Don’t Be So Sure About the West – Opting Out


There are people out there who believe that individual liberty can only be a prioritized value in the West. They look at nations where freedom and the “rule of law,” so-called, have thrived, and conclude that the common denominator is Western. The nations that have made a particular point over time of promoting laissez-faire have been Western or at least been heavily influenced by the West (like Hong Kong), and see that liberty can only truly be sustained in Western environments.

This may be yet another case of defining the meaning out of an analysis. The way these writers and thinkers define individual liberty is through a Western universalist interpretation of law and the state which will necessarily produce conclusions that are favourable to Western nations. 

Universalism has immediately obvious appeal: It is egalitarian, at least legally, and promotes fairness despite class, colour, sexuality, or station. It’s probably the way most readers will view the world. 

Though it may one day be proven without doubt that universalism is better for a free society in the long run than say, a Chinese particularism, it’s nonetheless not a conclusion one can make quickly.

If we go by the Trompennar model of cultural differences, the differences between the West and China can be drawn roughly by the West’s focus on universalism, where Chinese culture focuses on particularism. 

Universalism is seen as the great triumph of Western civilisation: A worldview where all human beings have fundamental rights, and from there we draw laws, customs and norms that apply equally across everyone. When there is a dispute, actors will appeal to fairness, and respond with righteous indignation if they perceive that they’re being shafted. If something is right, it’s right for everyone, and when something is wrong, it is not made right by petty circumstance or whim.

Particularism responds to the question of ethics and norms with, “Well, it depends…” The answer is contingent on contextual factors. One act may be right with your boss, but wrong with a stranger. The priority is the relationship, which ought to be maintained above almost anything else. If your relationships faltered in ancient China, that would be the end of you.

In reality the “law” that exists in China today is largely a Western import to which the natives are ambivalent, not to be taken absolutely and seen as applicable in circumstances. Chinese culture has not been developed to think in universal terms – Western law seems to imply that there is some monolithic standard that we can’t see, to which we should dedicate our lives. To a Chinese person, this sounds downright superstitious.

Incidentally, religion is another area where Westerners have tried to understand the East through an obtusely blinkered interpretive lens. After the results of a recent survey intended to ascertain modern Chinese religious views came out, it was declared in the Western papers that China was an “atheist nation,” as if the average Chinese person was an effective Richard Dawkins.

If the Chinese are atheists, they’re an odd sort, since the majority of them regularly participate in religious rituals, believe in a spiritual plane of existence, pray to their dead relatives, visit houses of worship, whether it be temples, churches or mosques, etc. The problem was with the tone-deaf questioning: They asked them if they identified with a religion.

You were always going to get a bizarre outcome since the Chinese don’t see spirituality the same way as the West at all. The Western idea of religion is of a defined institution that facilitates a universal interpretation of spiritual matters. The Chinese have a concept for this, which is something close to, again, “superstition.” Eastern spirituality is wrapped up in everything, so trying to cordon it off as if it’s a hobby makes little sense to the Chinese.

But back to particularism. It has its benefits for individual freedom. Let me show you with an example.

You’re crossing a US state border to another with medicinal drugs that could save your father’s life that just happen to be illegal. You’re stopped by a cop. The question is: Which cop would you rather be stopped by; the one who believes in the universality of the law and would arrest his own wife because he thought it would be fair, or one that is susceptible to a bribe?

It appears as if particularism in this case brings both greater liberty and prosperity. The universalist will have you in prison and your father dead. The particularist will have you free, your father alive, and he richer. But the bribe would be seen by the univeralists as an example of “corruption.” 

I make this example to point out that it’s not cut and dry that the universalist ethic always favors individual liberty. After all, what good to liberty is the belief in the universality of the law if the laws on the books actively violate our liberties?

Applied, this adds a whole lot of complication to the analysis of which societies across the world are freer. Yes, Western or heavily-Western-influenced countries seem to have the freest laws. Yet, in a culture where the law is a vague abstract, and the most stringent edicts are easily bypassed via a bung or two, what does that matter? 

And if Western universalism is the undisputed champion, why is it that the ideologies most devastating to the cause of human freedom have originated in the West? The most destructive of them all, Marxism, is hyper-rationalist, materialist, reductionist, and “scientific;” all ideas that are lauded in the West, but contributed significantly in its myopia.

Western culture blowhards’ conclusions might not be wrong, but they’re arrived at too fast. They’re blind to how the East actually works.

The following two tabs change content below.

James Smith

Writer and film-maker from the United Kingdom. Digital nomad. Author of 'The Shy Guy's Guide to Travelling'.