How the West was won and may be in danger of losing

Core values by John Blundell in The Business

THE West’s pluralistic liberal capitalist system is peculiarly friendless. We in the West have lost the self-confidence which used to define us all. But we are not going to dissolve under the threats of Islamic terrorism. Communism – plus all its cousin-isms – have all expired. So say serial entrepreneur Richard Koch and former Culture Secretary Chris Smith, authors of Suicide of the West. They have read widely and deeply. They worry for us all.

Suicide of the West is a bold attempt to try to distil the essence of western civilisation. The idea is more slippery than an eel. It wriggles while you define it.

Their first thesis is that Christianity was a unique basis for what we became. Yet this is no amiable flannel about Protestant virtues. The evolution of symbolic truths which I take the Gospels to be, shape even the minds of atheists. This is an erudite trip through the Hebrew captivity in Babylon with the synthesis of Greek ideas after the destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem. They claim that Ezekiel, the Prophet, declared responsibility rested with individuals not on a family or tribe. This, they argue, was a key moment.

I enjoyed their account of how Jewish morality broke from its limits and was opened to the Gentiles – in Hebrew “the poor”. I am not clear how Islam, another religion of The Book adapted from the Old Testament fell away, from what they regard as the western canon. Islam was a triumph of an open civilisation in its earliest years.

“God is doing better than the churches,” argue the authors. I see what they mean, especially in the United States. Darwin’s evolution and other huge advances in biology, plus scholarly textual criticism, has gnawed away at religion but leaves the power of the metaphor untouched.

The other ingredients in the recipe they term “western civilisation” are optimism, liberalism, science, growth and individualism. It is a great curiosity how two intellectual fashions reached their high watermark in about 1950 – Freudianism and Marxism. We seem to have an appetite for error. This was more than gullibility. It took psychiatry a long time to show Freud to be a fraud and Marx an empty vessel. Both gave legitimacy to cruelties rather beyond our ability to comprehend, one on the couch the other in industrialised evil.

I relished their account, derived from Matt Ridley, of how trade is a defining human characteristic: “There is simply no other animal that can explore the law of comparative advantage between groups.” If this is correct, and I think it is, David Ricardo pre-dates Darwin in the history of ideas. Mankind had a language beyond the grunts that evolved into speech – he had price.

Even in barter, without money, diversity can flourish to mutual advantage. A capitalist, in his daily quest of experimentation, is a sort of scientist. To be an entrepreneur is to test ideas and alternatives. This invests business with a nobility unimagined by the Confederation of British Industry or the Chambers of Commerce. Capitalism, the core value of the West, is a far grander enterprise than we can see through mere balance sheets.

Here is another crux point. Trade is cooperative. It is collaborative. It is civil. It is civilised and civilising. Why did science flourish in the West and barely exist elsewhere? Is there a secret elixir? Koch and Smith express it differently but it seems to me to lie in the diversity of late medieval Europe with competing princelings and city states.

Christopher Columbus tried six different sponsors before he secured patronage to find the New World for Spain. He at least had options. The Chinese once had far greater fleets than any European power but they turned inwards and abandoned trade with the rest of the known world