Thursday, January 05, 2006

Anglo-Saxon Hegemony

In an article in The National Interest, Lawrence Mead takes a swing at explaining why countries dervived from Anglo-Saxon migrations (Great Britain's former colonies: the US, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, etc.) remain at the forefront of global military and economic leadership. The focus of Mead's explanation for this self-evident phenomena are ideas. Specifically, the economic and cultural ideas on which Anglo-Saxons built their societies.

But why are the Anglos so rich? Principally because they are comfortable with capitalism. A special propensity to "truck, barter and exchange" appeared in England even in medieval times. The English became rich by developing a larger and freer internal market than rival countries. They also had an aristocracy more open to enterprise than continental rivals, and other entrepreneurs arose outside the landed elite. Due to these assets, the Industrial Revolution appeared first in Britain. The resulting wealth largely explains Britain's hegemony during the 19th century. It took Britain's European rivals most of a century to catch it.

The United States, lacking any premodern social order, built its culture and institutions even more fully around the market economy. And where Britain was an island, the United States was a continent. The American combination of confident capitalism with massive scale is equaled nowhere else. So the United States became a powerhouse of wealth and innovation with which it seems no other country can compete.

In recent decades, it did seem that Anglo economies were losing ground to eager rivals in Europe or Asia, pre-eminently Japan. But over the last quarter-century, the Anglos have trimmed taxes and subsidies, deregulated markets, curbed trade unions, cut welfare benefits and exposed their private sectors to ruthless restructuring. The end result is that the United States remains the world's richest country, while the British have the most dynamic large economy in Europe. At the end of the 20th century, the five Anglo countries led the world in overall economic policy. Not by accident, they also rank high in military expenditure.

Of course, capitalism works pretty well even for non-Anglos, though not necessarily all non-Anglos. For instance, Hong Kong, Singapore, Japan, Korea and China are not "Anglo" cultures, yet they have proven remarkably adept at integrating and profiting from capitalism. True, Hong Kong benefited from British colonization - which imparted the British cultural tradition; and Japan was occupied and its legal system resculpted by the US. However, China and Korea have managed to adopt capitalism more or less on their own terms (the former even after specifically rejecting it for decades). So how have they succeeded where others failed? Is there some cultural element inherent in those societes which makes their embrace of capitalism easier?

Mead notes that a crucial aspect of Anglo capitalism is the rule of law:

The success of the market in Anglo countries did not occur in a vacuum. It reflects good governance. As early as the twelfth century, independent royal courts gained authority over all of England. The rule of law protected property and contract against force and fraud, and that was critical to the country's early economic dynamism. A broader tradition developed that government should be impartial. It should publicly explain its policies, and functionaries should be honest.

Impartial governance worked over time to liberate enterprise. The medieval economy, in Britain as elsewhere, was riddled with monopolies, guilds and other restrictions. But over the centuries these came to be seen as corrupt. In a regime where policies had to be explained, special privileges could not ultimately be justified. So mercantilism was ended, monopolies abolished and financial markets developed. Adam Smith proved the superiority of the free market, and in the 19th century Britain became the first country to adopt free trade.

The British passed the rule of law, like capitalism, on to their colonies, and it was the most precious of their gifts. In America, political and economic competition can look like a free-for-all, but it is undergirded by a formidable legal order. Enterprise is free yet regulated to limit collusion and other abuses. Most people pay their taxes and obey the law. A civic ethos suffuses the regime. Abuses and corruption occur, but they are exposed and redressed, as in the recent Enron scandal. American judges and juries are not for sale, which is why drug kingpins fear extradition to the United States. Equal opportunity, based on an elaborate education system, is generous. The whole system rests on a commitment to public impartiality that America imbibed, like mother's milk, from its British forebears.

Highly developed civil ethos and legal systems existed in China and Korea long before their contact with the West. Cultures that are predisposed to notions of the rule of law will be significantly more successful than those lacking that predisposition. This, Mead argues, may explain why most Third World nations cannot successfully govern themselves, and why they cannot transition to a capitalist economy.

In the Third World, in contrast, lack of the rule of law is a worse hindrance to development than any economic problem. Regimes are systematically corrupt. While nearly all economies today are formally capitalist, few are fully competitive. Officials often shield favored firms from answering to the law or the consumer. Without an ethos of impartiality, democratization achieves little. Elections merely change which politicians have their feet in the trough.

Mead is correct to insist that - as a prominent philosopher was fond of pointing out - ideas have consequences. Societies founded on successful ideas will succeed, whilst those founded on less successful (or downright wrong) ideas will flounder and fail. But ideas alone cannot explain the success of the Anglosphere. Nor do\ cultural predispositions completely explain why some non-Anglo cultures can successfully implement those ideas, while others cannot. Mead avoids any Jared Diamond-style linking of geography and climate to Anglo-Saxon success (though most Anglo-Saxon descended nations do seem to inhabit the same general climatic zones and feature generally similar geographies), and he steers clear of any biological explanation. But is it any coincidence that the but economic success of entire nations is always positively correlated with average national IQ? Or that the only significant economic challenge (and possibly a future military challenge) to Anglo dominance comes from the high-IQ nations of Asia? Of course, IQ remains the topic still barely able to speak its name in polite discourse, much less academia.

Wednesday, January 04, 2006

The Face of Islamism

In Afghanistan, where Islamist extremists continue their campaign to return the country to the seventh century, Taliban "insurgents" have beheaded Malim Abdul Habib in front of his wife and family. What crime did Mr. Habib commit? The worst one of all: he tried to teach girls how to read and write.

Hundreds of thousands of girls have returned to school since U.S.-led forces ousted the Taliban in 2001.

