Sunday, April 09, 2006

Amartya Sen on the West and Democracy

Reformist Muslim, on Picked Politics, links to an article by Amartya Sen written for the Wall Street Journal in which the economist attacks the notion that democracy is "owned" by the West and innapropriate for those from other cultures. He does this in two ways: First, by questioning the legitimacy of Europe and the modern West as a successor to the Greek democratic pioneers. Second, by noting that concepts such as religious and academic freedom have been followed in other cultures including those now seen, in some quarters, as inimical to democracy. He concludes that cultures are not and should not be overly restrictive of the futures of their constitutents.

His second line of argument is most welcome. All those engaged in the struggle for or against the advance of liberalism in the Islamic world should be aware that they are not entirely trying to create something new. The contribution to mathematics and literature of the old Muslim nations was the creation of cultures open to new ideas and people. Those who attack the advance of liberalism should know that they are attacking the basis of some of the proudest moments of their own culture's history as well. Those in favour of reform should be heartened that their task cannot be impossible.

Equally, his conclusions are intellectually important. As an economic historian I study in a discipline which has seen culture used to explain far too many phenomena and it is, unfortunately, often the mark of a poor understanding of the conditions that individuals are facing. When Africans are faced with a lack of property rights which leaves them unable to trade beyond immediate communities or be sure that the fruits of their labour will not be arbritrarily confiscated there is no need to explain a lack of entrepreneurial activity through resort to their "culture". Explaining the behaviour of nations or people through culture is toxic to any programme of improvement and usually fails Occam's razor.

However, I do have to take issue with his first line of argument. His argument that the West of the Greeks has no special connection to the modern West requires a twisting of history. While the Greeks may have had little to do with the Goths a line can be traced, with major overlapping institutions, from the Greeks to the Romans through the Church to the present day West. This is a civilisation which, while it has seen good and bad times, has always conceived of itself as distinct from the rest of the world; the ancient Greek concept of the barbaroi (foreigner) never quite left. While many of its values are also held by others and are not entirely constant it is a feat of pedantry not to see a common tradition. The modern West rightly takes pride in being the heir to this tradition.

Sen could make his point more effectively by arguing instead that some values are important and worthwhile regardless of their origin (values like government by discussion) and for all people. The arrogance with which Western universalism has often been expressed has hurt its case but clearly there are many values which are currently found most well developed and widely spread in the West which are simply correct answers to questions about how people should best form societies. Sen has made the important point that many of these answers, such as allowing free thought, are not new to Muslim and other civilisations and that government by discussion is neither alien nor unattainable to any people.

No comments: