in a broad band running southeast by northwest from northern Italy along Europe’s ‘Rhine spine’ to the Midlands of England and eventually Scotland, later also to the North American east coast, with important contributions in certain epochs from Austria and Bohemia, Paris, Iberia, and – in recent decades – California. (Murray, 2005).

[c] Civilisation is passed on by teaching and learning. The rules and attitudes that make for a civilised community are acquired by learning, some when the young imitate parents and mentors, some when ‘apprentice citizens’ are taught certain rules and attitudes by formal education. What matters here in particular are curiosity and the attitude to take risks in exploring new knowledge and testing it, in short the spirit of enterprise. The Rousseavian-Freudian approach – parents letting their offspring develop without guidance or constraints, and teachers just being ‘resource persons’ in an open-space classroom full of children supposed to discover themselves – is no way to pass on the torch of civilisation.

[d] Civilisation is shaped by elites. Religious, intellectual, artistic, military and political leaders identify high-level, abstract norms that inspire their contemporaries with “the spirit of a constructive life” (as Goethe once put it). If most identify with those shared norms and visions, civilisation is cohesive. It then rises materially and politically. When, for example, the Western nations – chastised by the abysmal experiences during the Thirty Years’ War of 1914-1945 – accepted a new world order under the Pax Americana, the West flourished materially and culturally. On the other hand, if and when the cohesion between elites and us ordinary mortals declines, civilisations become vulnerable and may even fall.

[e] Civilisations are cyclical; they are born, flourish and decline – or may rise again. ‘Big History’ teaches us that civilisations become more intense and rise with new ideas, shaped by creative leaders, but eventually plateau and decay when powerful elites exploit their privileges or fight amongst themselves. It may indeed be more appropriate to speak of ‘intensification’ and ‘abatement’ of civilisational evolution (Brown, 2003, pp. 20-29). When many ordinary people reject shared concepts or when self-centred elites fail to recognise changed circumstances and persist with protecting past social structures, societies fracture. As more and more people defy the overarching rules, the fall of a civilisation becomes a possibility (Quigley, 1972; Gibbon, 1776-88/1996). It then only takes unexpected challenges, such as new technologies, outside attacks, epidemics or climate changes. Alas, complacent elites normally fail to foresee the fall of their civilisations. But no civilisation comes with a guarantee of eternal life.

[f] Systems competition promotes and revitalises civilisation. Openness to ideas, capital and enterprise has always been the most powerful antidote against the opportunism of ruling elites, who typically suffer from cognitive and analytical limitations (Kasper-Streit-Boettke, 2012; pp. 426-45; Bernholz-Streit-Vaubel, 1998). Competition from outside has ever so often helped to focus the rulers’ minds on protecting the people from fraud and aggression and disciplined their opportunism in political re-distribution games. Systems competition has tended to invite risk-taking, stimulate innovation, foment social mobility and engage the young. English-Australian historian Eric Jones popularised this old insight by writing about the European economic miracle, comparing the political rivalry among the small West European states with closed Habsburg-Bourbon Spain and centrally ruled, closed China under the Ming and Qing dynasties (Jones, 1981/2003).

The – by comparison with other civilisations – longevity of Western civilisation can be explained only by Europe’s open, disciplining inter-jurisdictional rivalry, occasional costly wars between them notwithstanding. Systems competition has time and again been the West’s saviour. To put it differently: xenophobic, inward-looking arrogance, rejection of concepts and challenges coming from the outside and self-congratulatory praise of all things past are the hallmarks of impending cultural decline. Systems competition, though a reviving tonic, is potentially a dangerous medicine, as European history has demonstrated all too often. When infused with nationalist passion, political rivalry to attract mobile capital, skills and enterprises in the interest of enhancing a jurisdiction’s tax base and cultural standing can turn into costly hostility.


The Enemies of Western Civilisation

Outsiders and intellectuals have increasingly attacked our civilisation since the 1960s, as the Austrian-American economist Joseph A. Schumpeter foresaw long ago in one of his darker moments (Schumpeter, 1947). We have to distinguish between openness to criticism, which is important to maintaining a society’s cultural vigour, and outright attacks. There is a clear line between selective criticisms of aspects of civilisation and the total rejection of all its aspects. What now characterises the growing attacks on Western, time-tested traditions is not only that they are totalitarian, but also that they are rarely based on facts and rational analysis. Instead, they are driven by unrealistic ideologies. In the post-truth era we are inundated by consciously falsified facts (such as climate modelling on untested assumptions, social-media bots and fake news). The internet has become a tool for small and big tyrants and autocrats. And hordes of self-anointed experts now try to dictate to us how to think and live.

Groups, who see themselves as losers and therefore reject ‘the system’ outright, are multiplying. Political entrepreneurs try to attract support by casting such groups as victims, then promise salvation through new redistribution programmes, regulations and prohibitions. With such identity politics, collective action displaces individual responsibility, and arbitrary rule takes hold. Individual freedom then goes out the window and with it the very rule system that constitutes the foundation of civilisation.

