Comparing Civilizations: A Politically Incorrect Analysis

by Jan Winiecki
August 30th, 2002


My politically incorrect analysis begins with some reminiscences. I followed world developments after the terrorist attack on America from Helsinki, the capital of Finland, by viewing the program BBC World. In general terms the programs were sensible and well balanced. One program raised, however, rather unhappy reflections. It was a meeting of the British Prime Minister Tony Blair with some Muslim leaders of the Muslim community living in Britain.

On the one hand, Blair tried to calm them down and stressed that the anti-terrorist action undertaken by the U.S. and its allies was aimed at terrorists, not at the Muslim world at large. On the other hand, those same leaders asserted that anti-terrorist action undermines the equality of cultures and civilizations because the justification for the action is put in terms of the defense of the values of the Western civilization. Blair, an otherwise eloquent debater, when pressed with such arguments, stuttered and babbled something semi-coherently. It was clear that for the life of him he could not come up with a rather obvious, common sense question: What do the Muslim leaders find improper in defending a civilization that finds itself threatened?

In this context, it is worth reflecting on how far the leftist politically correct idiocy has advanced in the West. Here was the prime minister of a country that more decisively than any other - and from the very beginning - stood in the first row, together with the U.S., in the war against terrorism. He made it clear that he was ready to sacrifice the brave soldiers of Her Majesty the Queen, but at the same time he seemed clearly unable to expose the false but politically correct claim that cultures are not subject to criticism or comparison. It was something that I could not understand and, therefore, I decided to explore the subject in a more systematic manner.

Who Attracts Whom

I am sure it would be highly educational, even if not necessarily pleasant, to ask a few basic, common sense questions of the angry Muslim leaders in Bradford, the Muslim center in Britain. For example, one might ask why could such a meeting take place in Bradford, a center for Muslims in Britain, but could not take place, in say, Peshawar, Pakistan, with the leaders of the western European or American community that have settled there? Peshawar is a city on the Pakistani side of the boundary line that somewhat uncertainly divides Afghanistan and Pakistan. The point is that such a meeting would be impossible because there would not be a community of Americans and Europeans living in Peshawar, nor anywhere else in the Muslim world. You can find Europeans or North Americans working there temporarily, or serving in the American or English military bases, but not those who migrated from the West to the Muslim world in any visible numbers and remained there. The same applies to Algerians and Moroccans in France, and any other minorities moving from that part of the world to this part, but not the other way around.

We might conclude preliminarily that these migrations are a one-way street. This being the case, let us ask in the tradition of a dispassionate Western inquiry, what determines this Volkerwanderung, an old German term meaning the migrations of peoples? Marxism-fed postmodernists and multiculturalists, as well as other birds of the same feather, usually react to that question in the Pavlovian manner and answer in terms of the Marxian "base." They say that it is the "base" or economy that determines the superstructure, which is the politics. Therefore, they would say that Western economies create more wealth and that attracts people from poor countries.

It is very interesting that these enemies of the free market stop their argument abruptly at that point. For if these politically correct enemies of the free market would dare to continue their considerations, they would have to admit that it is the market capitalism that generates wealth. Thus, the first conclusion reached, in terms of comparative civilizations, is that in terms of wealth-generating ability, Western civilization, based on the capitalist market order, is infinitely superior to any other civilization, past or present.

To cross the "t's" and dot the "i's," let me add that those few non-Western countries that caught up with the West, such as Japan, succeeded because they adopted a capitalist market economy. Thus, wealth creation - prosperity - is possible only if Western rules of the capitalist market game are accepted together with private property. The market without private property is a chimera.

This being the case, primitive Marxist thinking about the "base" determining the "superstructure" should be put where it belongs: to the wastebasket of discredited ideas. It is the institutional "superstructure" of the West that determines its ability to create wealth. If it had been as the Marxians describe, then communism would have won the competition with capitalism long ago. Why? Because throughout the many decades of its existence, communist economies invested at twice the rate that capitalist economies did relative to the rate of growth of GDP (Gross Domestic Product). We should remember after all, that capitalism won and that socialism or communism lost.

