Progression from manual farming to our present high tech lives was the gift of Western civilization to the the world, an ancestral contribution for which our political left wants us to feel somehow, guilty. Greek thought, Roman practicality and Jewish Christianity blended to produce the Western civilization, one without a significant competitor but for China. China’s Confucian society was the world’s most advanced until it was stultified by invading Mongols, leaving the field to the West.
Western technological progress has spread but Western living standards continue to draw migrants from everywhere else, to the extent that southern Hispanics in North America and North Africans and Turks in Europe have become political issues. The Economist, a leading news publication, speaks of the “Rich World” and the “Developing World” referring mostly to Western civilization and Japan as “Rich.” Given the similarity of humans everywhere, the impressive disparities in living that drive these migrations should be understood. Obviously, poor places tend to export people but why do these differences not only exist, but persist? The Rich World’s knowledge is no secret anymore.
It’s easily observed that one significant difference among the nations is the degree of political corruption. As the above linked maps of corruption differences make clear, the degree of that corruption coincides with the economic standing of the countries. Rich ones are less corrupt, poor ones more so and the very poorest are the failed states that are the most corrupt of all. That is no surprise, most writers have accepted that relationship since Pliny and likely, long before. In sum: The more corruption, the more poverty. It is as one would expect; commerce for instance, depends upon trust.
But there remains another factor; it’s necessary to understand why the corruption differs. The obvious explanation is religious. Both China’s period of rapid progress and the productive growth of Western civilization coincided with strong religious influences in the societies; Confucian in China’s case and Christian in the West. Those reduced the corruption; that accelerated progress.
There are other factors driving impressive progress; government must be supportive or at least, not interfere too much and society must not be too rigid, preventing the changes that accompany real progress. It’s evident from history that all the needed conditions seldom come together but when they do, the result can be astonishing. Perhaps one reason for so few of these productive outbursts in human history is a need for society to recover from the disruptions, accompanied by reduced progress as society stabilizes. We must it seems, choose between progress and stability.
It was the social disruption from industrialization that started Progressive American politics. Developments in birth control released feminism and the related rise of abortion that has set up the religious as targets of the irreligious. These current fractures in Western society are chasms that seem to threaten the body politic.
Economists say that rapid technological advance is not only disruptive, it’s a Red Queen’s race. Major technical improvements produce large effects; those demand further improvements and advances to deal with their effects, and so on. Henry Ford’s car needed mass production; that required accelerated road building and better roads, which brought a need for large scale gasoline distribution. Schools had to produce more engineers, steelmakers had to improve and expand production and on and on. But once the sleigh ride slows appreciably, the economy involved must decline rapidly. As the Red Queen told Alice, ‘you have to run fast just to stay in the same place. If you want to progress, you have to run much faster.’ A discussion of this is included in the above linked article, describing China’s early technical advances. This also forecasts much about America’s economic future.
Technology runs on energy; the history of technological progress is the history of energy. During most of American industrialization, the U.S. government encouraged low energy and transportation costs to encourage growth and development. Recent government policy is the opposite for several reasons, particularly, environmental concerns; this chart shows the climb in gasoline prices in recent decades. Government has not been the only factor in the increase but it is significant. Costs of other energy sources are also rising, for similar reasons and coal, once the cheapest, is under pressure, especially from environmentalists. Continued use of any fossil fuels depends upon increasingly costly pollution controls but there are as yet, no affordable replacement energy sources. The forecast is continued increases in energy costs as public policy, greatly accelerated as climate change programs are added.
As technology needs energy, society needs rules and those are provided first by religion and then by laws that must accord with religion. Without religion, laws reflect only the political, guided by the desires of the rulers. With voters involved, the rulers must regard their desires too, usually appealing to their most basic wants for that purpose. Christianity then, is the reason Western civilization has displayed so little corruption compared to everywhere else. The Reformation serves to explain why the post-Reformation countries show even less corruption than the rest of Christendom. But we are now in a post-Christian era and corruption in the West seems to be returning toward the historical norm, another restraint on progress. Politicians, even the American President, lie regularly and grow rich in office. Policies reflect money and power, seldom the public good; that concept is little discussed now.
Our species appears still unable to govern itself for very long; nearly the entire world’s economies are unsustainable under political mismanagement. Recovery that is not propaganda seems a very long way off, with much trouble to pass through before it can even begin. The economic trend seems down and the productive rules provided heretofore by Christianity, vanishing. Where is progress in that? Following the Christianity to the exit, their vacated spaces being taken over by corruption. Where is Pollyanna, when we need her?