To my mind, Western civilisation is now threatened by four horsemen of a new apocalypse, two red and two green.

The first red rider is revolutionary Marxism. We had deemed it defanged after the annus mirabilis of 1989, but revolutionary political demands for collectivisation are now again gaining surprising traction: Bernie Sanders, Jeremy Corbyn, Jean-Luc Mélenchon, Spain’s ‘indignados’ and the German Left party – a reincarnation of the Socialist Unity Party SED, which had misruled the GDR for forty years – are attracting a strong following among the young by asserting that “capitalism has been a blatant failure” (to quote New Zealand’s Jacinda Ahern). The followers of Marxist utopias are oblivious of the pains socialist totalitarianism inflicted on their parents and grandparents. We underestimate this renewed attack, as long as the political Right displays gutless confusion when faced with radical palaeo-Marxism: Who stands up for genuine, robust individual freedom, secure private property rights, free, open competition, the subsidiarity principle, and laissez-faire?

The second horseman, the social-democratic ‘well-feel state’ comes clad in a lighter shade of red. All political parties in all affluent democracies are now given to social engineering; they rival for the vote by promising voters redistributive programmes that infantilise us and destroy the spirit of enterprise. We also know that current welfare programmes are unaffordable, given taxpayer resistance, an ageing population and the competitive pressures of a globalised world economy. Politicians of all shades are gutless when welfare costs escalate and cutbacks would be necessary. The handout system in electoral democracies will therefore remain entrenched in the face of public insouciance. Throughout the mature democracies, we witness an unprecedented preparedness to incur public debts and create more and more paper money. Since 2008, central banks have flooded the world with US-$ 15,000 billion, causing monetary euphoria. Negative interest rates now lead to the widespread misallocation of valuable capital. Rising asset prices already presage an inflation of consumer- and investment-goods prices. Together with record private household debts, this makes our entire macroeconomic system vulnerable. In Australia, Rudd-Gillard-Swan unnecessarily embarked on a borrowing spree during a boom in mining investment; and Turnbull-Morrison-Corman are still adding to the debt mountain. As a student of monetary history in his 115th semester, I shudder at the prospect of destructive inflation and with it inter-generational injustice, societal vulnerability and political turmoil.

The third rider of the new apocalypse wears the green colours of Islam, a religion inspired by the mission to subjugate the peoples of the world and inflict the implacable harshness of a cruel desert culture on the supposedly decadent West (jihad). The Western principle of separation between church and state is explicitly rejected, and with it the freedoms of religion, speech and association. A core element of this politico-religious movement is the ultimate form of identity politics: the systematic discrimination in favour of members of the ummah (true believers). Add to this the extremely conservative concept of present-day Islam that all laws were fixed for all time by the words, which Mohammed supposedly dictated 1,400 years ago. Therefore, all evolutionary reform of the rule system is considered blasphemy (Kasper, 2005). The resulting, Koran-focussed mindset has contributed to very poor education standards in Muslim countries, as all authoritative studies, such as the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) demonstrate[2]. All this inspires intolerant opposition to our liberal, evolutionary and tolerant traditions. Muslim leaders demand our tolerance of their intolerance, confronting the hapless West with an unresolvable and growing dilemma. Political string-pullers in Riyadh, Mecca, Ankara and Tehran meantime encourage the emigration of their brethren to the West. Yet, they also preach non-integration in the societies of the ‘Great Sheitan’. Before he became Turkish President, T. R. Erdoğan called “assimilation a crime against humanity” at a public rally in Cologne[3]. –– And if those decadent liberal societies get weakened by terrorism, so be it!

The reactions of most Western leaders have been utterly confused. In 2015, German Chancellor Angela Merkel welcomed all ‘asylum seekers’ in the EU. Without consultation, she unilaterally annulled the ‘Dublin Regulation’, an agreement on handling illegal immigrants into the borderless Schengen zone. She triggered a spontaneous flood of immigrants, most of them economic migrants from failed Muslim states. Her decision perplexed many, for only five years earlier she had said that “… multicultural society … has failed, utterly failed” (BBC, 17 Oct. 2010). Immediately after her ‘welcome speech’ in 2015, people from Nigeria to Bangladesh began to sell their houses, farms and businesses to pay people smugglers and join the European welfare states. More than one million came to Germany within the first twelve months. The stepped-up inflow has not stopped since, as ‘chain migration’ of family and friends has begun (Murray, 2017, Kindle location 2262). Very few of the new arrivals are genuinely employable, given their low education levels. Mrs Merkel – an erstwhile agitprop apparatchik in the Youth League of communist East Germany – may be a particularly notorious member of a new political class that lacks a moral compass informed by an understanding of Western civilisation. But she is not alone.