A UNICEF spokesman said the attacks were "incredibly worrying."

"Militants are clearly trying to intimidate communities and force families not to send their girls to school," Edward Carwardine said. "We hope these incidents will not deter families. ... Fortunately, so far we have not seen a decline in girls attending."

He said about 90 percent of Afghan adults are believed to support educating girls. Many of those who oppose it are in conservative rural areas dominated by ethnic Pashtun where the Taliban — who also are Pashtun — are most powerful.

The government condemned the killing. Masood Khalili, the Afghan ambassador to Turkey, where President Hamid Karzai was visiting, said it was "disgusting action by the enemies of Afghanistan."

Esanullah said Habib resumed a more than 20-year teaching career two years ago after the Taliban threatened him while he was working for an aid group helping the disabled. Since then, the Taliban had warned him twice to stop teaching.

Educating women would raise their status in society and might make them more apt to challenge the men who dominate them. The Taliban cannot tolerate such an idea.

In the past year, Taliban insurgents have occasionally put up posters around Qalat demanding girls' schools be closed and threatening to kill teachers, Khushal said.

He said 100 of the province's 170 registered schools have been closed in the past two to three years because of poor security. Of the 35,000 students attending schools in Zabul, 2,700 were girls, he said.

There has been a series of attacks on girls' schools and teachers across Afghanistan since the Taliban regime fell. In October, gunmen killed a headmaster in front of his students at a boys' school in southern Kandahar province, the former stronghold of the Taliban regime.

Tuesday, January 03, 2006

Organic Sin?

In today's (Scotland) Herald, Joe Fattorini makes some unassailable points regarding the current embrace of "organic food" by upwardly mobile elites and lefty hippies. Simply put, while the "organic" ideal may appeal to the desire for moral superiority among they quasi-liberal trendy, it would result in genocide were it practiced universally.

When it comes to basic needs such as food, the most important development of the last century has been the creation of nitrogen fertilisers. By replacing the nitrogen lost when a crop is harvested you can continue to plant the same plot of land each year without losing productivity. This means the same area of land produces anything up to double the quantity of food.

It's certainly true that nitrogen fertilisers aren't without their problems. Nitrates in water and the eutrophication of lakes are both significant problems. But let's just imagine what would happen without them. Let's farm the current 1.5 billion hectares of farmland organically. A rough estimate suggests that we could sustain a global population of around 2.4 billion. Do you want to be responsible for telling 3.6 billion people that there's no food because you don't like "synthetic" fertilisers? You're not telling them that nitrogen fertilisers are actually that bad for them or anything. Just that you want a more "natural" diet. More in touch with nature. Well, they'll be in touch with nature all right. Under about six feet of it.

Perhaps I'm being too harsh. Let's assume that we can increase the land we farm on. That's not without its problems. This year we are set to destroy some 25,000 sq km of Brazilian rainforest, but that will have to increase dramatically. And forget western luxuries such as national parks, or indeed, parks. Even if we managed to double the world's farmland and maintained productivity in increasingly marginal areas (like the Cairngorms), we're still short. That's still 200 million dead people. Just because the Soil Association tells us that synthetic fertilisers are wrong.

Mr. Fattorini is unfazed by the argument that "organic" farming is simply a niche movement that can cause no harm. Even if it is restricted to just smug Western elite consumers, he argues, it does damage by consuming land that might otherwise be more profitably used.

At the very least, in a country like ours that produces excess food, organic farming robs land that might otherwise be used to promote bio-diversity. That's because organic fields need to be left fallow, growing leguminous crops or livestock whose faeces can be used to return nitrogen to the soil. Yes, you read that correctly. The inefficiencies of organic land use make it less environmentally friendly than conventional farming whose efficiencies mean we can return land to nature. But there's a more sinister perspective. In our lifetime we'll see global population top 10 billion. We're lucky it won't be more.

That alone means finding 35% more calories to feed the world. On decreasingly fertile land. But if we are self-indulgently to insist that we are so important that we should be fed organically, with its yields some 20% to 50% lower, that can only put an additional, unnecessary strain on feeding the planet. Every organic mouthful makes it more difficult to feed the most vulnerable. As the distinguished Indian plant biologist CS Prakash put it: "The only thing sustainable about organic farming in the developing world is that it sustains poverty and malnutrition."

In the final analysis, Mr. Fattorini says, organic food is wasteful, immoral, and dangerous. It's popularity is more a matter of faith than science.

I can see a few hackles rising at the suggestion that organic food is a "middle-class indulgence". And you're right. It's more a brand, or perhaps a religion. "Organic" sits up there with McDonald's, Microsoft, Starbucks, Tesco, Shell and Lucky Strike as one of the great brands of the twentieth century. A delicious study asked people their views on "carbon-based farming technology" that produced food with no demonstrable health or environmental benefits, and was sold at a premium to the public. By replacing the word "organic" it seems the public's passion for this bourgeois fad waned.

As for a religion: well, perhaps I'm being naughty. But Patrick Holden of the Soil Association has insisted that you can't test the benefits of organic farming scientifically because organic farming is "holistic, integrated and [represents] joined-up thinking". Apparently, "holistic science strays into territory where the current tools of understanding that are available to the scientific community are not sufficiently well developed to measure what's going on".
Many people defend religious faith in exactly the same way. It seems if the benefits of organic farming appear as non-existent as the Emperor's New Clothes, we're just not looking hard enough. In a wonderfully circular argument, the fact we can't find evidence of the benefits of organic farming is merely evidence of the shortcomings of science. And presumably will remain so until we can see benefits, even if that never comes to pass.

One can only imagine the sort of self-righteously indignant mail about to shower The Herald's offices and email accounts.