Why the West Went Ahead of the Rest


What makes societies poor and what makes them rich? What makes a certain society accumulate wealth, create complex social relationships and productive institutions, minimize conflicts, and build a creative, happy population? On the other hand, what makes a society either fail to produce a surplus or quickly dissipate it or misuse it for self-destructive purposes, leaving the populace in chronic conflict and wretchedness?

For reasons unfathomable to an external, rational observer, many societies that could develop in a healthy way never really do, continuing instead to wallow in sadistic lose-lose paradigms of existence. The observer may keep saying that all such a society needs is a few minor institutional adjustments — in education, law, democracy, free-market economics, or property rights — and it will be on a rapid upward path. To his dismay, this proves impossible. If the expected institutional adjustments are made, the situation often gets worse and, ironically, the people’s predicament becomes even more institutionalized.

Considering the various reasons why European civilization went so far ahead of the rest is perhaps the best way to isolate the ingredients that make for a successful civilization. This isn’t, however, an easy task.

Guns, germs, steel, and six killer applications

In Guns, Germs & Steel: The Fates of Human Societies, Jared Diamond says that environmental differences — not intellectual, moral, or genetic ones — created certain opportunities and necessities for social evolution that led to the superiority of the West. Westerners were early in settling down to an agrarian economy, perhaps because they had more access than other peoples to suitable plants and animals. Agriculture created food surpluses, freeing some people for activities other than mere sustenance. Specialization allowed them to build different competencies — guns, steel, and tools — thus amplifying positive feedback loops. The large Eurasian landmass allowed them to exchange innovations. Access to better domesticated animals gave Westerners advantages in farming, and then in warfare and transportation. The close proximity of humans and animals gradually increased humans’ resistance to germs, giving them huge unexpected advantages in overseas adventures. By themselves, these are small matters, but over centuries, compounding with positive feedbacks, they put the West well ahead of the rest. That is Diamond’s argument.

Many societies that could develop in a healthy way never really do, continuing instead to wallow in sadistic lose-lose paradigms of existence.

Taking a different perspective — and not necessarily contradicting Diamond — another author, Niall Ferguson, in his book Civilization: The West and the Rest, argues that beginning in the 15th century, a few small parts of the western end of Europe developed six powerful new concepts or what he calls “killer applications”: competition, science, the rule of law, modern medicine, consumerism, and the work ethic. These “applications” allowed western Europe to surge past all competitors in the East. According to Ferguson, economic competition and political fragmentation fostered capitalism and innovation, both between and within states. Property-owning democracy gave landowners a voice in government. Modern medicine cured diseases and prolonged lives. An industrial revolution, supported by a work ethic and a savings ethic, provided mass-produced goods and sustained innovations. Together, the “killer applications” made the West the preeminent civilization. The contrast between the West and the Rest is evident in many historical examples. While, for instance, Prussia separated church and state and encouraged education based on scientific enquiry, creating a predilection for open enquiry and a scientific attitude, immediately to the east of Prussia religious laws forbade the study of science.

Diamond identifies a plausible, geographical cause of the greatness of the West, while Ferguson makes no attempt to show why the killer applications originated and sustained themselves in that part of the world and not others. But let us move forward in history. All the ingredients that the two authors mention — guns, steel, and the killer applications — have been available to the rest of the world for at least the past two centuries. Given increasingly easier movement and transportation, environmental limitations of the weaker societies should not have been too material. So why did the others fail? Why are so many societies still stuck in low and middle income traps? Japan is the rare large non-Western society that has broken the income trap, but even there cultural oppression is still the norm. Why has even the West started to falter?

I believe that the two authors, despite being mostly correct at certain levels, have not found the root cause of what made the West great. Ferguson does not even make the attempt. Diamond tries, but was likely blocked by political correctness, for he seems disinclined to explore moral or intellectual differences. As a result, he takes an exclusively materialist position. The Eurasian landmass is vast, and many different societies developed within it, with very different levels of sophistication. In what looks like post facto rationalization, Diamond fails to confront what would have been environmental opportunities for non-Western societies — warmer weather, for example — if they had been adequately exploited, as they have not been in many countries in the Middle East and Africa. One might even counterargue that it is hardships and lack of resources that are the true impetus behind the development of our characters, and hence of a better civilization.

Of course, my interest is not to criticize societies as such, but to look for the magic potion some have missed.

Steel and the killer applications: they didn’t work in the Rest

In Congo, Rwanda, and Sierra Leone machetes (remember, “steel”) have been used to kill millions of people. Similar is the case of Soviet Russia, and Cambodia, where as much as 25% of the population was butchered efficiently, by the use of guns. In Mao’s China, love for steel was the jumping-off place for the Great Leap Forward, which led to a famine that killed perhaps 50 million people, destroying capital built up over centuries.