Western Political Freedom - The Key

Let us continue this unpleasant comparative analysis a bit further. If this Western superstructure - that is, Western institutions - determines prosperity, then we should look further at the sources of wealth and poverty of nations in terms not only of their economic system of market capitalism but also of the underlying political system of freedom. Many researchers inquiring into the sources of wealth and poverty of nations stress the importance of differentiating the characteristics of the Western civilization. William Landes, author of an excellent study in this respect, The Wealth and Poverty of Nations, stressed that the ancient Greeks in their wars with the Persians and others did not look at themselves as defenders of Athens and other Greek city-states. They looked at themselves as defenders of a different civilization. Theirs was a civilization of free citizens, with responsibilities and the right to decide about the shape of their state and its institutions, including private property. It is that civilization that they defended against various despots - ruler-gods who decided by whim about the life and property of their subjects. The Greeks were free citizens; their opponents were mere subjects.

This tradition continued under the Romans, who enriched it by expanding the rule of law, particularly the civil law and specifically property rights. With some zigzags, it was continued by Christianity, which already in the late Roman empire, separated the transcendental sphere from the temporal sphere. You are familiar with Christ's statement, "Render unto Caesar what is Caesar's and unto God what is God's," which increased the realm of the individual's decision. Germanic tribes with their property and other rights of individuals (not those of tribal chiefs) added to the trend of individual freedom. This trend continued into the heyday of classical liberalism in the 18th and 19th centuries.

It is the growing extent of political freedom, intertwined in the West with the expansion of economic freedom, which has become the second pillar of our civilization. I note in passing that there has been a subtle change in the trend towards greater political freedom in the past century. Until the 20th century, freedom was understood as requiring individual responsibility. Polish philosopher Bronislaw Lagowski noted that the 20th century invented something new, mainly "the right to somebody else's income" (i.e. the redistribution of income), which has undermined the link between freedoms and responsibilities. Despite some diminution in free institutions, Western citizens are still the freest in the world.

That is why I posit that the masses of Arabs, as well as other Asians and Africans, whether Muslims or not, as well as Latin Americans take part in the unidirectional migrations from other civilizations to the West in search of political, as much as economic, freedom. Wealth, which is so difficult to create in corrupt and despotic regimes, is important. But so is freedom to decide about one's habits, one's ideas and one's preferences, including political choices.

Freedom of Expression

It's worth noting that, for example, author Salman Rushdie, author of the book Satanic Verses critical of Islam, is still in hiding in the West from Muslim fanatics who want to kill him. He could, of course, write his vitriolic books against Western civilization in Peshawar, Pakistan, to continue with the example I used earlier. But clearly he could not have written in Peshawar his Satanic Verses. That's the difference - he could criticize both the U.S. and Islam in any Western city and remain free of repercussions, but he could only criticize the West in Peshawar.

Those who dislike political freedom in all its aspects - speech, press, association - as much as economic freedom (capitalist market) say that freedoms other than economic are needed only for intellectuals, not for the masses. They are dead wrong. It is precisely political freedom, as much as economic freedom, which attracted ordinary persons who sought to escape from yet another civilization of tyranny - from communism. The fact that they could listen to or view on TV what they liked, that they could travel where they wanted without fearing that secret police would refuse to issue travel documents, that no authority would be interested in their offhand critical remarks made about policies in the country in which they had decided to live, is as important to the plumber as to the intellectual. Therefore, both political and economic freedom attract people to Western civilization.

The story is the same today in the case of most legal or illegal migrants to the West. Immigrants from the Muslim world or anywhere else want political freedom as much as they want bread, contrary to what modern commentators from within the Western civilization maintain. They want to be sure of what they cannot be sure of in Peshawar, Khartoum or Tehran: that when they earn their wealth nobody will arbitrarily seize it. What they want is Western property rights. They also want to know that they will not be thrown into prison without the due process of law, another Western invention. As well, at the basic level of political freedom, they want assurance that they will not be tortured or murdered by the police or the local despot or by religious fanatics. It is in Bradford, not in Peshawar, that those huddled masses escaping the Muslim world can be assured of these most elementary political rights! Unfortunately for the world, these are guaranteed only within the Western civilization. Elsewhere the progress is relatively slow and sometimes even nonexistent.

