But apart from the sanitation, the medicine, education, wine, public order, irrigation, roads, the fresh-water system, and public health, what have the Romans ever done for us?
- Reg in Monty Python’s Life of Brian
It’s hip nowadays to proclaim oneself a global citizen, thereby impressing others with one’s espousal of an inclusive, non-judgemental, live-and-let-live philosophy which studiously avoids allegiance to a particular culture. Yet contrary to the nomadic airs they affect, global citizens actually do have preferences when it comes to where they put down roots, or at least stay for longer than the typical sight-seeing holiday. Curiously, they tend to be permanent residents of countries with longstanding traditions of democracy, the rule of law, liberalism and respect for human rights.
I'll be blunt. Citizens of Western (Euro-Anglo-American) countries owe their enviable quality of life to values endemic to Western culture, whether they recognise it or not. From the imperfect democracies of ancient Greece, the legal and political inventions of the Romans, the English Magna Carta, the pan-European Enlightenment, the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, the Constitution of the United States of America, the abolishment of slavery, the extension of universal suffrage to all men and women, through to the feminist and civil rights movements of the last century, the history of Western civilization is, despite frequent shameful setbacks, a dogged progression towards greater freedom, prosperity and well-being for not only its native sons and daughters, but also for foreigners who adopt Western values. Despite postmodern denials of objective truths, the rapid and often enthusiastic embrace of Western traditions by non-Westerners, particularly in law, science, economics and politics, testify to their veracity and efficacy.
When it comes to certain Western moral standards pertaining to civil liberties, there is no doubt about their universal validity. Saying that it’s wrong to jail someone because they criticised their government is about as factual a statement as saying that light travels at 299,792,458 metres per second. If you’re reading this, you’re most likely a member of a liberal, democratic, prosperous society, a beneficiary of freedoms formulated and fought for long ago by Western thinkers, leaders, workers and soldiers. And if you aren’t a member of such a society, I’ll bet that you’d rather be on my side of the Berlin Wall. Or at least you’d wish that conditions on your side were similar to those on mine. Hence the telling observation that throughout the last two-hundred years more people have migrated, defected or simply fled to Western countries than have left them for non-Western ones.
Without denying the merits – and reality – of a multi-polar global order, the West should rightly promote its traditions of humanism, secularism, liberalism and democracy around the world because the evidence strongly indicates that wherever these values are introduced, people flourish. Conversely, countries that lack such Western influences tend to rank low on any reputable well-being index. While the West surely didn’t invent the criteria for human flourishing, Euro-Anglo-American men and women were the first to codify laws and enact policies that actually met the necessary conditions for human happiness, welfare and security.
Anti-Western regimes like China, North Korea, Iran and Russia with their appalling record of human rights abuses, or fundamentalist Islamic societies with their medieval, sexist atrocities, or Venezuela’s Chavezian socialism with its dysfunction and hypocrisy, all represent less-than-appealing alternatives to a culture that has its generous share of critics, denouncers and discontents. Yes, the critics are often right. The West is not perfect, far from it. But in its very own DNA lies the fix to its many flaws. The capacity of the West for self-appraisal and self-correction stems from its cultural reverence for freedom of thought, the accountability of those in power, the rule of law, the separation of religion and state, and the sovereignty of the individual citizen. With human nature being what it is, no other set of values satisfies the natural desires of people as amply as that of Western civilization.
Imagine this: two-thousand years from now, the comedic heirs of Monty Python write a satirical sketch in which a character glibly asks, “What has the West ever done for us?” Let’s hope that the future audience will laugh for the same reason we now laugh at Reg’s remark in Life of Brian; because of its irony.