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The Superiority of Western Ideas

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Dearest Salam

You’re my number one favorite blog buddy, and I’m grateful for your presence. Not many have your combination of writing skills, personality and courage to write honestly in your situation – indeed no one else at all that I am aware of. You’re my eyes and ears on the ground in the hottest city around.

However, one thing that has always bugged me is this permanent quote on the top of your page:

“The West won the world not by the superiority of its ideas or values or religion but rather by its superiority in applying organized violence. Westerners often forget this fact, non-Westerners never do.” -Samuel P Huntington

Not to pick a fight, but you and Samuel P Huntington are flatly wrong. Values and ideas are exactly why The West, aka America rides in the driver’s seat, though we continue to argue even amongst ourselves as to exactly what those ideas are and what they mean.

In fact, our “superiority in applying organized violence” ranks as one of the lesser aspects of our prominence. I can appreciate how you might not think so right now. Living in Baghdad at this moment means that you’re looking down the barrel of the most fearsome military force in human history.

However, most of America’s pre-eminence in the world comes through our economy, not our guns. We invent and make and sell more stuff than anybody else in the world. That is our top prominent thing, and it is absolutely due to the ideas and values that Huntington pooh-poohs. Those values include, for example, the famous Puritan work ethic, which will get back to religion.

Perhaps the most important values and ideas that give America and the West generally our great strength lie in our political traditions. We have an underlying system of free market capitalism, and the idea that you can come up from nothing through hard work and talent to make something of yourself. Also critical to that is the idea of the rule of law, that there are predictable set rules of the game that apply to everyone.

Like any country, there are mixed ideas and values at work, some working against us. We’ve adopted a welfare state lite, and the trial lawyers have really stretched the rule of law significantly out of shape. There are lots of places we could improve. Still, even watered down and half-corrupted, we’ve got the best winning combination of ideas around- as evidenced by our RESULTS.

Even our military superiority comes only as an outgrowth of ideas and values. Does our unprecedented military might in applying organized violence come from some physical attributes? Are American men bigger and stronger than regular guys? No, there have to be other reasons. I can think of a couple.

One big reason for our military superiority is our economic superiority. Much of our military power stems simply from the fact that we can afford to spend the money on the latest technology. Our military budget will dwarf the combined total of the next half dozen or ten countries combined, or something like that. Yet this still represents far less a share of our overall economy than, say, the old Soviet Union military. We’ve got the money to spend.

Having the money to spend, however, means that we can buy a lot of influence where it is needed. We get more accomplished with economic carrots than with military sticks.

The other reason for our military superiority comes from the commitment and motivation of our soldiers. This comes from our rich democratic institutions. Our young people in uniform fight firm in the belief that they are protecting their homes and families. We have a strictly volunteer fighting force. They risk their all firm [and largely correct] in their belief that they are defending mom and dad, not just some corporate interest or some thugs who have managed to seize power.

If a substantial portion of the populace starts thinking that some fight is being fought for the interests of influential businesses rather than legitimate national defense, it won’t get far. There wouldn’t be troops to do the fighting, and the politicians would get knocked out in the next election. Our experience in Vietnam shows how that works. They couldn’t keep that war going in the teeth of popular opinion even with a military draft.

In fact, American prominence in the world does not come from nefarious influence. Largely because of a combination of personal and systemic political values, we make more stuff better than anyone else in the world. Bill Gates has not made a trillion quadzillion dollars by putting guns to people’s heads. He didn’t steal his fortune, he CREATED it. He’s done it by building a better mousetrap. Personal values motivate him to do it, and our open political and economic system clears the way so that he can. Those are the ideas and values that mostly explain why America is the big dog.

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  • Lisa

    Westington was right, and heres another quote of his that is correct.. Its already happening now.. The man is dead and gone, but he could see it coming…

    It will take a long time, and certainly the West will remain the dominant civilization well into the next century, but the decline is occurring