It may even be hardships and lack of resources that are the true impetus behind the development of our characters, and hence of a better civilization.

Having fecklessly copied Western forms of governments, these people competed fiercely for political power, routinely expunging their opponents or sending them off to gulags. Later, when the Russian state officially reduced its influence in the economy, what people got were oligopolies. The state gave way, but the free market failed to assert itself. Contrary to popular belief in the West, backward societies have enthusiastically adopted Western legal and educational systems, as well as democracy. But this has usually provided a mere facade of sophistication imposed on tribal instincts and a strong belief in might-as-right.

In India, technology — operating through the internet — has been very effectively used to increase a belief in magic and fairies. When I was growing up, we were shy about discussing astrology and in admitting that we followed a ritualistic religion. Today, revisionism has been so outrageous that a large section of Indian society, particularly the so-called educated class, believes that India had spaceships and ultra-high technology thousands of years ago. Last year, one of the headlines in India’s national media was about the archeological department digging up an area to look for buried gold. What made anyone believe that gold might be lurking underneath? A god-man had a dream in which a king told him where the gold was. Somewhere in the minds of Indians there is an omnipresent deity, a faith so fixed and overpowering that it sets a certain way of thinking and looking at life, pre-empting other possibilities.

Poor societies often have very high levels of consumerism. Just visit the high-growth parts of Africa and Asia. Macau is now a much bigger sin city than Las Vegas. The majority of this world’s luxury goods are consumed by people from poor societies. In large parts of Africa and Asia, people prefer to buy expensive cars and Louis Vuitton bags, at the cost of sharing a room with several others. If you have been to Johannesburg, it is unlikely you were not awed by the number of very expensive cars on the streets.

Quests for truth and spirituality have no place in an ecosystem that does not respect the individual.

So, why have guns and steel and the killer applications not achieved the intended results in non-Western societies? Why have simple implementations of the free-market system not worked as they are supposed to work? Why has the system so often mutated into something completely opposite, something very corrupt? One might even suggest that enforcement of the killer applications has incapacitated the Rest from developing from within something extremely crucial, without which the applications don’t work and often become corrupted.

What did Diamond and Ferguson miss?

The magic potion

The groundwork for Western greatness was laid more than two millennia ago. Seed takes time to germinate, but that does not mean it isn’t doing its work. Seemingly dormant in its effectiveness until the 15th century, the Western seed eventually asserted itself and gained momentum in mainstream society. And the meme in its subtle ways influenced, lubricated, and enabled an explosion of creativity, an accumulation of surplus, an intricate division of labor, a philosophy of individual rights, a reduction in the exploitation of human beings, and an increase in adventurous risk-taking, all working in sync and with increasing social cohesion.

Recently in India I witnessed people negotiating for a young girl’s labor without her participation. The girl had absolutely no concept of her personal identity and hence none about her “rights.” She did not even have to give herself to her predicament; she didn’t know better any better. Today, as I write this, a teenage Jain girl is being driven around the city. She is throwing away money on the streets, which will be picked up by passersby, poor and rich. As an entry to the priesthood, this symbolises her renunciation of material life. Alas, she will have done this without really understanding the shallowness of temptations, ironically making her forever needing to fight against them. Much younger girls have been pushed into priesthood among the Jain, with virtually no possibility of an exit. A few years back one died after 45 days of continual fasting — she was not allowed to pull back from a pledge of a 100-day fast.

Quests for truth and spirituality have no place in an ecosystem that does not respect the individual. The individual becomes the sacrificial goat. No growth, no capacity to wonder, no possibility to image the infinite is possible where the individual lacks sanctity. Individualism does surface, but in very hypocritical ways.

Those who have not seen themselves as individuals must endure lives based on beliefs and faith, immune and virtually blind to reason and evidence.

The magic potion that made the West great, the intellectual “application” that underpins everything else, is the recognition of the sanctity of the individual, and the means by which that understanding has seeped into all the nooks and corners of the West society — its philosophy, its governance, and its social structure. This was the seed that grew and made the West great. This is something that societies outside the West never had.

Reverence for individuality leads to reverence for reason. The person who comes to respect himself as an individual allows himself his own thoughts, feelings, and intelligence. Those who have not seen themselves as individuals must endure lives based on beliefs and faith, immune and virtually blind to reason and evidence.

Ideas have power. They set our limitations, our imaginations, and our visions. The concept of the individual set the West on a totally different path, a path that led toward Diamond’s guns and steel and Ferguson’s killer applications.

