Can We Afford Liberalism Now?
Paul Johnson 10.29.08, 6:00 PM ET
Forbes Magazine dated November 17, 2008
The financial crisis, detonated by greed and recklessness on Wall Street and in the City of London, is for the West a deep, self-inflicted wound. The beneficiary won’t be Russia, which, with its fragile, energy-based economy, is likely to suffer more than we shall; it will be India and China. They will move into any power vacuum left by the collapse of Western self-confidence.
If we seriously wish to repair the damage, we need to accept that this is fundamentally a moral crisis, not a financial one. It is the product of the self-indulgence and complacency born of our ultraliberal societies, which have substituted such pseudo-religions as political correctness and saving the planet for genuine distinctions between right and wrong and the cultivation of real virtues.
India and China are progress-loving yet morally old-fashioned societies. They cannot afford liberalism. Their vast populations have only recently begun to emerge from subsistence living. Their strength is in the close, hard-working family unit in which parents train their children to work diligently at school and go to university when possible so they can acquire real and useful qualifications to then go out into the world as professional men and women determined to reach the top.
I am impressed at the rapid headway Indians (benefiting from their knowledge of spoken and written English) are making in all the advanced sectors of the global employment market–science, technology, medicine, communications, the law, engineering and mining. They are ousting Westerners from top jobs, and rightly so. They are better qualified, more highly motivated and more reliable and honest. They have the old-style work ethic that we, in many cases, have lost.
Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher was sneered at for stressing the Victorian virtues of industry and thrift. But she was right. These emergent Asian professionals have precisely those virtues, which is why they’re moving forward and will eventually conquer the world–not by force but by hard work, intelligence and skill.
Equally impressive is the sheer physical power of the Chinese workforce. Anyone who goes to Beijing or Shanghai can’t help but notice the astonishing speed at which buildings are rising.
There is nothing new in this. It was once the West that taught the world how to change its skylines through fast and furious efforts. One of the first examples was the Eiffel Tower, designed by engineering genius Gustave Eiffel (who also created the Statue of Liberty’s internal structure). It was the centerpiece of the Paris Exposition of 1889. Using the principles of prefabrication, the 150 to 300 workers on the site put it up in only 26 1TK2 months.
Another example is the Empire State Building, which officially opened on May 1, 1931. Masterpiece of the firm of Shreve, Lamb & Harmon, the Empire State Building was completed in only one year and 45 days, a testament to business efficiency and the determination of the dedicated workforce.
We couldn’t match those time frames today, despite the advances in technology, because the advances have been outstripped by an even more rapid growth in complex and idiotic planning procedures, bureaucracy, myopic trade unionism and restrictive legislation.
In London today, for example, residents are infuriated and visitors horrified by the way in which the main sewer and water lines are being replaced over much of the city. The work is agonizingly slow. Contractors claim they are paralyzed by the laws (especially so-called health and safety regulations) that now govern work practices. Depending on the type of activity, these regulations can lower productivity by 15% to 25%. They don’t save lives or prevent injuries; they provide lucrative jobs for bureaucrats and fit in well with the ideas of union officials on how things should be run. They are a typical by-product of a liberal society.
In an earlier age New York City would have defied the terrorists who brought down the World Trade Center by speedily rebuilding what they destroyed. What’s happened instead is a sad and revealing story.
In August China pulled off a propaganda triumph with its staging of the Summer Olympic Games, which involved huge construction projects–all completed on time. London is currently preparing for the 2012 games. All indications, so far, are that this is going to be an embarrassing and hugely expensive fiasco.
I don’t know whether this year’s financial catastrophe will shock the politicians and people of the West into a new seriousness. There’s certainly no sign of it yet. I had to laugh when a Chinese visitor recently said to me: “I see you’re going back to the windmill in Britain. We Chinese cannot afford that.”
That comment puts things in a nutshell: We are traveling along the high road to incompetence and poverty, led by a farcical coalition of fashionably liberal academics on the make, assorted eco-crackpots and media wiseacres. This strain of liberalism is highly infectious. The Indians and Chinese have yet to be infected. They’re still healthy, hard at work and going places, full speed ahead.
Paul Johnson, eminent British historian and author; Lee Kuan Yew, minister mentor of Singapore; Ernesto Zedillo, director, Yale Center for the Study of Globalization, former president of Mexico; and David Malpass, chief economist for Bear Stearns Co., Inc., rotate in writing this column. To see past Current Events columns, visit our Web site at www.forbes.com/currentevents.