Of course, the pressure of an intolerant social environment may, for the time being, force, for example, Muslim women to wear headscarves even in Bradford. But if they resist the pressure, they at least are reasonably sure that nobody will shoot at them on the streets, as another group of fanatics threatened to do in Kashmir. Then there is the question of political participation. It is in England, France, and elsewhere in the West, where there are large enough groups of settled migrants, that they can elect in local and national elections their freely chosen representatives, something they may only dream about in the countries they came from. In fact, there is not one liberal democracy in the Muslim world.

This Western-style dispassionate inquiry that puts aside the intellectual fog of political correctness leads us to a better understanding of the unidirectional migrations to the West and their causes. My second conclusion, thus, would be that, contrary to those who would avoid all comparisons between cultures, the Western civilization has an enormous power of attraction - even for Muslims - because of its offer of freedom unknown to that extent anywhere else in the world.

Who Threatens Whom and Why

Much has been heard from those militant groups and ruling satraps in Muslim countries, whether lay ones like Hussein or religious ones like the ayatollahs in Iran or mullahs in Afghanistan. They create in their propaganda the image of the expansive West waging its aggressive campaign against the Muslim countries and Islam in particular. So, let us ask the question whether it is true that Western civilization is indeed threatening those militant Islamic groups or despotic lay rulers.

Let me reply that surprisingly, in light of what I have said so far, the answer is yes. Western civilization is threatening various despotic regimes, whether lay or religious ones. This is exactly the same as it was with Communism. In spite of the fact that the Soviets and their forced lies kept three times as many divisions of soldiers in Europe as the NATO alliance, Communists said in their propaganda that the West threatened them. And to an extent, they were right, exactly in the same way as these intolerant, oppressive Muslim or lay Arab regimes feel threatened. Simply, Western civilization has such a power of attraction that Communists had to put forth a lot of effort to limit, at times drastically, individual contacts with and visits to the West. With progress in communications, it became an increasing problem to isolate subjugated peoples from "dangerous" Western ideas and the attractive power of a liberal democracy and market capitalism. And Communist satraps, like present day Arab satraps, sense that "the epidemic of freedom," as Jefferson called it, cannot be quarantined forever. This is sensed throughout the world.

The Continuing Attraction of The West

The elites in Western society, particularly those afflicted by the idiocy of political correctness, must realize that no self-limitations, no Tony Blair-like avoidance of real issues, no requests for forgiveness for real or, more often, imaginary Western sins will change the sense of a threat on the side of those who rule their subjects despotically in Muslim countries. The civilization whose primary invitation is to move the clock back to the seventh century cannot have a strong power of attraction. Those who would be forced to make the trip would realize soon that the recreated Muslim paradise would actually be totalitarian control. What is probably less understood is that in the promised paradise there will be not only thought control but also, in all probability, poverty as well. In Muslim countries, we may safely assume that the lack of freedom would be painfully felt by those prospective subjects of the recreated seventh-century utopia. Of course, in those few places where by geological circumstances there is a lot of oil and little population, it has been possible to experiment with the Muslim welfare state based on oil, but not based on the ability to create wealth.

The conclusion, therefore, is clear and reinforces what I said earlier. Western civilization is, indeed, a lasting danger to all politically despotic and economically inept civilizations, including the Muslim one, purely by its power of attraction. For this very reason it is hated by the protagonists of all the archaic or futuristic utopias, whether they are despots ruling the failed Communist utopias of the recent past or the religious despots ruling the present Muslim countries who strive to turn the clock back. These leaders have hated the Western civilization for the attractive alternative it provides.

Let us note as an aside that also politically correct Western multiculturalists, who are doing their best to undermine the Western civilization, are nevertheless attracted by that very civilization they criticize, no less than those dreaming to enter it from outside. One never hears that some warring American feminist at Harvard protesting against "male chauvinism" in the U.S., rejects Harvard and moves to Somalia. Nor does one hear that the believers in the equality of civilizations from Stanford, who eliminated the teaching on Western civilization from the university curriculum, show their rejection of the hated Western civilization by relocating to Myanmar. And I do not expect the stone-throwing Greek communists who are often seen at the anti-globalist meetings will leave Greece, the singularly inept beachhead of capitalism, and choose tyranny in anticapitalist North Korea.