Without respect for reason (which cannot happen without the individual), killer applications can only be accepted on faith and belief, further complicating tribal instincts and confusing society even more, making people more irrational by burdening them with more beliefs. Only the rational individual has the capacity for moral behavior, for self-responsibility. If he sees himself as a part of a collective, he rationalizes his “immoral” behavior as something that works for the greater good. He then has no reason for self-reflection. He even lacks a true sense of wonder and mystery. And he has no balance. In such a case, killer applications cannot work in sync, except by default, and then only for a short period.

Training people to aspire for the highest might be similar in its immediate outcome to training them to sacrifice themselves for the larger good. But there is morality in the former. The latter crushes them or makes them hypocritical. The culture of discussion, of real discourse about ideas and philosophy, is alien to most societies outside the West. But knowledge and wisdom do not accumulate in either a person or a society that lacks this culture. Over centuries the net effect has been enormous.

People who have grown up recognizing others as individuals, as entities with their own wishes, inclinations, and free will, may have a problem understanding the possibility of anything else. But this recognition has been by far the biggest achievement of the West, something that most of the world is still grappling with. For those indoctrinated in other ways, there is so much adverse mental superstructure, so many invested emotions and unconscious motives, that getting to the recognition of the individual is an immensely difficult and challenging, almost impossible, job. I have spent decades painfully unburdening myself from the conditioning that many Western children are never really burdened with. Indeed I envy them.

But did the West not trade in slaves, colonize the rest of the world, and give minimal rights to the women in its own societies? Of course it did. But it is always a mistake to judge people of the past on the basis of what we know better. However gross and crude recognition of the individual was two millennia back, it was a path-breaking achievement. Alas, having failed to conceptualize the sanctity of the individual, billions around the world today still live no better lives than those of animals.

Individuality: the East did not get it; the West is losing it

The West’s chosen religion centered on a man born in a normal family, not among the kings. Perhaps Greek and Roman philosophy created an environment of rationality conducive to the emergence of Christ. The New Testament emphasised the idea of the individual. Its subliminal message is for the individual to take responsibility and grow. The emphasis in regard to salvation is on the individual, not the community. The locus of morality is the individual, not the society using the individual as a sacrificial goat.

One might argue that the concept of the individual came as a result of Protestant Christianity. Or perhaps Thomas Aquinas was the reason. But my view is that these were visible signs of the germination of a path-breaking idea. The idea of the sanctity of the individual had taken firm roots in the West long before the Reformation started.

The Renaissance, the Enlightenment, and the scientific revolution never really happened outside the West; and without a respect for the individual, and hence without a concept of reason, deeply embedded in a culture, the killer applications may be copied but are not understood and do not stick. They often mutate into something completely different and are used in very corrupt ways.

Islamic madrasas have a bad name for indoctrinating children. But this happens in most of the East, all the way to Japan. Children are destroyed from very early on. Through consistent humiliation, the force-feeding of facts, and various other means, their individuality is prevented from coming to the surface. Enforcing killer applications on such cultures merely burdens them with more beliefs and faiths, exhausting them emotionally and psychologically even more. No wonder suicide rates are so high in Japan and South Korea.

The grand vision of life and humanity is being replaced by hedonism and peer pressure, for that is all that collectivists see.

This way of doing things cannot change until the societies of the East adopt the primacy and sanctity of the individual. Again, to a distant observer this may look easy, but there is a massive superstructure of beliefs and faith that must fall apart before individualism can be inculcated. Resistance within society and even within the individual will be huge. And before this, people will need to recognize the very concept of individualism. That is truly the biggest acquisition a society can make — seemingly easy for an outsider, but extraordinarily difficult for those who suffer from the lack of it. Centuries may be required for a society to develop an individualist culture.

The West’s emergence was no simple task. But now the West is retracing its steps.

Like termites, cultural-Marxist values have been eating the West from within. For several generations they have been changing the nature of Western civilization by slowly but insidiously discouraging self-responsibility and the concept of the individual. The grand vision of life and humanity is being replaced by hedonism and peer pressure, for that is all that collectivists see. For these constrained minds, the ultimate utopia is a society in which everyone looks and behaves the same. Women see themselves as liberated only if they participate in the rat-race to break the so-called corporate glass ceiling, often contrary to their true desires or instincts. Lacking touch with their inner selves, they copy what others do, including sending their children to industrial daycares, to inculcate the ways of the collective. They exist in a trance. Ironically, with their own individuality destroyed, people then look for satisfaction through external sources and their chosen celebrities. Increasingly it is the vulgar elements — the Miley Cyruses and Kim Kardashians — that are chosen. This is no surprise. How can you see quality if you don’t have it within you? And you cannot have quality if there is no “you.” The suffocated voice of one’s individuality then asserts itself in corrupt ways through mindless materialism, a craving for power, and vicarious living. The six killer applications malfunction, the way they have in the East.

