Killer Apps of Western Society Meet the Middle East

♠ Posted by Emmanuel in at 3/03/2011 12:03:00 AM
Say what you will about self-described "punk Tory" commentator Niall Ferguson (to which my boss Michael Cox calls himself a "baroque Trotskyite"[!]), but no one can argue that self-promotion is one of his weaknesses. After attending his Tuesday night lecture at the LSE, I was struck by the historian's assertion that the conventional shorthand that Islamic faith has limited Middle Eastern development is just that--an intellectual shortcut.

In an op-ed in the Evening Standard to help promote his new book (and TV series), he goes through great innovations and empires emanating from Islamic cultures. More contemporaneously, however, he goes into how a failure to transplant the signal features of Western rise will probably mean that even the toppling of authoritarian regimes in the Middle East won't result in a neoconservative vision of paradise. For him, the extent to which Asian nations have achieved a semblance of development probably boils down to imbibing killer apps of Western civilization (his terminology, not mine):
In Civilization, my new Channel 4 series and book, I argue that what distinguished the West from the rest - the mainsprings of global power - were six big ideas: competition; science; property rights; medicine; the consumer society; and the work ethic. To use the language of today's computerised, synchronised world, these were the six killer applications - the killer apps - that, taken together, allowed a minority of mankind, originating on the western edge of Eurasia, to dominate the world for the better part of 500 years.

The Muslim world was not incapable of downloading at least some of these apps. Go to Istanbul today and you'll encounter a remarkably dynamic and competitive economy. Go to Tehran and you'll meet - actually, probably not - scientists capable of enriching uranium. Go to Dubai and you'll see state-of-the-art hospitals and glittering shopping malls. But killer apps three and six - property rights and the work ethic - are more or less invisible. Unemployment and under-employment are staggeringly high in most of the Muslim world. And there are few places where it is harder to establish secure legal title to private property, or to start a new business, than Egypt.

The weakness of property rights is part of the reason for poor economic performance in Arab countries. But it is also a key cause of democratic failure. That's because democracy tends only to work in societies that have already laid the right foundations: a substantial property-owning middle class and a well-developed civil society of free associations, free political parties and a free press. The problem in the Arab world is not that Muslims live there. The problem is that where the West led, the Middle East has - thus far - failed to follow.
OK, so many of these ideas are not entirely original and are observable in works of classic political economy. Qualms aside, though, I'm sure that Niall Ferguson will be selling no small amount of books and TV documentaries by building on the hoopla he of course is thoroughly capable of generating.