With such leadership, European civilisation seems doomed. Mass immigration not only places huge new financial burdens on Western nations, but also inflicts fears and insecurity. Stagnant or decreasing European populations are now confronted by masses of unskilled immigrants who consciously object to the rule system that underpins a free, pluralist society. For example, only one out of 7 new immigrants have the minimal skills to enter the German labour market (Heinsohn, 2017). The average human-capital level, a decisive factor for the future development of a nation, is thus being lowered. An astute observer of the European scene, British journalist Douglas Murray, sees this as the driver of the slow suicide of European culture (Murray, 2017). He concludes that Europeans are worn out by their history and weighed down by guilt – the collective psychological setting for the fall of a civilisation in Europe. We, the outliers in North America and the Southwest Pacific must begin to think about becoming ‘cultural orphans’, but also the retainers of the Western tradition.

Those who warn that the mass immigration by culturally different, poorly skilled and integration-resistant groups imperils Western civilisation are not racists. Racism is repugnant, as no one can change his genes. The clash of civilisations has everything to do with attitudes and rule sets. And we can expect – indeed must insist – that newcomers learn and embrace the shared ‘traffic rules’ governing community life, i.e. our time-tested institutions.

The other green rider has arisen on our democratic home ground: Green groups, who reject the very concept of Western civilisation outright as out-dated, racist, reactionary and a means of destroying Planet Earth. They tell us that – possibly naturally occurring – warming is an existential threat to all of mankind. The Green message has been whole-heartedly embraced by the United Nations who, having failed in their original tasks to preserve world peace and foster human rights, now try to justify their existence by appealing to climate fear. Hundreds of thousands of researchers, bureaucrats and media lackeys now enjoy well-paid careers at taxpayers’ expense to drain the lifeblood from wealth creation, namely cheap energy. In Australia – a nation exceptionally well endowed with primary energy resources (coal, gas, uranium, sun and wind, Plimer, 2017) – confused policy makers have created brownouts and electricity price inflation, instead of removing all subsidies and letting the market rip!


The West’s Weakened Constitution

Western democracy and capitalism face these horsemen of the new apocalypse in less than ruddy good health. Cultural relativism and dumbing down pervade education and public discourse. Those who uphold time-tested cultural institutions are shouted down by the intolerant political-correctness police and the children of Freud and Marcuse. It is fashionable to reject customs, time-tested habits, good manners and laws as out-dated shackles on real freedom. But liberty is not license! Few stand up for the notion of individual freedom under the law – as Cicero spoke about it. Nor do those who denigrate Western culture, ask why so many Third-World migrants are trying to escape to the West. Let us judge the civilisational trees by their fruit and ask: Where are peace, liberty, prosperity, security and a liveable environment best safeguarded?

The quality of democracy has declined, as the new social media have shrunk the common ground for cool, rational compromise (The Economist, 2017; O’Sullivan, 2017).  Self-anointed elites, who search for new causes to obtain government funding, often turn our democracy into a ‘vetocracy’ (Sowell, 1995, 2009; Postrel, 1998). Thanks to the new social media, hypercritical opinion makers have a voice and, more importantly, a cheap way of organising resistance to the standards that serve the long-term welfare of the entire community. Discontent single-issue activists and advocacy organisations like Get-Up foment social discord and aim to destroy time-tested rules, the very foundations of our civilisation. People increasingly only inform themselves by accessing their preferred sources of information and opinion, seeking agreement only with the like-minded. Opposing standpoints are screened out. Bots and fake news magnify the differences. Emotion replaces fact-based analysis. The polarisation of worldviews and political correctness suppress our freedom to discuss and investigate everything, once the most valuable trait of our civilisation. Hate- and envy-driven populism without a liberal commitment now threatens democracy with a slide into dictatorship – as, for example, happened in Weimar Germany and more recently in Venezuela.

Single-issue politics has been on the rise. It confronts pluralist nations with an existential dilemma. Politics must always aspire to approximate a multiplicity of universal, fundamental goals: freedom, security, equity, peace, justice, prosperity, preserving a liveable environment and so on. This requires compromises and trade-offs. When single-issue activism advances one goal to the detriment of all others, balanced multi-value policy-making becomes harder and harder. Once some objectives have been badly neglected, policy reversals lead to costly instability and eventually outright hostility to all responsible policy makers.

