Wednesday, November 2, 2011

The "Killer Apps" of Western Society

At The Daily Beast, historian Niall Ferguson identifies six "killer apps" that enabled the United States and other Western countries to have a better standard of living than the reset of the world:
1. Competition. Europe was politically fragmented into multiple monarchies and republics, which were in turn internally divided into competing corporate entities, among them the ancestors of modern business corporations.

2. The Scientific Revolution. All the major 17th-century breakthroughs in mathematics, astronomy, physics, chemistry, and biology happened in Western Europe.

3. The Rule of Law and Representative Government. An optimal system of social and political order emerged in the English-speaking world, based on private-property rights and the representation of property owners in elected legislatures.

4. Modern Medicine. Nearly all the major 19th- and 20th-century breakthroughs in health care were made by Western Europeans and North Americans.

5. The Consumer Society. The Industrial Revolution took place where there was both a supply of productivity-enhancing technologies and a demand for more, better, and cheaper goods, beginning with cotton garments.

6. The Work Ethic. Westerners were the first people in the world to combine more extensive and intensive labor with higher savings rates, permitting sustained capital accumulation.
He adds:
Beginning with Japan, however, one non-Western society after another has worked out that these apps can be downloaded and installed in non-Western operating systems. That explains about half the catching up that we have witnessed in our lifetimes, especially since the onset of economic reforms in China in 1978.
He points to the possibility of a Western collapse and offers a remedy:
Social scientist Charles Murray calls for a “civic great awakening”—a return to the original values of the American republic. He’s got a point. Far more than in Europe, most Americans remain instinctively loyal to the killer applications of Western ascendancy, from competition all the way through to the work ethic. They know the country has the right software. They just can’t understand why it’s running so damn slowly.

What we need to do is to delete the viruses that have crept into our system: the anticompetitive quasi monopolies that blight everything from banking to public education; the politically correct pseudosciences and soft subjects that deflect good students away from hard science; the lobbyists who subvert the rule of law for the sake of the special interests they represent—to say nothing of our crazily dysfunctional system of health care, our overleveraged personal finances, and our newfound unemployment ethic.