A Hardy Weed: How Traditionalists Underestimate Western Civ
By Bryan Caplan
Last month, I debated Stephen Balch from Texas Tech’s Institute for the Study of Western Civilization. As I perused their website, I realized that despite our differences on immigration, we had a lot of common ground. This jumped out at me:
Western civilization has remade the
world. Most of the West’s inhabitants live lives of which their
ancestors could only dream: doubly long, rich in diet, teeming with
comforts and diversions, and, most of all, endowed with the gift of
liberty–not just for a privileged few, but for the many.
During our exchange, however, Balch rarely discussed the wonders of Western civilization. Instead, he emphasized its fragility. Preserving Western civilization is a constant struggle even without immigrants, he said. Every twenty years we breed a new generation of barbarians called children. To preserve our society, we have to teach each wave of juvenile barbarians to appreciate the Western civilization that makes everything possible. Admitting non-Western immigrants places even more stress on our limited civilizing resources.
My question: Does it really make sense to praise Western civilization to the skies, then lament its fundamental fragility? Imagine someone told you, “The Tesla is the best car in history. But explodes unless you wash it three times a day.” The obvious response is, “A car that requires that much maintenance to avoid disaster sounds like a crummy car, all things considered.” This is especially true because even dysfunctional cultures normally maintain themselves with ease. Self-perpetuation is what cultures do.
The enemy of Western civilization could leap on Balch’s angst. “Western civilization’s biggest fans admit it has an eggshell skull. This morbid fragility demands a negative evaluation, even if everything else pro-Western thinkers claim is true.”
Fortunately, the fragility thesis is flat wrong. There is absolutely no reason to think that Western civilization is more fragile than Asian civilization, Islamic civilization, or any other prominent rivals. At minimum, Western civilization can and does perpetuate itself the standard way: sheer conformity and status quo bias.
But saying that Western civilization is no more fragile than other cultures is a gross understatement. The truth is that Western civilization is taking over the globe. In virtually any fair fight, it steadily triumphs. Why? Because, as fans of Western civ ought to know, Western civ is better. Given a choice, young people choose Western consumerism, gender norms, and entertainment. Anti-Western governments from Beijing to Tehran know this this to be true: Without draconian censorship and social regulation, “Westoxification” will win.
A big part of the West’s strength, I hasten to add, is its openness to awesomeness. When it encounters competing cultures, it gleefully identifies competitors’ best traits – then adopts them as its own. By the time Western culture commands the globe, it will have appropriated the best features of Asian and Islamic culture. Even its nominal detractors will be Westernized in all but name. Picture how contemporary Christian fundamentalists’ consumerism and gender roles would have horrified Luther or Calvin. Western civ is a good winner. It doesn’t demand total surrender. It doesn’t make fans of competing cultures formally recant their errors. It just tempts them in a hundred different ways until they tacitly convert.
Traditionalists’ laments for Western civilization deeply puzzle me. Yes, it’s easy to dwell on setbacks. In a world of seven billion
people, you can’t expect Western culture to win everywhere
everyday. But do traditionalists seriously believe that freshman Western civ classes are the wall standing between us and barbarism? Have they really failed to notice the fact that Western civilization flourishes all over the globe, even when hostile governments fight it tooth and nail? It is time for the friends of Western civilization to learn a lesson from its enemies: Western civ is a hardy weed. Given half a chance, it survives, spreads, and conquers. Peacefully.