Equity and traditional democracy are also weakened by identity politics. We are no longer individuals equal before God and the law, but members of supposedly aggrieved groups, which is a novel form of tribalism: We now observe positive discrimination all around: in favour of quotas for women, gays, special recognition of Aboriginals and part-Aboriginals, protections of ethnic minorities and so on. Political discrimination is becoming more and more ambitious and intricate, hence less transparent and less just. Finally, political correctness and the cultivation of thin skins has become an all-round killjoy. We have forgotten that humour makes us human. No one has been born laughing. Only when we learnt to laugh did we become human, humane and civilised

It is often also hard to argue that present-day capitalism is an ideal system of coordinating economic life. Democratic governments rarely favour free markets; they only promote their business cronies. Genuine competitive capitalism ensures that new ideas and creations are tested. Nowadays, prices are distorted by manifold regulations, taxes and subsidies, which in turn reflect the self-interest of the well-organised and the well-connected. When price signals do no longer reflect the wishes of the buyers, as is now so often the case, capitalism fails to serve the long-term interests of the wider community. Newcomers – innovators, the young, and foreigners – are thus habitually disadvantaged. We had a cycle of liberalisation in the wake of the oil crises from the 1970s/early 1980s to the turn of the century. Since then economic freedom, secure property rights and free markets have slid backwards in the West, including in Australia, while economic freedom has improved in East Asia, admittedly from low levels (Gwartney et al., passim). Competition-sapping interventionism and natural and political obstacles to rapid structural change now depress economic performance in the democracies. The reality is therefore far from the textbook ideal of competitive markets and flexibly adjusting industry structures.

Some of these weaknesses of the Western system are the consequences of its very success. Since ordinary folk now enjoy a great deal of security, elites can no longer easily rely on fear to make people compliant. In our comfortable circumstances, we no longer realise how profoundly the four traditional horsemen of the Apocalypse – Subjugation by Conquest, War, Famine and Sudden Death – had dominated human consciousness since the beginning of time.


Complacency and a Crisis of Confidence

Despite the afore-mentioned gripes, we should look with a realistic measure of self-satisfaction at the achievements of Western civilisation. Democracy and capitalist institutions have enabled unprecedented numbers to live secure and materially comfortable lives, with little fear of premature death, undue pain and unexpected violence. Most live longer, healthier, more independent and more comfortable lives. Many enjoy unprecedented degrees of civil, economic and political liberty. Australia belongs to those affluent countries where almost everyone can consider himself part of the middle class, and even those who grumble see no need for revolution.

The comfortable majority of the citizenry in the affluent nations gladly believe political promises that government will ensure their security, health and safety. Many voted for the likes of Donald Trump, who promised to put national interests first. Germans voted for Angela Merkel, who promised no change and shirks tackling pressing problems. The French elected Emmanuel Macron, who promotes ‘patriotisme économique’ (soft protectionism) and wants to share national taxes and debts throughout the Euro zone. Most Europeans tolerate an intrusive, unelected Brussels bureaucracy, which erected a protectionist wall around agriculture and protects industry by decreeing safety and environmental standards that new competitors cannot meet. Who cares about the long-term consequences?

That globalisation would bring major changes and inflict a lop-sided impact on industrial and employment structures was entirely predictable. Since the 1960s, businesses have moved capital, knowhow and high technical and organisational skills to Third-World locations thanks to the Pax Americana and cheaper global transport and communications. Foreign investors helped to upgrade cheap local labour, land and administrative capability in the new locations. A billion willing and increasingly skilled workers in new industrial countries have joined the global labour market since the 1960s. Low-skilled workers in high-income/high-cost/high-tax locations were therefore confronted with enormous competitive pressures. But unions and government administrations persisted obstinately on their monopolies, so that jobs were lost. Globalisation also made the ever-more-perfect welfare state fiscally untenable. To avert this, Western government administrations and labour unions would have had to become support organisations for mobile capital and enterprise. Economists (myself excepted!) were rarely keen to highlight this conundrum. Belatedly, the job losses now lead to a new populist protectionism (Rodrik, 2011; King, 2017). That globalisation has greatly reduced world poverty and advanced world peace is conveniently forgotten.

In recent years, the high-taxing governments of rich nations have formed political cartels, such as G-5, G-10, G-20 and alliances under the auspices of OECD, to outflank the global manoeuvring space of the multinationals and to slow globalisation. As of 2017, the era of rapid globalisation under Western auspices appears to have petered out, while the global hegemon, the USA, seems tired of policing the Pax Americana.

If history teaches us anything, we are now dangerously complacent in the face of these developments. Political palliatives like more regulation, more protectionism and more government spending will – over the medium term – only augment the risks of subsequent stagnation and international conflict. When enterprise, self-reliance, risk-taking and innovation efforts are stifled and social structures rigidify, economies will suffer. Then, civilisation is headed for costly tribulations. Tyler Cowen recently diagnosed the self-defeating dynamics of the prevalent complacency and new mercantilism for the US (Cowen, 2017). Had he applied the same analysis to Old Europe, he would have come to even more glum conclusions (Murray, 2017; Winkler, 2017).

Looking at Australia – a frontline state of the affluent West facing dynamic East Asia – one cannot help but seeing similar, though still less ominous dangers ahead. Here, too, the cycle of liberalisation has come to an end. We should feel some foreboding about the fact that Australia has slipped down the international competitiveness and economic freedom rankings in recent years.

