Two Book Reviews on the Future of the West: Neither are Reassuring

Book Reviews
Civilization: The West and the Rest. By Niall Fergusan. Penguin Press, NY: 2011.

The Fate of the West. The Battle to Save the World’s Most Successful Idea. By Bill Emmott. Public Affairs Press, Perseus Books, NY: 2017.

These two books are complementary. Both writers are renowned in their own fields. In one, Ferguson writes the history of Western civilization and how it has descended very far into the “Decline” that Oswald Spengler described a century ago.

While acknowledging decline, Emmott addresses the major issues facing the world today. He suggests that an agreement by the world’s nations that “equality” and openness brought about by agreements among the nations of the world to bring about a revival of “civic and political rights” for all. That agreement could pave the way for the survival of the Western values that have been, as he says, the most successful in the history of the world.

Ferguson continues Spengler’s and others’ analysis of why the West is declining. His discussion concludes that “.Western (time of) dominance (is) numbered because the “Rest” have finally downloaded the six killer apps the West once monopolized but has now lost faith in..”

On p..12-13, he lists and explains them.
(1) Competition—the decentralizing of both political and economic life.
(2) Science—a way of studying, understanding and ultimately changing the natural world.
(3) Property Rights—the rule of law as a means of protecting private owners and peaceable resolving disputes between the
(4) Medicine—a branch of science that allowed a major improvement the health and life expectancy.
(5) The Consumer Society—a mode of material living in which…purchase of consumer goods (played) a central economic role without which the Industrial Revolution would have been unsustainable.
(6) The Work Ethic—a moral framework and mode of activity derivable (among other sources) Protestant Christianity, which provides the glue for the dynamic and potentially unstable society created by apps 1-5.”

Ferguson describes the history of the past 500 years and how “The West” beginning in about 1500, succeeded in its ascendancy over its competitors, some of which had existed for a 1,000 years or more and come to dominate the rest of the world. (p.xv)

After quoting Winston Churchill, who in 1940 said “Freedom will not survive…’unless a very large majority of members unite together to defend…themselves.” Ferguson does not say that the West is dead or even dying. It is, as Spengler said, “declining.” He concludes (p.325) He concludes that “The biggest threat to Western civilization is not posed by other civilizations but by our own pusillanimity—and by the historical ignorance that feeds it.”

In /The Fate of the West, EmmoTt proposes 8 principles that must be followed to restore faith in the two concepts he bases them on. The two concepts are: openness—the freedom to speak and be heard for all, and equality of rights—every person has basic rights that are protected by law, tradition and the legal systems of every nation. The eight principles that flow from the concepts of openness and equality are explained. (p. 212 and ff. They are:
Openness is all; but not everything has to be open all the time. The flow of capital and the information about strategies of nations need be clear so that international organizations, industries and agencies can plan without fear of exploitation—the movement of resources, people and the level of productivity and distribution must be known;

. Equality is all, but not all about money: When “equal opportunity” is not basic to all community supported institutions and benefits, and the administration of programs and activities, a society cannot be fair to all its citizens. Where taxation is unequal and suppresses or oppresses groups or individuals, equality is impossible.

Education at all levels and ages is the single most vital support for equality as well as being a country’s most vital and social resource. Public investment in education is the way governments protect the future generations from misinformation about how citizens can best help themselves and their countries from being subverted by those who would exploit them and the systems intended to protect citizens and institutions.

Equality between the young and the old is as important as between social and ethnic groups. Why? To avoid the tensions and conflicts that inevitably arise among people whose social and economic interests differ and who are involved in various social and political activities that may conflict.

The Rule of Law is a non-negotiable guarantor of equality and source of confidence
among citizens and between nations.
The willingness to provide this to its citizens is basic to membership in the “community of nations” who respect each others’ laws.

Freedom of Speech is a vital bridge between openness and equality, not a tradeoff between them. Without this, there can be no opportunity for the exchange of ideas, between people, nations, companies and cultures. The right to be heard is basic to all free societies.

A Boring Consistency is a fine goal for economic growth. Steady, sustained growth, that permits citizens to conduct their lives with the ability to control how they can conduct their activities is good for individuals, families, communities and societies. Fear of uncertainty is a major factor in conflict and strife within and among societies and nations.

Fostering the international rule of law and international collaboration is essential. This is the greatest obstacle to a world in which individuals can truly be free and equal. How this can be managed, over the next two decades will determine whether the overall goals of equality and openness can be achieved.

We should take with some skepticism the certainty of these summaries of what Emmott says is essential for The West to do to save the “world’s most successful idea,” and from what Ferguson says is its inevitable decline. History does not happen that way. Both writers know that well, and it is clear that they have NOT tried to predict the future. Still, their WARNINGS OF NOT ATTENDING TO THE ISSUES THEY ADDRESS ARE IMPORTANT SUGGESTIONS THAT ARE NOT TO BE IGNORED.

John H. Langer, JD, Ed.D. Retired Federal agency manger, former professor of education, public school administrator, and writer of a number of articles and publications on education, public affairs, substance abuse and social issues. In writing a book on attention and memory as it relates to education, this blog is helping to focus attention n current issues, and hopefully, add something useful as well.

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