Western Civilization is Just Big Government

Man, I’m really not a Libertarian anymore. I think this video makes it pretty clear. This video represents a lot of mental housecleaning on my part. I’m not entirely sure it is valuable, or even will make much sense to anybody else. I sure hope it does! Let me know. You may also notice a real stepping up in the amount of AI generated art I’m using. Not sure about the ethics of all that, but I do enjoy the creative possibilities…

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Video Transcript after the jump…

So you guys realize that the thing that makes Western Civilization different is strong government right?

Defining Western Civilization is a thorny problem. Everybody has their own theories, and sometimes even discussing the question can seem a little racist. So let’s focus on a narrower question. Why was it the Europeans, specifically the British Empire, that was able to force the world into a single system under their youcontrol?

Now to generations before my own, this answer was probably blindingly obvious. Europeans had stronger government. All the other explanations, better technology, capitalism, etc. are downstream from government centralization. But 40 years into the Reagan era, we in the US really hate that answer. I am a recovering libertarian myself, so it took me decades of intensive study to figure out this really basic point.

The more world history I read, the more stunned I am by the sophistication, wealth and power of all world civilizations prior to the 19th century. The more I read, the more ridiculous it seems that a few guys from a grim North Atlantic island were able to crush the empires of Genghis, Aurangzeb, the Yongle Emperor and Faith Sultan Mehmet. What it comes down to is power. European systems concentrated power in shocking new ways, while the rest of the world kept power split up and lost.

Books like Janet Abu-Lughod’s Before European Hegemony and Ayse Zarakol’s before the West show that the world was much more similar 800 years ago than it was 200 years ago. From the tip of the Iberian Peninsula, through the Muslim lands, across Central Asia and India, power was much more distributed than it is today. Most regions of the world had a political power, whether it was a king, an emperor or some kind of city state Republic. But the old stereotype of all powerful Oriental Despots is a myth. Brief successful centralized decades, rarely as much as a century with a Genghis, an Aurangzeb, a Yongle Emperor or a Faith Sultan Mehmet make a bigger impression on the historical record, but they weren’t the norm anymore than Napoleon was.

Most Medieval rulers had little respect for individual rights, but they were massively limited by group rights. Religious life, and therefore social and family life in most societies, was governed by a separate set of sacred authorities that the political power had to defer to, or at least negotiate with. Commercial life, while often looked down on by elites, was fairly planned and controlled. Not by government regulation, but by a dense thicket of agreements between guilds and other organized bodies of merchants and artisans that largely operated outside of government control, and sometimes operated their own governments.

It’s important to emphasize that this description applies to Medieval Europe, but it was also the same deal across most of Asia and the parts of Africa we know about as well. The rest of the world fell in the 1800s, because it stayed the same as in the preceding centuries, while the British and their European followers, also known as Western Civilization, changed massively.

Quick note, I am less sure about this analysis with China, where power does seem to have been more centralized for longer. That may be why China lasted as an independent power until the 1860s, longer than almost anybody else did.

The first thing that folks usually come up with when talking about Western advantage is naval technology. First Spanish and Portuguese ships, and later Dutch and British ones could blow most other things out of the water. But how do you think they got that way? Naval technology was military technology, first and foremost, paid for by governments. Portugal, the pioneer in European global reach, was able to send commercially oriented voyages further and further afield because Princes like Henry the Navigator paid for it. There was no division between governmental and commercial power. Christopher Columbus had to spend years finding a royal government to pay for his expedition before he could go out and accidentally find the Americas.

Starting in the 1500s religion began to lose its battle with political power in Europe. England under Henry VIII was ahead of the pack here, insulting the Pope, and appropriating the wealth of the monasteries. Henry was a uniquely loathsome individual, but he may be more responsible for eventual British dominance than anybody else.

As European monarchs consolidated their power over religion, it only made sense to attack alternate sources of commercial power as well. From guilds, to independent merchant run City states, to peasant rights to common land, all economic power bases outside of the central state were crushed. Napoleon finished the job of wiping out Europe’s ancient laws and republics, but the process had been going on for centuries beforehand.