The Western civilization is as attractive for the masses from other civilizations, who look here for wealth and freedom, as it is for its detractors, who cannot imagine living anywhere else. We have to face the reality that economic and political freedom is - in terms of economic theory - a scarce good. As such it should be highly valued and, accordingly, protected by those who value what this civilization offers. The realities of the world after September 11 demand no less.

Dr. Winiecki answered questions from the audience following his formal remarks.

I would be interested in hearing your views of Russia and its economy.

Russia is part of what is known historically as Eastern Christendom, which differs from Western Christendom. It differs in the degree of freedom left to an individual and in its lack of separation between lay and religious powers, what we might call separation of church and state. In the West, popes and kings each had their own realms to rule. The East had a different tradition. There, the lay ruler had unchecked power and the religious leader, the patriarch, had been his subordinate. Why am I explaining this? I am trying to point out that Russia, which is historically part of Eastern Christendom, travels a much more difficult road to adopt a market democracy than countries of Western Christendom. Why? My theory is that the tradition of a greater role of individualism found in Western Christendom helped the people embrace the spirit of a capitalist market economy.

I teach a course on "Economics of Transition from a Communist System to the Market." During one lecture I use two transparencies which show the former Communist countries separated into two categories which I call "transition hopefuls" and "transition laggards." There is little debate about this because we all know which countries made the transition to markets easily and which did not. Russia would be on the side of failures, while Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic are all on the side of successful transition countries. Then I show a second transparency which portrays the religious division between those countries in the Eastern Christian tradition and those in the Western Christian tradition in the 16th century. Finally, I put both transparencies one on top of the other. There is an exact coincidence between being in the Western tradition and successfully transitioning to market capitalism and vice versa.

To conclude, I don't believe that Russia will revert to the old ways. Communism is dead forever. So I am hopeful in the long run these barriers that exist in countries like Russia, the Ukraine and Belarus, which are higher than the barriers in the Czech Republic, Slovenia or elsewhere, will finally be overcome and Russia will join the community of Western societies. But it won't be soon. It could be decades or maybe even a century.

What is the Achilles heel of the Muslim world and what would it take to bring it down?

The West has to decide what it wants. If it wants to maintain its position as a civilization that is "threatening" others only by its attractions and its performance, then it should stay clear of meddling in the affairs of all those tyrannical regimes in other parts of the world. I don't believe that, apart from direct threats to Western civilizations, any intervention should be made in the name of humanitarian goals. Why? Because then you are actually giving foundations to the accusations of aggressive intervention. I am only in favor of the West serving as a good example and encouraging interactions with all that want that. If they don't want it, fine.

I can understand that having normal human instincts we may pity the women of Kashmir who are threatened with being shot by one of those fanatical groups if they are not wearing the headscarf. But we can do nothing about it. And if we intervene there, things will probably get worse rather than better. Muslim states may act like the warring Greek states in antiquity. They fought each other; but whenever an outside enemy was approaching, they joined forces. The same groupings that felt themselves discriminated against in Kashmir or any other place would join forces with others, I'm afraid, against advancing Western intervention. Therefore, we have to believe that in the long run, people will not have patience to continue to suffer from the indignities of soul, and of political and police terror, like in the despotic regime of Saddam Hussein. There is always the urge to do something right away, maybe more in this country than in any other. Americans have been known to want instant solutions. But there aren't any. Therefore, I suggest restraint.

Copyright March 2002, Grove City College. this lecture was presented at Grove City College on March 7, 2002 and the trascript posted on the Grove City College website. Reprinted in The Tocquevillian with permission of the author.

Dr. Jan Winiecki is currently a professor of international trade and finance and chair of the Department of Economics, Viadrina, European University, Frankfurt/Oder, Germany. He has taught at universities in Poland and Denmark and served as economic adviser to the leadership of underground "Solidarity" from 1985-1989 and a member of President Walesa's Political Advisory Council in 1991. He was president of the Adam Smith Research Center in Warsaw, Poland, from 1990-1995 and was executive director of the European Band for Construction and Development, London, England, from 1991-1993. He has written dozens of articles on Soviet-type economies, comparative economic systems and the transition of Eastern Europe in the last 10 years from central planning to market-based economies. He has authored 10 scholarly books, the latest being Political Economy of Reform and Change, and has recently edited Institutional Barriers to Poland's Economic Development.

©2002 The Tocquevillian Magazine