Introduction to Economics Lesson 12 / 06
ECONOMICS & WESTERN CIVILIZATION
Popular refrains of recent times have
been that “Western Civilization is supreme” or that “Western
Civilization is under attack” or that “Western Civilization is in
decline”. Implicit in
such refrains is that there exists a civilization called Western
that this is so, what then is the role or effect of economics, if any,
in and on Western Civilization.
is a Civilization?
The word civilization is capable of
many interpretations or definitions.
Perhaps the most widely accepted interpretation or definition is
suggested by the etymology of the word itself.
It comes from the Latin ‘civis’ meaning a citizen or resident
of a city. Tribes, races or
peoples might form a society or have a distinctive culture but until
they possess a city or cities they do not form or have a civilization. One does not, for example, speak of a Bushman or Aborigine
Cities having been created,
thereafter, principally as a consequence thereof and arising therefrom,
the society and culture of a tribe, race or people progresses and
develops. This occurs in areas such as law, government, the arts,
science and technology, production, trade or other human activity.
It is this connotation of growth and development, somewhat akin
to a living organism, which is also an element of civilization. A
civilization that ceases to grow and develop dies.
A civilization then is a society or
group of people of common ethnicity or culture, possessed of an urban
environment, and which produces social and cultural development.
Political scientist Samuel
Huntington, a professor at Harvard University, published an influential
book in 1996, expanding on an earlier seminal article relating to the
‘clash if civilizations’ [which thesis need not concern us]. In it, he identified 7, and perhaps 9, major, current
civilizations; Western, Sinic, Japanese, Hindu, Islamic, Orthodox, Latin
American and, possibly, Buddhist and African.
The term, Western Civilization,
originally referred to the societies and culture of western and central
Europe. It was based on a
racial Caucasian commonality and Graeco-Roman and Judeo-Christian
cultural and religious origins. Today
the term is used to embrace a wider geographic area but the precise
applicability of the term is often a matter of debate.
It is generally held, for instance, to include the USA and
Canada, although there are those who would say that there is now a
separate North American civilization.
Similarly, Latin America is also generally included, but there
again are those who argue that it forms a separate discrete
civilization. Australia and
New Zealand are considered to be a part, as are sometimes eastern
Europe, Cyprus and Israel, and even South Africa and Turkey.
Since we have defined a civilization
as a group of people, the society and culture of which is continually
evolving and growing, the distinctive features of a civilization can be
difficult to determine and are often matters of considerable debate.
Western Civilization has exhibited over the centuries considerable
significant changes in its social structures and customs, its art, music
and literature, its religion and ethical values and its science and
technology. Slavery and
feudalism have come and gone, the status and role of women in society
has undergone significant change as has the concept of marriage,
Christianity has split into Catholics and Protestants, democracy has
replaced absolute monarchy, science and technology have been
revolutionised and the attitude towards bankers, businessmen,
industrialists and traders has changed significantly.
What then, if any, are the
fundamental characteristics of Western Civilization. Needless to say these are matters of considerable debate.
Nevertheless it is possible to distinguish a number of generally
accepted fundamental characteristics, some of which are as follows;
The primacy of individual freedom and
A belief in the role and rule of law
The embracing of reason and
scientific method and the pursuit of knowledge
A willingness to explore and combat
nature rather than accept and submit to it.
A view that life is to be enjoyed and
for as long as possible, and can be enhanced by material possessions,
increased consumption and external stimuli rather than an emphasis on
inner peace and the after-life.
An economic system that provides for
and is consistent with the above fundamental characteristics.
Cities, which were dependent on the
production of sufficient food to enable a surplus to be traded, were
both a manifestation and a cause of an ever-increasing cooperation and
division of labour [or speciaization].
This, in turn, resulted in greatly increased production of goods
and services, which were then available for trade.
Money was traditionally first coined
in Lydia, a part of modern Turkey, but its use was taken up and
developed by the Greeks. As a medium of exchange, it played a fundamental role in the
increase in trade. Its role
in allowing the setting of prices also enabled economic calculation to
occur, which lead to increased efficiency and to the creation and
accumulation of wealth.
Arguably, what eventually
distinguished Western Civilization, and transformed science and
technology from the interest and pursuit of a few geniuses such as
Archimedes and da Vinci to the driving force of production, invention
and rising widespread material living standards that it became, was the
free market [or capitalist] economic system which prevailed, and which
enabled the increased wealth to be harnessed to achieve such desired