We often think of these revolutions in terms of freedom of religion and freedom of trade. And that’s absolutely what they are. They are freedom for individuals. But they are also freedom of the government from any historic limits on its power. Individual rights helped governments crush group rights.

These new style European states fought each other mercilessly for centuries, forcing each other into deeper levels of centralization and sophistication. In 1815 the British won against Napoleon and turned outward. The world didn’t stand a chance.

It’s pretty straightforward. The victory of Europe or the West or Britain, or Anglo-hegemony or whatever, is fundamentally a story of strong government. Which is really inconvenient for the generally right leaning folks in the US who love talking about Western Civilization. So we come up with rationalizations.

We here in the Reagan/Thatcher era are very invested in the idea that the British and Dutch empires represented some kind of free market alternative to the authoritarian Catholic Spanish and Portuguese approaches, but that’s mostly bullshit.

The Capitalistic aspect of these systems that we are so impressed by are merely outgrowths of government power. The Dutch and British bested their Iberian rivals, and everybody else, by employing scrappier, more efficient forms of centralization.

The Dutch golden age of the 1600s was certainly funded by financial innovation and rapacious capitalism. But these aspects we focus on are inseparable from the strength of Dutch government. The United Provinces were a nation of refugees, organized around their fanatical vision of Christianity. They figured out new ways to make money, but they did so in service to a state devoted to near constant warfare. In the Reagan/Thatcher era we hear a lot about the Dutch Republic’s innovation around joint stock companies, but nothing about the fact that they can be credited with the invention of the modern national debt and were income tax pioneers as well.

Britain’s East India Company is even more deeply misunderstood. For the first century or so, Britain’s biggest and most important colony, India, was run by the East India Company,a government body that also had some commercial priorities. I have fallen for this fallacy in the past as well. Here in the Reagan Thatcher era we love looking at the East India Company and pretending that it was big business that led the way in what was probably the most important example of European conquest. Because since the 1980s in the English speaking world the mantra has been Business Good, Government bad. But this is a pretty fundamental misunderstanding of what corporations were before the 19th century and what they are today.

The East India Company was not some freestanding institution, like a medieval merchants guild, or a modern defense contractor that serves its shareholders instead of the American people. The East India Company was a government created monopoly. The point was to create large profits that allowed for expansion. When that monopoly was revoked in 1833, all commercial activities quickly ceased. But the East India Company had primarily been a government agency long before the end of their trade monopolies. Within a few decades of acquiring large Indian landholdings in the 1750s, the Company became subject to more or less constant reordering of its governance and priorities by Parliament. And after the embarrassment of the first war of Indian independence in the 1850s the company was quickly swept away entirely.

Now, I am a huge fan of capitalism, and in the right contexts I like free markets too. But it’s vital to understand that these tools of human development are only possible, and only remain viable through constant government intervention.

There is no large scale capitalism without strong government. As one example, have you tried to use a phone in the United States recently? They are no longer useful for their primary purpose, receiving phone calls. I get at least four junk phone calls a day, so I ignore all calls, and nobody who isn’t already in my phone can reach me. The US government has pretty expansive rights over our airwaves and against fraud, but it isn’t allowed to use those rights to solve this pretty fundamental problem, because government is bad now.

Phones are just the most obvious example, things are spinning out of control on a number of levels in this late Reagan era. To avoid chaos and save capitalism, the government needs to establish the ground rules, and keep them refreshed by steady enforcement. Government funding has been directly responsible for almost every innovation we currently credit to business. Manufacturing with standardized parts, the internet, and the research behind almost every single health innovation we celebrate were initially paid for by the US government. One of the most neglected duties of governments in recent decades is the breaking up of commercial monopolies that have gained too much power.

