Monday, June 16, 2014

How the West Won

I recently finished Rodney Stark's excellent new book titled How the West Won. Like all his books HWW is history that reads like a novel. He argues in the book that all of the progress we've enjoyed in the world since the medieval period has had it's genesis in the West.

His theory, convincingly defended, to my mind, is that progress only occurred in areas with high levels of personal liberty, low taxation, and strong property rights. To the extent these were absent, as they have been in most parts of the world throughout history, progress died in the crib, as it were. He also argues that the crucial soil for progress was a Judeo-Christian worldview in which the universe was seen as an orderly, law-governed, rational product of a personal God. Where this belief was absent, as it was everywhere but Europe, science and technology, medicine and learning, never developed.

Along the way Stark punctures a host of myths that have become almost axiomatic on the left but which are at complete variance with the historical facts. He makes a strong case for the claim that capitalism and even colonialism have been blessings, that the fall of Rome was one of the single most beneficial events in world history, that the "Dark Ages" never happened, that the crusades were not at all the rapacious ventures by murderous Christians of gentle, pastoral Muslims we've been told they were, that historical climate change had many salubrious effects on Western progress, that there was no scientific "revolution" but rather a continual and accelerating unfolding of scientific discovery that began at least as far back as the 13th century and probably earlier.

I urge anyone interested in history to get a copy. Stark includes a lot that he covered in earlier works, but much of it is new and what isn't new bears repeating anyway.

An example of something that's both myth-busting and new was Stark's discussion of the work of Robert D. Woodberry. Woodberry's research makes it clear that much, if not most, of the progress made around the world is due to the work of Western missionaries who labored a century or more ago.

Here's what Stark writes about the role missionaries played in making life better for millions:
Perhaps the most bizarre of all the charges leveled against Christian missionaries (along with colonialists in general) is that they imposed "modernity" on much of the non-Western world. It has long been the received wisdom among anthropologists and other cultural relativists that by bringing Western technology and learning to "native peoples," the missionaries corrupted their cultures, which were as valid as those of the West....But to embrace the fundamental message of cultural imperialism requires that one be comfortable with such crimes against women as foot-binding, female circumcision, the custom of Sati (which caused women to be burned to death, tied to their husbands' funeral pyres), and the stoning to death of rape victims on the grounds of their adultery.

It also requires one to agree that tyranny is every bit as desirable as democracy, and that slavery should be tolerated if it accords with local customs. Similarly, one must classify high-infant mortality rates, toothlessness in early adulthood, and the castration of young boys as valid parts of local cultures, to be cherished along with illiteracy. For it was especially on these aspects of non-Western cultures that modernity was "imposed," both by missionaries and other colonialists.

Moreover, missionaries undertook many aggressive actions to defend local peoples against undue exploitation by colonial officials. In the mid-1700s, for example, the Jesuits tried to protect the Indians in Latin America from European efforts to enslave them; Portuguese and Spanish colonial officials brutally ejected the Jesuits for interfering. Protestant missionaries frequently became involved in bitter conflicts with commercial and colonial leaders in support of local populations, particularly in India and Africa....

A remarkable new study by Robert D. Woodberry has demonstrated conclusively that Protestant missionaries can take most of the credit for the rise and spread of stable democracies in the non-Western world. That is, the greater the number of Protestant missionaries per ten thousand local population in 1923, the higher the probability that by now a nation has achieved a stable democracy. The missionary effect is far greater than that of fifty other pertinent control variables, including gross domestic product and whether or not a nation was a British colony.

Woodberry not only identified this missionary effect but also gained important insights into why it occurred. Missionaries, he showed, contributed to the rise of stable democracies because they sponsored mass education, local printing and newspapers, and local voluntary organizations, including those having a nationalist and anticolonial orientation.

These results so surprised social scientists that perhaps no study ever has been subjected to such intensive prepublication vetting....

Protestant missionaries did more than advance democracy in non-Western societies. The schools they started even sent some students off to study in Britain and America. It is amazing how many leaders of successful anticolonial movements in British colonies received university degrees in England - among them Mahatma Ghandi and Jawaharlal Nehru of India and Jomo Kenyatta of Kenya....

Less recognized are the lasting benefits of the missionary commitment to medicine and health. American and British Protestant missionaries made incredible investments in medical facilities in non-Western nations. As of 1910 they had established 111 medical schools, more than 1,000 dispensaries, and 576 hospitals. To sustain these massive efforts, the missionaries recruited and trained local doctors and nurses, who soon greatly outnumbered the Western missionaries....

[Woodberry's] study showed that the higher the number of Protestant missionaries per one thousand population in a nation in 1923, the lower that nation's infant mortality rate in 2000 - an effect more than nine times as large as the effect of current GDP per capita. Similarly, the 1923 missionary rate was strongly positively correlated with a nation's life expectancy in 2000.
These missionaries battled every kind of pestilence, hardship, and deprivation. They were often murdered or died from disease, all in an effort to make life better for people living in miserable circumstances, while leftist academics sit in their comfortable, air-conditioned offices, never having made anything better for anyone, blithely and foolishly condemning those who did for being "superstitious" and "cultural imperialists" who imposed their values on idyllic societies that would be better off if left alone.

Some might call these academics intellectually arrogant or even stupid, but if nothing else it's certainly a display of moral blindness.

Woodberry's paper can be read in pdf here.