Blogs > Liberty and Power > L&S: Markets and Modernity

Jul 14, 2005 8:41 pm


L&S: Markets and Modernity



This morning's first talk is Steve Davies on "Are We Still Living in Western Civilization?" And what he means by that is that we have shifted to a more global/modern civilization from a distinctly western one. He argues that our modern civilization first appeared in the west, but is not really that "western" and is becoming less and less "western" as time progresses. The key differences between the "west" and "modernity" include:

* the transformation of family life (from being a political/economic unit to an emotional one)
* the shift from a "Christian civilization" to a civilization with a lot of Christians in it
* the shift from agriculture to industry

This lecture nicely brings together a number of themes from Steve's previous lectures as well as ones by the other faculty here.

Steve is wrapping up with some of the implications for our current global situation. Right now, he's addressing the sort of conservative critique of modernity (money is icky, there are no chances for true "heroism", etc.). This resistance to modernity also characterizes fundamentalist Islam, and Steve has just sketched the connection between the historian Werner Sombart (one of those opponents of modernity) and that Islamic tradition.

He's now nicely pointing out that "modernity" does not equal "the west." Or better yet, "modernization" does not equal "westernization." Having said that, he notes that there are elements that are necessary to modernity, while others may be optional. Specifically, any attempt at modernization must include these three elements:

* rule of law
* personal liberty
* critical rationalism

This is, to me, a crucial point. As we talk about the "spread of western ideas" and as libertarians talk about a desire to see other parts of the world enjoy the freedoms we aspire to in the US and elsewhere, we need to walk a careful line in distinguishing the sine qua nons of a free society from those elements that can vary. It is when libertarians come across as trying to make every other society look just like the west (even when not through military force!) that we might find our message falling on deaf ears. If we can find ways to clarify what is needed and to also encourage local/indigenous variations on those themes, I think our ideas will be more successful.

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Tom G Palmer - 7/15/2005

Not that others aren't...but Steve is a brilliant teacher and public speaker.

There is a deep sense that people in western civilization were relatively early to discover the idea of individuality. The theme was articulated by Henry Sumner Maine in Ancient Law: the liberation of the individual from the all-encompassing family (which he identifies as the result of legal fictions pioneered very early) set in process a movement from a situation where one's relations to others were determined by "status," i.e., by birth, to one in which those relations were determined by contract. That is a process that is underway throughout the world. The upshot is the extension of civil society, a society that rests on what Ernest Gellner called "modular individuals," like IKEA's modular furniture; they can be plugged into a number of complex relations and have the freedom to determine what connetions they will form, rather than being organically connected in inextricable ways with other elements of the greater whole, like the blood vessel is to the surrounding tissue and to the greater respiratory system.

But that's just a long digression. I am eagerly looking forward to Steve's book on the origins or modernity. He's a star.

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