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Individualism and Western Civilization

Summary:
In his 1944 book The Road to Serfdom, Friedrich Hayek, a future (1974) Nobel economics prize winner, spoke about “the individualist tradition which has created Western civilization” (p. 73 in the edition edited by Bruce Caldwell, University of Chicago Press, 2007). Stokely Carmichael, a black nationalist of the 1960s and chairman of the Student National Coordinating Committee, said (as quoted in Donald Critchlow’s In Defense of Populism [University of Pennsylvania Press, 2020], p. 97): When you talk about black power, you talk of building a movement that will smash everything Western civilization has created. This trope has been common for at least several decades among the people who call for a political system that would impose their ideas by force and reduce the

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In his 1944 book The Road to Serfdom, Friedrich Hayek, a future (1974) Nobel economics prize winner, spoke about “the individualist tradition which has created Western civilization” (p. 73 in the edition edited by Bruce Caldwell, University of Chicago Press, 2007).

Stokely Carmichael, a black nationalist of the 1960s and chairman of the Student National Coordinating Committee, said (as quoted in Donald Critchlow’s In Defense of Populism [University of Pennsylvania Press, 2020], p. 97):

When you talk about black power, you talk of building a movement that will smash everything Western civilization has created.

This trope has been common for at least several decades among the people who call for a political system that would impose their ideas by force and reduce the world to servitude and poverty. For example, I read in the Philadelphia Enquirer about a sex therapist and activist (“To End Fatfobia, We Need To Dismantle Western Civilization, Says Phily Therapist Sonalee Rashatwar,” July 3, 2019):

Rashatwar, though, considers how sizeism is affected by racism, misogyny, classism, homophobia, transphobia, and ableism. …

Citing researcher-advocate Caleb Luna, Rashatwar said curing anti-fatness would mean dismantling society’s foundation: “I love to talk about undoing Western civilization because it’s just so romantic to me.”

Individualism and Western Civilization

From all we know about history and economics, only the Western civilization could bring freedom of speech and inquiry, the Enlightenment, and the Industrial Revolution that followed. The latter event allowed not only an unheard-of jump in population but also an increase in the standard of living as had never happened in the history of mankind. The chart nearby is reproduced from my review of economic historian Joel Mokyr’s book A Culture of Growth in the Summer 2018 issue of Regulation (the data come from the Maddison Project‘s estimates). If I may quote my review:

From Year 1 of the Common Era until the 18th century, human living standards scarcely changed. World gross domestic product per capita inched up slightly from less than $500 per year during the first millennium, to $616 in 1700, and $712 in 1820. Then, production and income exploded. In less than two centuries, GDP per capita multiplied by more than 10, reaching $7,814 in 2010 (the last year available in this series). These figures are averages over the whole world, estimated in constant 1990 dollars. In the United States, GDP per capita (again in constant 1990 dollars) reached $30,491 in 2010. This one dramatic transformation is the story of mankind from an economic standpoint. In comparison, the last century’s Great Depression barely registered.

Another book, Walter Scheidel’s Escape from Rome, explains how, contrary to the relatively anarchic character of the Western civilization following the fall of the Roman empire, the East remained dominated by dirigiste and stifling empires.

Assume that human flourishing and individual liberty are values to be pursued. Then, if Western civilization had never existed, it is likely that the world would be bare.

It is true that we have no way of measuring the utility (“happiness” or, more precisely in economics, preferred position) of individuals in the West and comparing it with the utility of individuals in the East. We cannot meaningfully say, “people in the West are happier than people in the East” or, even worse, “the West is happier than the East.” Interpersonal comparisons of utility are impossible. But this is not an argument for believing that people living under tyranny are happier than free individuals. On the contrary, it is an argument for letting each individual free to pursue his own conception of happiness to all extent possible.

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