These reservations and criticisms notwithstanding, it is absolutely crucial that we continue to believe in the potential of our civilisation to serve us well. We should even take some pride in our history and fight for liberal values, democracy and a free market economy (McCann, 2017). Once political and economic rule systems are no longer infused with genuine freedom, our system loses the necessary support and the enemies will win. When the majority become complacent and indifferent, aggressive, committed minorities will be able to overturn the familiar order and destroy the rules and attitudes which are the very foundations of our civilisation. Then our civilisation, it may fade surprisingly fast.


The Grandmother of All Systems Competitions

The history of the Occident must not lead us to a pessimistic forecast. Western civilisation has, time and again, shown resilience and adaptability in the face of internal dysfunction and external challenges. Thanks mainly to an undercurrent of individual self-reliance and freedom, private and collective actors have absorbed new concepts and techniques from innovators and outsiders to overcome periods of tribulation. Our civilisation has then risen again with renewed vigour. Whereas collective, elite-dominated civilisations persisted rigidly with traditional ways and perished, Western civilisation was rescued and revived, time and again, by competing individuals and rivalling jurisdictions. Ever so often, systems competition and the movement of capital and enterprises among Western jurisdictions and the outside have kept our civilisation alive and vigorous (Jones, 1981/2003; Findlay, 1992, and numerous previous observers from David Hume to Max Weber). In short, systems competition has ever so often saved the West.

Over recent decades, our traditions have been confronted with great speed by the ‘grandmother of all systems competitions’ – the amazing cultural and material challenge from East Asia, the part of the world that is impregnated with Confucian cultural DNA[4]. The space between Seoul and Singapore, Tokyo and Tibet­­ – with China as its heart – has emerged with great vigour onto the world scene. ‘Confucian culture’, the unifying umbrella, of course has as little precise meaning as ‘Christian culture’. Both have undergone countless historic permutations and regionally differing incarnations.

There are palpable differences between East and West –– between the two most durable, broadest and deepest civilisations ever created. A first difference is that Eastern civilisation is less directly anchored than Christendom in the transcendental. Neo-Confucianism emerged in the late Tang era (800-900 AD) and again under the southern Song in reaction to the earlier arrival of Buddhism from India. This had transformed China’s civilisation in ways similar to the way Christianity had reshaped Greco-Roman culture. However, East Asians lack the Judeo-Christian concept of original sin, arguably the Achilles heel of Western civilisation. East Asians enjoy the material fruit of hard work, saving and honest, loyal cooperation without guilt complexes. Eastern societies also appear more cooperative, more focussed on family loyalties, social harmony and order. Moreover, while Westerners interact socially in lateral ways (for example through contracts), East Asian are much more bound by vertical obligations. Respect for one’s superiors and elders reflects the Sage’s teachings of filial piety. Confucius moreover relied heavily on the internal institutions of society (customs, habits, conventions), rather than external government enforcement. As a consequence, East Asians rely greatly on education. Having said this, one has to conclude that the qualities of proper Confucian gentlemen (junzi) are also virtues in Western eyes: respect, benevolence, justice, courage and loyalty amongst others[5]. ­In contradistinction to the afore-mentioned fundamental chasm between Islamic and Western civilisations, Confucian and Western civilisation share many fundamental qualities, and both have a long history of flexible and successful adjustment to new circumstances.

The focus of practical Confucian philosophy is to improve governance. It is infused with an underlying tenor of optimism: good people are able to master life and improve the affairs of the state. Visitors to China and surrounding countries are often struck by the optimism and sensible pragmatism inherent in that culture. Neo-Confucianism (or the CPC’s preferred version of it), as well as the Legalist tradition admittedly come with authoritarian traits, but these are limited by other elements. There is a strong undercurrent of Daoist individualism. Mencius (372-289 BC) is often quoted: “The people are the most important element in a nation; the spirits of the land and grain [i.e. productivity] are the next; the sovereign is the least.”  And there is the 2,500-year old concept of the ‘Mandate of Heaven’ (tiān ming): rule is always conditional on this-worldly, material success. This has acted as a disciplining control of misrule and a justification of dynastic changes.

A frequent misconception of the Confucian world is that it is uniform. In reality, East Asia has an enormous diversity of landscapes, architectural styles, cultures and foods. The provinces of today’s People’s Republic have considerable autonomy in development and taxation policy, and many officials, though members of the one Party, act on the old principle that “the Heaven is high and the Emperor is far away”. The links between the central imperial power and the people has always been much looser than what was normal in Western nations. Now there are cultural islands of Asians who embrace American ways and mores; they look to the West as their cultural reference point. To reactionary Islamic powerbrokers, this is an intolerable provocation. To the PRC leadership this may also be a worry. Certainly, the brain drain of many gifted, young Chinese who are attracted to American cultural ideas and economic opportunities is now a cause for concern to the leadership.

