by Jon Sanders
Research Editor and Senior Fellow, Regulatory Studies, John Locke Foundation
My most recent research brief seeks signs of our society returning to the idea of civil debate. Beside the obvious reason, I point out that
Differences of opinion — ideas in conflict — are not anomalies to be stomped out in brute outrage. Rather they are to be valued because competition leads to innovations. Competition in the marketplace of ideas means finding manifold better ways to improve society.
The first link in that quotation goes to my defense of a proposed curriculum that would have let students study Western Civilization at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. I wrote that “The study of Western Civilization is history making the case for liberty, often through the process of elimination.” I argued that:
The discipline is not, as some fear, the stamp of approval on all things done by Dead White Males — rather, it is the study of the crucible of ideas that tested and approved our own society’s cherished values of democracy, individual liberty (even from the interference of one elite clique or another), the freedoms of speech and belief, and plurality (that is, diversity).
They are the same values from which the Western Civilization proposal’s critics argue today, apparently without any recognition of their heritage. But in doing so they demonstrate how compelling those values are, and how they are indeed not the sole purview of the Dead White Men. … They belong to all.
Joe Lonsdale writes eloquently along similar lines in The Economist August 3 that “Western Civilization is an idea worth defending — and reapplying.” Here’s a highlight to whet your reading appetite:
Like all civilisations, the West’s evolution included terrible violence, such as the subjugation of the native populations in North America and the slave trade. Its history was often ugly and racist, from the idea of “the white man’s burden” that was used to justify colonialism to the pseudoscience of eugenics. These noxious episodes lead critics to claim that Western principles are vacuous: a mask for unrepentant imperialism or merely the philosophy of a simpler age.
But that is plain wrong. In fact, the core ideas of the West hold many of the answers that we seek today in response to a populism which rages on the left and on the right. Instead of being the source of society’s ills, the values of Western civilisation are part of the cure. They are needed now more than ever.
Lonsdale references Locke, the Enlightenment, the abandonment of tribalism, the freeing of markets, the protection of individual rights, etc., and warns against turning away from those hard-won advances:
As pre-Enlightenment modes of value-signaling, tribalism and power-politics come to the fore on campus and social media, we must reaffirm our commitment to Western liberal values by actually putting them into practice. Only a rational order which enshrines individual rights to person and property, and expands opportunities for all, will create the stability and economic progress necessary to quell populist discontent.
Unsurprisingly the anti-liberal, top-down parts of our society are experiencing cost-disease and decay. The West enabled a market order where the best ideas win, no matter whose idea it was. We need to remind ourselves of how unusual the miracle of our political economy is and enact its lessons. Only then can we save the concept of “Western civilisation” and spread its benefits of freedom and prosperity—not just for people in the West, but for everyone.