The reader could never guess it: this writer was recruited to cover the central and eastern part of Europe. Therefore, it might seem odd that the author regularly dissects another topic. The motive is the frightening crumble of the resolve to prevail of economically advanced and politically democratic entities that were, when the geographic term still applied, referred to as the “West”.
It is warranted to concentrate on the politically-economically advanced communities and their relationship to the state-based or supranational forces that plot their destruction. Whether the forces of oppression – once represented by the Nazis, more recently by the Communists and currently personified by radical Islamists- prevail, does not primarily depend of the strength of the radicals. The ongoing game is not theirs to win but ours to lose. Normally this would be good news. In this case it is not necessarily the case.
The decisive front is not Iraq, Afghanistan and whatever new venue will emerge after failing by choice on these fields of battle. Regarding this struggle the determining factor is not the inadequacy of means. Much rather it is the lack of wanting to prevail, often even a preference to lose, that is decisive.
It is the hither success of modernized societies that convinces their home front that virtue is to served by consenting to, or even causing, their defeat. This inclination is the upshot of the ignorance of a generation of the “inheritors” that populate successful societies. The confusion pertains to what makes communities successful or into failures. The post-war generation left behind humming enterprises but no understanding for how its “economic miracle” (frankly, it was not miracle, for its was man-made) came about. Once the roots of achievement are not understood the causes of failure, too, become fuzzy. Therefore, the confused will be quick to believe that – paraphrasing the slogan: property is theft – success is the result of exploitation and, at best, of luck. Accordingly, poverty mutes into the result of the misfortune of having encountered successful societies and succumbing to their deviousness. The explanation, albeit irrational, has rationally predictable consequences.
Once the erroneous thesis that success is caused by exploitation is accepted, the successful do not serve as an example to emulate to overcome misery, but the cause of the laggards’ failure. Thus the achievers become evil and the failures wind up with a halo of virtue. The tort explaining divergent performances demands compensation. This takes the form of transfer payments representing atonement, and also political concessions to those whose ancestors were the past’s victims. It is part of the logic of the foregoing that such “demands” are legitimized not by their logical merits and equity but by whatever passes as past suffering and sins.
Once the welfare of successful societies is deprived of legitimate origins then, underdevelopment emerges divorced from its causes and becomes a consequence of past actions that demand atonement now. Thereby a less moralistic but simpler explanation is overlooked. Poverty and wealth have lawful origins. These go back to the gamut of individual decisions shaping the value-system that determines the shape of economic and political forms that can be filled. This makes economic success and its political order the reflection of man-made decisions that involve the consent of the participants.
Tradition and experience explains the attitudes that flow into the process that shapes social responses to perceived problems. However, such forces are not absolute determinants. A critical factor that makes a society successful is its ability to break inherited molds. At one time we were all hunters and gatherers. Some of us have yet to rise beyond that level. Lasting collective wealth is created by the will to pursue happiness and by skillfully using the culture’s laws and customs that set the initial limits to our striving.
Being wrong about the causes of development and stagnation, if skillfully presented, might secure juicy grants to eloquent claimants. By such incantations the successful can be put into a state of permanent guilt. The ensuing donations will create a we-feel-good-about-ourselves feeling. So do wellness resorts that, for a bundle of money, put customers on a starvation diet to mitigate the consequences of indulgences that will be resumed. The real victims of the process of sin-guilt-penance-absolution are the supposed beneficiaries of the redistributive ritual. Those whose role in the charade is to pay up enjoy the satisfaction of having paid their fine. The elites who take hold of the money squat on the top of a moral totem pole and enjoy the good life. Meanwhile the victim-beneficiaries that are led by the former get less than nothing. Their dictatorial governors are strengthened and their tottering system is maintained through the inflow of funds that mask mismanagement. Rising out of misery to the level of potential implies being able to copy creatively, that is, to be good cultural learners. However, those caught in the above process are deprived of the benefit of innovative learning by being told that those to be emulated are thieves that owe everything to their victims. With that there is nothing left to be learned from the ones who had helped themselves. Add to this the usual assurance that the laggards’ ways are, while quantitatively lesser, of a higher moral quality, and the chance for progress is stifled. Being a continuation of a virtuous past, the present emerges as a future anchored in a higher morality that enshrines an otherwise unacceptable status quo.
The greatest danger to developed societies in not the burden of financing a mistaken approach to development and doing so for the wrong reason in favor of pre-democratic systems of communalist scarcity. The apologetic reflex extorts the greatest price in the political arena. There it undercuts the will and thereby the ability to defend successful societies in the struggle with Islamic fundamentalism.
Let it be reiterated: achievement is not accidental but lawful and it is not the consequence of robbery but of able inputs made in the context of man-made political and social institutions. The fact that the basic techniques that radiated out of the west of Europe have, after creative adaptation, continue to raise scores of millions out of poverty, prove the point. If the developed world wishes to help the masses stuck in deprivation, it needs to transfer to them its wealth-creating techniques and not money.
In the political arena, too, not knee bending before authoritarian elites but rather the assertion of result-brining methods is called for. Above all, the relativists (whether their motive is decadence, cowardice, guilt, or ignorance) must be reminded that there is not only much to defend here but that there is also something that deserves to be protected. If this insight is internalized then the cause of preserving freedom will have won more than what dozens of divisions could have achieved.