At the heart of the East-Asian ascendancy has been greater economic freedom. In Roman and Han dynasty times, average citizens in West and East lived equally miserable lives, comparable to the Congolese today. Over the past one-thousand years, European jurisdictional diversity caused governments to rival by providing citizen-friendly rule sets in order to retain or attract skills, capital and enterprise. The notion that governments had to serve the people gained ground, whereas the more centralised and increasingly closed Chinese system was based on the notion that the people were there to serve the emperor and the mandarins. East Asians made important inventions, but few entrepreneurs were able to translate these into broad-based innovations. Per-capita incomes more or less stagnated. In China, living standards even descended in absolute terms during the calamitous internal conflicts and pitiless Japanese occupation during the first half of the 20th century. The madness of Mao’s Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution notwithstanding, living standards in the PRC recovered somewhat up to 1975, roughly to the level of Bangladesh.

Then, under the influence of the success of the Tiger economies, China’s economy was freed up and opened to foreign knowledge, trade and investment. The PRC’s economic progress has since become unprecedented in world history, no less! The rapid takeoff of course shifted income distribution, as one would expect when the young study longer (and for the duration remain poor) and people have to provide for a longer retirement. This natural shift has, however, been less in China than in most other developing countries. As a result, everyone in China now knows that openness is good for prosperity, that one can succeed in world markets and that the ‘Mandate of Heaven’ favours the one-Party rulers in Beijing. It all amounts to a new sense of confidence and pride that we in the West have to take into account.

Led by China, the Confucian orbit has now entered into cultural, economic and political competition with the West. Western claims to universality are rejected by many, as is the US role as the hegemon and exclusive protector of the international order. Those who believe that the global order still needs an American presence in Asia may be right (Razeen, 2017), but will the US government want to perform this costly role? And will an economically inward-looking, heavily indebted American government be able to shoulder the huge burdens of upholding a global Pax Americana? A newly assertive People’s Republic is unlikely to remain a rule-taker in the US-led global order China will instead try to influence rule making to conform with its own Confucian traditions. In all likelihood, the post-1945 Pax Americana is ending. We now have to envisage a bi-polar world.

West and East will continue to share and exchange technology, capital and knowhow, but will nevertheless adopt different ‘multiple modernities’ that reflect their deeply embedded cultural traditions (Eisenstadt, 1987; 2000; 2003). The Christian West and the Confucian East with their differing cultural institution sets can each justifiably maintain that each has the best rule system. After all, the effectiveness of rules depends on what people are familiar with (Kasper et al., 2012, p. 104). The East Asians, with two-and-a half millennia of Confucian habits, often find Western individualism, democracy and capitalism alien and less congenial. They may therefore use new, universally available knowledge and technology differently from us in the West and develop in ways different from ours. This will become a mighty source of systems competition, which – one hopes – will force the West to again promote free markets and growth.

Confucian culture and popular attitudes often facilitate a more disciplined, coordinated approach to new problems. This is often more effective than the more individualistic, creative and rivalous habits of the West. However, one should not overestimate the advantages of a more collective, top-down approach. Picking winners may be easy for bureaucracies when foreign success stories can simply be imitated. But industry policy becomes hit-and-miss when the economy approaches the technology frontier. In recent years, China’s industry-subsidisation policies have ranged from impressive successes such as the new high-speed trains to abysmal failures, such as in the semiconductor and aircraft industries.

Observers skeptical about some of the advantages of the emerging Confucian modernity should visit Taiwan, where the future of East-Asian civilisation is already on display. The case of Taiwan – a Confucian capitalist democracy – is instructive of how a country can overcome the usual ‘middle-income trap’, i.e. a state of affairs where several decades of industrial takeoff are followed by near-stagnation because corruption and regulatory obstacles to enterprise hinder progress; in other words, where the advanced industrial hardware is not matched by the appropriate cultural and political software of development (Kasper, 2013).



“We are Not Crazy”

Inevitably, the systems competition between West and East focuses on the two dominant players. Both the United States and the People’s Republic have a tradition of playing the hegemon in their sphere. And now their ambitions overlap. Such competition can lead to violent conflict. Over recent months, Harvard historian Graham Allison has argued that war between the United States and China is nearly inevitable (Allison, 2017). He refers to the armed conflict between Athens and Sparta, about which Greek historian Thucydides had said that Athens’ rise almost unavoidably made the hegemonic Spartans go to war. Discussing similar upsets of pecking orders, he concludes that a ‘Thucydides trap’ now faces the US vis-à-vis China. His message obviously fits the angry, nationalist mood of the Trump era, as tensions in the South China Sea are mounting. Moreover, the influential elites of America and China see the world quite differently, which is a possible source of conflict (HacHigian, 2014, Pei Minxin, 2014).

