Sunday, March 10, 2013

Why Has Liberty Flourished in the West?

by Jim Powell

Cato Policy Report

September/October 2000

Despite the claims of those who say one culture is as good as another, the West is clearly superior in at least one crucial respect: it brought liberty into the modern world, and liberty has made possible many other good things.

In this politically correct era, some intellectuals have been surprised to discover that the West is unique in this. For example, Harvard historical sociologist Orlando Patterson had started out to write a book explaining the origins of slavery, but he quickly realized that slavery was universal throughout the ancient world. The question to ask was why liberty emerged in the West and nowhere else, which became the subject of his National Book Award-winning Freedom in the Making of Western Culture (1991).

Patterson talked about slavery in ancient Mesopotamia and Egypt. Slavery was commonplace in Africa before Europeans came on the scene, and in China slaves were buried alive. Patterson discussed Cherokee Indians who enslaved the war prisoners they didn’t kill. He told of the Tupinamba tribe that, living in South America before the Europeans arrived, actually ate their slaves. Patterson wanted to know why, “after taking slavery for granted since the beginning of history, the West, in a remarkably short period of time during the late eighteenth century, redefined slavery as the greatest of evils.” He continued: “One of the major objectives…is to show that freedom was a peculiarly Western value and ideal…freedom has been the core value of Western culture throughout its history….It is the West that must be scrutinized and explained for its peculiar commitment to this value.”

When researching The Triumph of Liberty, I tried to include people from as many different countries as possible. The largest group is Americans, followed by English and French. There are three Austrians, two Dutchmen, two Italians, two Scots, a German, a Hungarian, an Irishman, a Russian, a Spaniard, a Swede, and a Swiss. Women, blacks, and Jews are well represented. I had a couple of good non-Western candidates but wasn’t able to get enough biographical material on them, so the more than 60 people I ended up with were all Westerners, and I’ve often been questioned about this.

Read the article (PDF)