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How the West Grew Rich By: Dinesh D'Souza
FrontPageMagazine.com | Friday, July 02, 2004

The idea that America and the West grew rich through oppression and exploitation is strongly held among many intellectuals and activists.  In the West, the exploitation thesis is invoked, by Jesse Jackson and others, to demand the payment of hundreds of billions of dollars in reparations for slavery and colonialism to African Americans and natives of the Third World.   Islamic extremists like Bin Laden insist that the Muslim world is poor because the West is rich, and they use Western oppression as their pretext for unleashing violence, in the form of terrorism, against American civilians.

Did the West enrich itself at the expense of minorities and the Third World through its distinctive crimes of slavery and colonialism?  This thesis is hard to sustain, because there is nothing distinctively Western about slavery or colonialism.   The West had its empires, but so did the Persians, the Mongols, the Chinese, and the Turks.  Some Western empires like Britain and France grew rich, while others like Spain and Portugal remained poor.  And if colonialism is a universal institution, so is slavery.  Slavery has existed in every known civilization, from China to India to Africa to pre-Columbian America. 


What is uniquely Western is not slavery but the movement to abolish slavery.  Of course in every society, slaves have strongly resisted being slaves.  Runaways and slave revolts occurred frequently in all slave cultures.  But never in history, outside the West, did a movement arise of potential slave-owners to oppose slavery in principle.  Only in the West, and specifically in America, did hundreds of thousands of people expend a good deal of treasure and ultimately a great deal of blood to bring freedom to African Americans—a group that was not in a position to secure freedom for itself.


After defeating George Foreman for the heavyweight title in Zaire, Muhammad Ali returned to the United States where he was asked by a reporter, “Champ, what did you think of Africa?”  Ali replied, “Thank God my grand-daddy got on that boat!”  Ali’s point was that although the institution of slavery was oppressive for the slaves, paradoxically it benefited their descendants because slavery was the transmission belt that brought African Americans into the orbit of Western freedom.  The same is true of colonialism: against the intentions of the European powers, who came mainly to conquer and rule, colonialism proved to be the mechanism by which Western ideas like democracy, self-determination, and unalienable human rights came to the peoples of Asia, Africa, and South America.


These truths cast a new light on the issue of reparations.  Reparations are a bad idea, not only because people living today played no role in the evils of slavery and colonialism, and should not have to pay for other people’s sins, but also because the descendants of those who endured servitude and foreign rule are (much as they hate to admit it) vastly better off than they would have been had their ancestors not endured captivity and European rule.  Jesse Jackson has a much better life in America than he would have had in, say, Ethiopia or Ghana.


If slavery and colonialism did not make the West rich and powerful, however, what did?  The answer is that the West invented three institutions that never existed before: science, democracy, and capitalism.  Each of these institutions is based on a universal human impulse that took on a very specific institutional expression in the history of the West.


First, science.  Of course people everywhere want to learn about the world.  The Chinese recorded the eclipses, the Hindus invented the number zero, the Mayans developed a sophisticated calendar.  But science—which means experimentation, and verification, and a “scientific method” that one writer has termed “the invention of invention”—is a Western institution. 


Just like the impulse to learn, the impulse to barter and trade is universal.  People in every culture exchange goods for mutual benefit.  Money is not a Western invention.  But capitalism—which implies property rights, and courts to enforce them, and free trade, and stock exchanges, and institutions of credit, and double-entry bookkeeping—developed in the West.  Finally tribal participation is universal, but democracy—which requires elections, and peaceful transitions of power, and separation of powers, and checks and balances—is a Western institution.


None of this is to deny that the West, like every other culture, has shown itself to be arrogant and oppressive when it had the chance.  Oppression and exploitation, however, were not the cause of Western success; they were the fruits of that success.  Those who say that America and the West have grown rich at their expense are simply wrong.  The real cause of Western wealth and power is the dynamic interaction of science, capitalism, and democracy.  Working together, these institutions have created our commercial, technological, participatory society. 


Dinesh D’Souza, the Rishwain Scholar at the Hoover Institution, is the author of What’s So Great About America.  Email: thedsouzas@aol.com

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