But is open conflict likely? In a delightfully acerbic review of Allison’s book, American China scholar Arthur Waldron showed that Allison not only misconstrues the historic Sparta-Athens precedent, but that present-day China is far from able to challenge the United States. Despite her unprecedented economic rise, China’s average per-capita income falls far short of Western levels. Admittedly, China’s total gross domestic product has grown from only 18 per cent of that of the USA in 1980 to about equal size now (King, 2017). But it is real per-capita income that matters to strategic capacity, and US average real per-capita incomes are still about five times those in the PRC.

The official goal to “grow rich, before we grow old” is only half fulfilled. The Chinese ‘growth engine’ is now turning less fast and likely to run into some of the obstacles that make for a notorious ‘middle-income trap’ (Gave, 2013). Population growth is now decelerating dramatically. The one-child policy (1979-2017) and rising education and job opportunities for women now cause the population to age rapidly. It will soon decrease. Environmental degradation is serious in many localities. China extravagantly wastes capital, energy and raw materials. Infrastructures, though expanded impressively, in many instances far exceed what makes economic sense. Speculation in bricks and mortar by the new, inflation-weary middle class is rampant, and the financial system is vulnerable. The considerable emigration of professionals is a real concern for the leadership. The country depends massively on open trade –– for energy, quality food and minerals from Australia, Africa and South America, and advanced technology goods and services from America, Europe, Australia and Taiwan.

Overarching all these problems is an incompatibility of sub-orders: The one-Party state, though in many respects reliant on private capitalism, is given every now and then to interventions that distort the economic order – more so lately under Xi Jinping. The persistently authoritarian one-Party state often clashes with China’s increasingly free economic order. Even if corruption were effectively controlled and the country does not long tarry in a middle-income trap, near-Western productivity levels and average living standards will remain out of reach for a long time yet.

Not least because of the Confucian tradition of pragmatism, the systems competition with the West will remain cultural and economic, albeit with occasional tensions and high political decibels. Arthur Waldron cites a high-placed officer of the People’s Liberation Army who – when confronted with a scenario of nuclear conflict – spontaneously exclaimed: “We, the Chinese, are not crazy!” They will not risk their material achievements to date.



What Does it all Mean for Australia?

Australia is and must remain part and parcel of the Western civilisational tradition. Yet, our position is special in that we are a geographic outlier, a Western frontline state exposed to more non-Western cultural influences than Europe or North America. We have fared well, economically and psychologically, with our endowment of institutional capital, which is mostly inherited from Britain and cross-fertilised from the United States. As a stable, prospering part of the US-centred world order we are attractive to internationally mobile professionals from around the world, who want to become part of our traditions. Indeed, many hail from outlying ‘islands of American/Anglo-Saxon culture’ in East Asia. It would be foolish to fritter away our valuable institutional assets for reasons of self-doubt, timidity, petty, shortsighted political games, or macroeconomic stupidity.

Australians should gain as much as possible from full, unhindered trade and investment with Asia, as well as from people exchanges. Students from East Asia must be treated so that they become ambassadors for our way of doing things if they return home, or fellow citizens engaged in the Australian way of life if they stay. Since future prosperity and cultural flourishing depend on finding and testing new knowledge, our immigration policy should aim at enhancing Australia’s human capital stock by attracting and selecting high-performing individuals. East Asians, with their preference for high intellectual and educational achievement, seem a good place for Australian employers to start looking. Let’s not be churlish about competing for the world’s top talent by exploiting Australia’s free, peaceful lifestyle[6].

Any open trans-Pacific conflict would of course expose Australians to grave danger. It is therefore in the highest national interest to confine trans-Pacific rivalry to the realm of economic and cultural competition and avert war. Although Australia has only a limited influence on the affairs of the giants on the world stage, we can set an example for policy makers and thinking elites in both East and West by demonstrating how much good a commitment to freedom can achieve.

Australians need to become better informed about East Asia, particularly China. We must study and defend Western civilisation, but combine this with the study of the great cultural traditions of the East. Not only will this give us a better understanding of the strengths and weaknesses of our own culture, but also enable us to convey better to our Asian neighbors what we stand for. Australians will then be valuable partners in the family of Western nations. Indeed, we may become occasional mediators and policy advisors to North American and European governments regarding East Asia, as well as to businesses from these far-away Western locations that wish to engage there. A better understanding of what civilisation is would not only help Australians to understand with empathy what moves the United States and China, but may also help us to assist these self-centred monoliths to come to grips with each other peacefully.

This does not mean that we are or should become Asians. More knowledge about, and openness to, East Asia does not mean that we change our cultural spots. Nor does it mean that we tolerate undue official or semi-official influence on our governments and universities, nor accept Chinese attacks on the open world order. If, for example, untrammeled passage by sea and air through the South China Sea were hindered, the Western alliance and everyone else should firmly oppose such hindrances. As and when we are well informed about China’s traditions and mores, we will be better able to know how to push back against unacceptable political ambitions. Importantly, we should also beware of simply belittling and critiquing everything that is different in Asia – occasionally an unfortunate tendency in the European press and among Anglo-Saxon supremacists. Instead, we must learn to distinguish between what East-Asian aspirations are legitimate and sensible against the background of their traditions and what is inimical to our own genuine long-term interests.

