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No Clash of Civilizations

To expand Tolstoy’s dictum about families, all happy societies are alike; all troubled societies are different. Affluent people want safety for themselves and their property and freedom. Societies that want goods might profess communism or Islam but in the end come to respect property, ergo individualism, private initiative, practicality instead of idle contemplation, and the freedom to accumulate wealth. To realize freedom, they want responsive governments and opt for democracy.

Sage autocracies of the Singaporean type are great when sages head them and more efficient than democracies. But autocracies are vulnerable to bad rulers who quickly destroy much of what good rulers build and, most important, destroy the unquestioning discipline of people who trust their rulers’ sagacity. Autocracies that do not transform themselves into democracies slide into demagogical tyranny. Only in small homogeneous societies can people agree on what constitutes sagacity; in large countries, different people understand wisdom differently. As differentiation increases with economic development, contradictory interests emerge, and consensual autocracy no longer works. Responsive and responsible democracy adapts to society’s ever-changing needs better than autocracy.

Contempt of authority is not only a bulwark against tyranny but also a benchmark for dissent, as well as an indicator of development in science and business management. Obedient people are not creative.

Reforming societies by force, whether revolutionary, autocratic, or despotic, never works. Lasting benefits cannot be bestowed; they must be earned through slow and painful development. No sage can overcome the inertia of the masses. Peter’s modernizing reforms were mere ripples on the marsh of Russian society; American immigrants accepted the founding fathers’ liberal propositions democratically.

Freedom tilts the balance away from family and societal responsibility, from discipline and hierarchical order, to individualism. Confucian and protestant societies both move from communalism, family, discipline in politics and at work, and thrift toward individualism. Individualism is not a peculiarly Western value, and communalism is not peculiarly Asian. The scales of individualism and communalism are laden with property. As societies move to affluence, people rely less on the communal safety net and survive without the group, which tilts them toward individualism. The scales move slowly, and only a generation of prosperity began to dissolve Japan’s communalism. People, who act predominantly in their own self-interest to acquire wealth, are not communalists. Communalism operates only in simple societies; elsewhere, the interests of various groups are hard to assess, impossible to quantify, and impractical to pursue all together or correlate arbitrarily. Calls for placing society above self often disguise obedience to a state.

Communalism in totalitarian states is not a philosophy but rather a rational response to an individual’s inability to confront others, especially the many associated with government. Oppressive powers squeeze societies into masses. Individualism, on the other pole, is propped by unwillingness to confront others for fear of even minimal repercussions. Few people pursue communalism or individualism on their philosophical merits.

No stable society is perfectly libertarian: too much diversity irritates and freedoms clash. Materialist Western democracies are hostile to communism, Nazism, and religious fundamentalism, which threaten property rights and popular consensus. The hostility becomes prohibition only when a threat gels; normally even detested views remain legal because the public wants free speech and the right to one’s opinion and dissent. Affluent societies possess a large margin of stability and expect efficient, expensive law enforcement to intervene before dissent becomes actionable and dangerous. Societies marginalize hostile opinions and contain them.

Many societies have attempted to pursue non-materialist values and failed in international competition. People are made to live in material world, and no ideology could long compete with the simple attraction of goods. Ideologies and religions that introduce different values run against nature and cover that fact in complexities and euphemisms, all the while accumulating contradictions and ambiguities trying to adjust themselves to real human wants. All the way, teachings become less attractive both to idealists who object to concessions and to pragmatists who oppose unnatural dicta. Teachings become irrelevant to the majority that cannot practice them because people live by action, not contemplation. “Truth is that which works,” and people discount unworkable doctrines.

While developed societies share the desire for freedom from personal and material repression, undeveloped societies have little in common, and superficial differences in religion or ethnicity become significant in developing group attachments and identifying enemies.

Civilizations are not about religion. Most people are practical atheists or know and follow—now as before—their religions superficially. Sectarians often hate members of other sects more than followers of other religions, yet sectarians generally belong to the same civilization.

Separation of church and state does not significantly shape civilizations. Theocratic Jews respect freedom and property. Secular Western Christians do likewise, while secular Hindu society does not.

Civilizations are not strictly related to ethnicity. Blacks are slowly assimilated into American Western civilization. Rather civilizations are about the core values: freedom, life, property, and a balance between the private and the public. In that sense, twenty-first century consumerist Japan is Westernized, while post-communist Russia, with deep communal and authoritarian sentiment, is not.

Poor societies want group identification Religions convergeBoth no development and rapid development promote interest in religionDeclining giants and rising tigers are dangerousTrust is a matter of predictabilityAmbitions are channelled into politics when economic opportunities are not available