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Thursday, July 8, 2010

The Universal Hunger for Liberty: Why the Clash of Civilizations Is Not Inevitable

What Makes Western Civilization Unique?

The free society is a frail and demanding institutional order. It requires that men resist the temptation to violate the freedom of others who may act and speak in disagreeable or fundamentally wrong ways. It is far easier to advocate or use force to prevent them from doing so. To get others through noncoercive means to behave or think differently requires one to cultivate the art and patience of persuasion. It implies not only a belief in, but also a willingness to practice, reason over compulsion.

Freedom also requires the will to resist using force to obtain what others have. The free society demands that we each renounce the use of violence and fraud in our relationships with others. When others choose to buy from someone else rather than us, freedom demands that we not turn to government to make them do what they do not want to do.

Throughout most of history the price of freedom has been more than many have been willing to pay. Intolerance and dogmatism have straitjacketed men’s minds and deeds. At the same time, government power has been placed, over and over again, at the service of those who want to plunder their neighbors rather than associate with them peacefully and consensually.

Human history is also the tragic story of brutality, cruelty, and frequent mass murder in the effort to stifle “dangerous” or “heretical” thoughts and actions, to eliminate scapegoats, and to steal from others. How easily many men have become the willing or passive accomplices in the destruction of the lives and fortunes of others!

It is therefore worth asking if Michael Novak is right when he titles his new book The Universal Hunger for Liberty. The impetus for Novak is the question whether Western civilization is irreconcilably in conflict with the Islamic world. He emphasizes the unique properties in Western culture as it has developed over hundreds of years: the importance of reason in understanding the world and its application to the mastery of material existence; an appreciation and respect for the dignity and sanctity of the individual and an accompanying belief in a higher law than that of man which has grown out of the Judeo-Christian heritage; an allegiance to the rule of law and checks on political power to protect the freedom of every individual; an optimism about life and the future of the human condition that fosters innovation, risk-taking, and economic and social change for a better tomorrow; and an understanding that neither freedom nor prosperity can be maintained or expanded without private property and freedom of enterprise.

Over a series of chapters, Novak articulates the arguments and facts that demonstrate these unique and crucial qualities that have created what we call “the West.” He does so, very often, with great clarity and eloquence. Arguably, his purpose is not only to show how “we” may differ from or have various commonalities with other societies and cultures, but also to remind Western readers (including and especially in the United States) what has made the freedom and prosperity that we enjoy.

As historian Robert Conquest has warned in his new book, The Dragons of Expectations: Reality and Delusion in the Course of History, those things that have made Western society (especially America and Britain) great have been and are being eaten away from within by ideological elites and political-economic plunderers who are undermining the morality and institutional order on which our system of liberty and law has been based.

While Novak compellingly shows that many of the outer trappings of Western society are being “globalized,” particularly in formerly socialist countries, it is far from clear that the ethical, cultural, and religious underpinnings that produced liberty and limited government in the West are as rapidly becoming part of the everyday consciousness of people in other parts of the world. The apparent spread of “democracy” in many countries is not the same thing as the expansion of the culture and morality of liberty. The latter takes several generations before it becomes a “self-evident” element in the thinking and attitudes of men–and its precariousness at times of “national crisis” has been shown more than once in the Western world itself.

Thus when Novak tries to explain and interpret the possibility of freedom in the Islamic world, he acknowledges that traditionally the autonomy of the individual has never been as respected there as it is in the West. And he can merely suggest ways in which traditional Islam may continue to evolve in directions that will make it compatible with the central tenets of Western civilization if moderate and “enlightened” voices increase in number in opposition to the radical extremists.

But the direction of history cannot be accelerated by force–too often when it has been tried, it has generated disaster. It would be wiser if we in the West devoted a good portion of our time to getting our own political, economic, and cultural house in order before liberty at home is threatened beyond repair. That would be the finest and most effective stimulus for freedom that we could contribute to the rest of the world.

  • Richard M. Ebeling is BB&T Distinguished Professor of Ethics and Free Enterprise Leadership at The Citadel in Charleston, South Carolina. He was president of the Foundation for Economic Education (FEE) from 2003 to 2008.