Bill Emmott - International Author & Adviser

Article

Don´t write off the decadent West just yet
The Times - August 20th 2012

As we near the fourth anniversary of the collapse of the Lehman Brothers investment bank, and even the fifth of when the distressed warbling of canaries in our financial mineshafts began to choke on their American subprime mortgages, we can be forgiven if we feel a touch of foreboding. The Olympics were a wonderful circus, but might we in the West now be permanently short of bread, laden by debt, imperiled by the euro, outsmarted by China and made catatonic by the thought that our alternative leaders are Mitt and his mad-hatter Tea Party running mate, Boris stuck on the wire, or a character from Wallis and Gromit? Oswald Spengler put it rather more poetically when he wrote in 1918 of "The Decline of the West" and the coming rise of the Orient. Meanwhile in these noble columns on Thursday Jon Moynihan of PA Consulting put it more arithmetically, when he wrote that the gap in average wages between $135 a day in the West and $12 a day in a China which has overtaken what we used to call the Protestant work ethic, indicates an inevitable decline and that we all need to take a 15% cut in living standards to get ourselves back in shape. Niall Ferguson, our Scottish tele-historian from Harvard, has put it more trendily in his book and TV series last year, "Civilisation". He argued that the five-century- long dominance by the West had happened thanks to six "killer apps"—competition, the scientific revolution, property rights, modern medicine, the consumer society, work ethic—that developing countries are now downloading and we are steadily disabling. Three years earlier, Kishore Mahbubani, a Singaporean diplomat turned professor played the same game. He wrote in his book "The New Asian Hemisphere" that Asians were adopting "seven pillars of western wisdom" that we were fast forgetting. His list covered similar ground to Ferguson´s, but he also credited the West with"a culture of peace", which residents of Hiroshima might doubt, but one can see his point. So what are we to make of it? This battle of the books is probably enough to make you long for another gloomy Swedish thriller just to cheer yourself up. And to complicate matters, some of the more serious holidaymakers will have taken with them the new book by Robert Skidelsky and his philosopher son Edward, "How Much is Enough?", in which they follow Keynes by arguing that, contrary to Ferguson´s app-panic, we would all be happier if we were to work fewer hours and pay less attention to keeping up with the consuming Joneses. To my mind, the gloom and hand-wringing are overdone—but, funnily enough, such pessimism might well be our seventh or eighth killer app, or pillar, or whatever you want to call it. For two general ideas lie behind Ferguson´s and Mahbubani´s synthesis of why Europeans prospered and Chinese and Arabs declined. One is our habit of questioning everything, of being undeferential to authority, of worrying ourselves sick, of using the free flow of ideas to turn problems into solutions. The other is our willingness to accept change, even to embrace it as an invigorating force of life. It is rigid, deferential, hierarchical societies that have, throughout history, ended up stagnating and dying. That is what doomed imperial China and the Ottomans, as well as the cod-revolutionary communist systems of Soviet Russia and Mao´s China. A thousand flowers were never allowed to bloom, so countless millions had to die in famines or labour camps instead. Our question, in Europe and America as well as in Japan, the first western emulator, needs to be whether we might now be losing that capacity to challenge and to change. The imprisonment of the Pussy Riot punk group in Russia confirms that Vladimir Putin has not yet accepted either challenge or change. Silvio Berlusconi´s habit while prime minister in Italy of using his media to assassinate the characters of anyone who dared oppose (or expose) him is a warning that European democracies are not immune to that tendency either. So are the massed ranks of lobbyists in Washington and mega-rich campaign donors who try to use the power of money to win the battle of ideas. Yet on challenge, we should not be too self-deprecatory. Perhaps it is my deformation professionelle as a journalist, but basically I think we remain fine on freedom of argument. A tweak here to prevent excessive media concentration, a tweak there to reform libel laws, a rather larger tweak to stop oligarchical donors from buying our democracies—those are the sort of reforms we are in constant need of. Not China, not India, not even Brazil come close to matching the old West on this measure. It is on our continued acceptance of change that we need to worry about more. The notions are, admittedly, linked: if we grow complacent and too satisfied with the status quo, we may not challenge ourselves enough to make progress. Mainly, though, the question is whether, as our demographic structure changes shape and grows older, and as our welfare states have built many treasured rights and entitlements, we might end up emulating the rigidity that doomed imperial China and our more recent Soviet enemies. When there are more oldsters than there are newcomers, the balance of power shifts against change. That is what another set of historians, Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson, in their recent book "Why Nations Fail", say happened to the fabulously wealthy city state of Venice: the elite closed the doors on new merchants and innovators. That is what we, especially in Europe, need to think hard about. On this, Britain is better than its neighbours, but not perfect. We are closing our doors to talented immigrants for example. In all our talk about new airports and high-speed trains, we risk mistaking the big and visible for the useful and necessary: a thousand entrepreneurial flowers need to bloom, not just a few big construction firms. And as Mr Moynihan pointed out, the large sums of welfare money that go to middle-class entitlements help to starve money from public services that would benefit our next generation of change-makers, such as education. It is not a matter of relative economic strength. Wealth for developing countries in Asia, Africa and Latin America does not diminish our well-being, and nor do their lower labour costs. The real source of our prosperity, our high living standards, even our power, has been our dynamism, our constant willingness to innovate and to change. So don´t "go East, young man", unless your elders—in France, Italy, Britain, Japan, America—deny you opportunities to change your homeland, by over-regulating you, over-taxing you, or just stealing your money for their free bus passes.


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