It doesn’t take a leap of faith to understand why, despite globalization and free trade, the East has mostly imported the vulgar, collectivist elements of the West. What is lacking is the magic potion — the sanctity of the individual.

rsquo;t doing its work. Seemingly dormant in its effectiveness until the 15th century, the Western seed eventually asserted itself and gained momentum in mainstream society. And the meme in its subtle ways influenced, lubricated, and enabled an explosion of creativity, an accumulation of surplus, an intricate division of labor, a philosophy of individual rights, a reduction in the exploitation of human beings, and an increase in adventurous risk-taking, all working in sync and with increasing social cohesion.

Share This


Scott Robinson

Dear Jayant Bandhari,

Very nice article. I initially was looking for some reason outside of myself for the answer. The title of the article is misleading itself. "The West" harkens to the collective, the us. Individualism is a very interesting answer. I think of it as similar to why free market, capitalism, works to elevate the status of the "common" man but socialism typically results in an impoverished mass that can't (not allowed) that care of themselves. Like the old saying, "You can lead a horse to water, but you can't make him drink." Even though the "higher powers" of the ruling class take care of the masses by providing them with the resources they need for success, the masses don't necessarily use them. I think a large reason for this is that the masses are disempowered by their higher powers and, to give them an excuse, they don't take care of their own needs.
This leads to the best, I think essential factor of individuallity leading to success; Responsibility. The success of individuality and free markets is that people take care of themselves. Your best ally (maybe your only, if you look back at the horse saying) is yourself. Perhaps this reflects what I've noticed about true charity versus government welfare. True charity is love and may or may not be appreciated by the recipient. Government welfare is armed robbery and may or may not be appreciated by the recipient, but is likely to be construed as a right or entitlement without the benefit of morality to the giver, and more likely the bitterness, anger, vicitmhood of the robbed ("giver"). The end result does not substitute for how you get there.

Well Written,

Bud Wood

Each of us is free to do what we want to do, but in the context of "your freedom ends where my nose starts".


The means and the lack of morality to kill and steal from other (typically brown) societies + greed.


Emperors were not only Western, for instance Russian, Mongol, Ottoman empires, but they did not get rich like the West.

And we have some Western countries who never had colonies ... So you should change your view.


Excellent article and analysis but like all analysis it presents merely a slice of the whole, it can never be otherwise. But here are a few more slices;
With all due respect to previous comments re. the origin of the flowering of the seed representing the elevation of the individual, it probably came before the Torah.

It is inherent in the dynamic of the most basic human unit. The family as primordial stand in for society gives birth to the individual and the struggle between self and collective begins at birth.

Infants while powerless have needs wants and desires to which the family responds. It is the way in which a particular family responds to this new human creation that either allows or stunts the drive for individuation. Along every developmental step this new individual is shaped by the beliefs, values and personalities of the family that surrounds her, all within a tribe, community, or society expressing a unique culture bound in time and place.

Fred Mora

I always thought that Diamond didn't get it right, but I didn't manage to isolate individualism as the moving principle that he missed. Thank you for this article.

Luther Jett

This is an excellent article -- Thank you for stating the case for individualism so succinctly.

The only quibble I have is your assertion that the idea of the sanctity of the individual is rooted in the Christian New Testament. It goes back further. Jesus was a good Jewish boy, and his teachings were grounded in the Torah and Jewish ethical teaching. See Leviticus, Chapter19, as one small example -- "You shall not steal; you shall not deal deceitfully or falsely with one another ... You shall not defraud your fellow ... do not favor the poor or show deference to the rich ...the stranger who resides with you shall be as one of your citizens, you shall love him as yourself, for you were stranger in the land of Egypt ...."

Here is rule of law, but moreover, here are the moral and ethical seeds on which the idea of the sanctity of the individual is based. The West can trace its evolution back to the oral traditions of a group of nomadic wanderers who would up settling in the Judean Hills.

Todd Lewis

The explosion of wealth in the west was temporally coincident with the advent of colonialism, and the Victorian Era was the high point of both that increase and western control and exploitation of natural resources and labor outside of the west, a pattern which continues to the present day. How relevant is that history to yours?

© Copyright 2016 Liberty Foundation. All rights reserved.

Opinions expressed in Liberty are those of the authors and not necessarily those of the Liberty Foundation.

All letters to the editor are assumed to be for publication unless otherwise indicated.