Government cycles, like business cycles, are probably inevitable. Scandals like Watergate or the oil crisis can discredit government just like the Great depression discredited American business for a couple generations. In the 1970s, the anti government switch made some sense, But if we don’t eventually move back into an era of respect for government, we risk losing momentum as a country. I have become convinced that this momentum loss is what has been happening in the United States since the turn of the century. Greed has been causing crisis after crisis, but outsized wealth’s corruption of government and our perverse respect for big business keeps delaying any correction. I worry that if the US Republic continues on its current trajectory we may lose our republic, and that could have apocalyptic results for the entire world.

The thing is, I think deep down everybody knows that markets are not in fact the answer to everything the way we have been pretending they are for the past 40 years. This is why everybody, Republicans and Democrats are so in love with the military and try to use it to solve every problem. As just a single example we have a really basic trade problem with China trade that can be quickly solved with a few laws. But that would be big government so Washington DC is trying to start a war with China over Taiwan instead. Under Reagan ideology the military is the only government agency that’s allowed to do anything, so everybody is putting all their hopes and expectations for the future on it. Unfortunately all the military knows how to do is war, which is why we keep fighting even though our last serious enemies were defeated most of a century ago. For the past 40 years the US has been so overwhelmingly powerful that our fantasies about the primacy of markets haven’t really mattered. The rich have been able to do as they please without completely screwing up all the good things the US has going. But it won’t last. It never does.

Consider China. They figured out the virtues of strong central government long before the West did. They were arguably the most impressive thing on earth for thousands of years. Until they weren’t.

Like the US today, from the 1500s or so, the Chinese were so secure that they got lazy. All the power and civilization that their strong government won became a plaything for corrupt elites. Over centuries, all that wealth was diverted further and further to a few classes that used the power to win more and more wealth. Because the wealth was wasted on corruption, China didn’t do the things it should have done. Early modern China didn’t sweep the Portuguese and the Dutch out of Asia, the way that the China of the early 1400s could have done without breaking a sweat. China’s greedy elites allowed the majority of Chinese to get so poor and miserable that a Communist revolution seemed like the only way forward. For the past 40 years, I think the US has fallen into a similar sort of tailspin. There are people trying to pull us out of it, by fighting monopoly, and fighting our corrupt foreign policy elites that have led the United States into one catastrophe after another for their personal benefit. But it’s still a very open question whether we will be able to correct course in time.

To be clear, I am not trying to say that
Western Empire wasn’t founded in part by businesses, what I am saying is that those businesses were impossible without the guidance of ruthlessly centralized governments. We love to hide the ball on this.

Monopoly critic Matt Stoller recently pointed out an example of our ongoing lying to ourselves. You may have seen the recent news that Tesla has reversed course and has done a deal with other Car companies to allow them to use their charging stations. This is great for the energy transition, and is seen as a good business decision by Tesla, that helped the recent run up in the stock price. But Tesla didn’t want to open their network! Most of the news stories neglected to include the important background from six months ago, that the US government had forced them to open up that charging network. If business is left alone to do whatever it wants, it will always prioritize its benefit over the benefit of the country. We should really stop pretending that that isn’t the case.

Now I am not saying that centralized governance is the best way to organize a society. In fact, I remain pretty convinced it is not. I think there is moral and spiritual power and beauty in what India has tried to do for the past 80 years. In a glorious mishmash of ancient folkways and modern politics, India has attempted to hold on to group rights in ways that are sometimes very malign, but also sometimes very positive. In some important ways India has been the most democratic country on the planet for almost a century now.

But has it worked? Under Narendra Modi and the BJP, many have been alarmed by the ways that European style nationalist centralization seem to be on the march. Unfortunately, this distasteful centralization also seems to be leading to growing Indian power and economic success as well.

Greater centralization tends to crush diversity and build monocultures. Sensible countries try to maintain a balance between centralization and democracy. Hopefully, in the decades to come, the world will build an order that allows for more self-determination for all individuals and groups. As human beings we are more than capable of accomplishing that noble aim.

But the current fragmentation of power in the United States isn’t leading to Utopia, it’s leading to war. Appalling little wars, and the growing chance of an apocalyptic world wide one. To avoid that war, I think we need to get back to a more sensible appreciation of how important big government has been to world development, and what it is capable of bringing all of us in the future.