Some aspects of Western civilisation in its Australian incarnation can and will benefit by blending some ‘East-Asian cultural genes’ into our free, individualistic rule set. Some aspects of ruthless, reckless individualism in our political culture might arguably be modified by a measure of Confucian-inspired cooperation and tolerance.

Australian culture, as it inevitably evolves, is better placed than any other to draw inspiration from the two greatest, deepest civilisational traditions mankind has created – the Christian Occident and the Confucian Orient. It is a great opportunity for Australians. Open competition between the two will be beneficial to future generations – as long as we oppose envy-driven populism and ensure that our open, pluralist society remains firmly anchored to the bedrock of freedom – the heritage from Cicero, Kant and so many others of our philosophical heroes.

Wolfgang Kasper is an emeritus Professor of Economics (University of New South Wales). This is an edited version of the opening address of the Western Civilisation conference organised by the Mannkal Foundation for Economic Education in Perth on 24 November 2017.






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[1]    What Continental European historians have called the ‘Germanic spirit’ is often overlooked, the contributions of the Goths, Vandals, Lombards, later the Franks and Saxons – “free men” who contributed traditions of customary law and the germ of constitutional monarchy. These peoples were governed by traditional constitutional rules. A telling example is the formal admonition by Catalonian and Aragonese barons to their newly anointed rulers: “Never forget that you have power over us, because we want you to have it.” Anglo-Saxon audiences might also be reminded that written Visigoth constitutions (usatjes) were in force more than two centuries before Magna Carta.

[2]   The Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) of fourth-grade pupils, for example, shows huge international differences in tests of school knowledge, an early indicator of intellectual and cultural performance: While East Asian countries rated between 320 and 500 top maths performers among 1,000 students (Japan and Singapore respectively), Turkey scored only 50 and Iran just 10. Most other Muslim-majority countries did not even bother to participate in these tests or failed to rate even 1 out of 1,000 students (TIMMS, Figure 1, accessed 31 Oct. 2017; also Heinsohn, 2017). –– BTW: In Australia, just 90 made the ‘advanced grade’ in mathematics, and 90 out of 1,000 did not even reach the lowest benchmark of mathematical capability. Tests of science and of older students regularly show similar low levels of educational attainment in Muslim-majority countries.

[3]   In 2008, at a public rally of 20,000 Turks in Cologne, Germany (The Local, 11 Feb. 2008, cited from Murray, 2017).

[4]   My choice of the term “Confucian” to designate salient, unifying treat of Eastern civilisation is not unproblematic. Many readers will think of Max Weber’s theory that the Confucian worldview was an insurmountable obstacle to progress, or the opposite view fashionable in the 1970s and 1980s that Confucian values were the main explanation for the rapid rise of the East-Asian economies. Both opinions have some empirical justification. The great calamities of the 20th century have led to subtle, but productivity-promoting changes in the moral code of East Asians (Hofstede-Bond, 1988; Kasper et al. 2012, pp. 172-73; 436-37). We must steer clear of primitive, mono-causal explications of the cultural and economic ascendancy of East Asia. However, the basic tenets of Confucianism have given East-Asian nations civilisation a degree of communality, whether they are democratic, capitalist or autocratic.

[5]      A gentleman has to be educated to embrace rén – humane benevolence; yì – just intentions; – respectful propriety; zhì – intelligent wisdom; and xìn – integrity. In addition, there should be, among other virtues, zhōng – loyalty, yŏng – courage and xìao – filial piety and respect for seniors. The older I get, the more I appreciate this latter virtue…

[6]   The aforementioned TIMMS study shows where Australian employers and bureaucrats should look for high talent: Most East-Asian countries produce between 30 and 50 fourth-grade students who pass the Advanced Benchmark, whereas only 9 young Australians do (Figure 1 of TIMMS, 2017).

4 thoughts on “Western Civilisation’s Merits and Perils

  • Jacob Jonker says:

    This essay is about twenty years behind the times as far as the European element in the ‘western pacific’ is concerned.

  • padraic says:

    What a wonderful summary of the current situation facing Australia. While I appreciate the need to better understand and relate to our Asian neighbours, particularly China, that must not be confused with being colonized by China which appears to be what is happening.

  • ianl says:

    Listed analysis of the “Four Horsemen of the New Apocalypse” is quite accurate and well-expressed. It is not new or much insightful but it is valuable for its’ cogency. That cultures evolve (“lurch” is equally descriptive) is self-evident but will be disputed by the superstitious anyway.

    The essay falls into simple meandering when discussing possible future developments. Since predictions of cultural movements are difficult (especially about the future, as Yoga Somebody noted), indeed foolhardy except if acknowledged as idle speculation, meandering is not really to be criticised. Counter speculation, counter meandering, occurs almost as if invited.

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