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 Osama bin Laden insist 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. The British ruled my native country of India for a couple of hundred years. But before the British came, India was invaded and occupied by the Persians, the Mongols, the Turks, the Afghans, and the Arabs. England was the seventh or eighth colonial power to establish itself on Indian soil.
If colonialism is not a Western institution, neither is slavery. Slavery has existed in every known civilization. The Chinese had slavery, and so did ancient India. Slavery was common all over Africa, and American Indians had slavery long before Columbus arrived on this continent.
What is uniquely Western is not slavery but the movement to abolish slavery. There is no history of anti-slavery activism outside of Western civilization. Of course in every society, slaves have strongly resisted being slaves. Runaways and slave revolts occurred frequently in all slave cultures. But only in the West did a movement arise, not of slaves, but of potential slave-owners, to oppose slavery in principle.
The unique Western attitude is captured in Abraham Lincoln's remark, "As I would not be a slave, so I would not be a master." Lincoln understandably didn't want to be a slave, but interestingly, he didn't want to be a master either. He rejected slavery altogether, and he was willing to expend a good deal of treasure and ultimately a great deal of blood to destroy the institution. During the Civil War, hundreds of thousands of white men died to bring freedom to African Americans — a group that was not in a position to secure freedom for itself.
Considering these undisputed facts, how should we think about the issue of reparations? My own view of the subject was rather tersely expressed by Muhammad Ali. 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 granddaddy 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. And 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, but also because the descendants of those who endured servitude and foreign rule are vastly better off than they would have been had their ancestors not endured captivity and European rule. Reluctant though he would be to admit it, Jesse Jackson has a much better life in America than he would have had in, say, Ethiopia or Ghana.
If oppression and exploitation did not make the West rich and powerful, 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" — this 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 — this system 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 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.