01/21/2014 09:00 am ET Updated Mar 23, 2014

What Makes Living in the West So Pleasant?

Whenever I feel slightly down, I ask myself whether I would prefer to live where I do, or in, say, Russia, the Middle East, most of Africa, or China. But what is it that makes life in the West so pleasant? It is something we almost never talk about, and many of us never appreciate. It is because we have a unique and lucky historical legacy -- because we live in a liberal society.

This has nothing to do with politics as generally understood. In Western democracies, left, right, and centrists all subscribe to certain values which govern our behavior - and do not, in general, govern the behavior of other societies. Though we rarely acknowledge it, Western liberal civilization provides far greater benefits for its citizens than other civilization. Liberal society is the most successful formula yet devised for combining a vibrant and dynamic economy and society with the highest ideals of human dignity and autonomy.

The West - by which I mean North America, Europe, and other countries with the same heritage, principally Australasia - is unique in having, in all its countries, one common political and social culture, best described as "liberalism".

The Unique Culture of Liberalism

Liberalism is the theory and practice of freedom. A liberal society is one which is not only fully democratic, but where there is a spirit of freedom, fairness, and respect for all citizens. Liberal civilization attaches greater importance than other societies to the sanctity and dignity of human life, to the education of all its people, to equality of opportunity, to the full development of the individual's full talents, to the elimination of prejudice, to the promotion of science and the arts, to the invention of better, simpler, cheaper and more convenient products, to the relief of suffering, and to the brotherhood of all humankind. Liberal society is not corrupt or cruel; is not ruled by the police or military; and is neither hierarchical nor bureaucratic. It is the society of the spontaneous smile, of kindness, and of decency.

Power in liberal societies is decentralized. There is freedom of the press and other media; freedom for business to operate autonomously, constrained only by honesty, humane standards, and compliance with the law; and tolerance of unconventional behavior so long as it does not harm others. Government is subordinate to the rule of law. The state exists to serve citizens and not the other way round; to protect them from arbitrary force and oppression.

Liberal societies do not believe in military glory; war is a last resort, for self-protection. Liberal states almost never declare war on other liberal states.

Liberal societies are marked by freedom of religion and conscience, widespread tolerance, the ability of strangers to trust and collaborate with each other, and, crucially, the willingness of citizens to participate in the political process and in civic duties, and to take responsibility for their actions. Liberal civilization can permit universal freedom without inducing anarchy because the law is impartial and respected, because the political process commands consent, and because citizens can trust each other to behave reasonably. No fully liberal society has ever arisen without substantial ownership of property by ordinary citizens, or without a widespread sense of shared values and tacit commitment to the society and its institutions. Liberal societies are able to take a critical view of their defects, and to work towards closing the gap between reality and continually advancing liberal aspirations. Liberal societies are always reaching out for further moral improvement, extending the circle of rights to take in animals, species, the environment, and our planet's entire ecosystem.

Liberal society has demonstrated that freedom can coexist with greater prosperity; indeed, that as freedom increases, so does creativity and economic fortune. In economic terms, freedom is not only free; it actually has negative costs - less free societies forfeit wealth as well as liberty, because they do not use the talents of their people so fully. Freedom, responsibility, wealth creation, and high ethical standards advance together. The history of Europe proves that as civilization gains greater wealth and higher living standards, moral progress - such as the abolition of cruel and unusual punishments, the emphasis on domestic happiness and romantic love, the removal of arbitrary restrictions on "out" groups (for example, foreigners, Jews, those at the bottom of the pile economically, nonconformists, or gays), and the promotion of full rights for women - becomes possible. And as human dignity and education are enhanced, so too is human talent liberated, inventions and great new products proliferate, and further wealth is created which in turn can drive forward further concern for the under-privileged. Like riding a bicycle, however, the expansion of liberalism requires continual momentum. If society and the economy cannot be improved, the process of mutually reinforcing progress shudders to a halt and goes into reverse. This happened with the Great Depression of 1929-35, and with the abolition of liberal society in Italy under Mussolini and in Germany - and then almost the whole of Europe - under Hitler and Stalin.

While there are some countries outside the West - such as Japan, South Africa, Botswana, and some Latin American nations, that could be defined in this way as liberal societies, they are few and far between, and the permanence of their arrangements cannot be taken for granted.

Many alternatives to liberal civilization are rife outside the West. They comprise personal dictatorship; one-party tyranny; civil war, where two opposing forces behave atrociously towards each other; police and army states; theocratic states; the "failed state" sometimes seen in Africa and Latin America, where citizens are prey to crime syndicates, political factions, kidnapping or anarchy; state capitalism without freedom, with privileges for the army and the ruling party, as in China; and finally what we may call the quasi-liberal state, where there is formal democracy, a market economy, and the rule of law, but where the habits and ideals of liberalism are not fully rooted, where corruption can easily flourish, and factions may take to the streets, not to demonstrate peacefully, but to kill and injure opponents. From Libya and Egypt to Syria, from Serbia to Thailand, from Iraq and Iran to Pakistan, we see democracy as a fragile plant, easily overwhelmed by the army or militia, and by widespread extremism totally at odds with liberal values.

How Liberalism Triumphed in Europe and America

What needs to be appreciated is that "democracy" is not a solution that works without all the history and underpinnings of liberal society, which include a successful economy; and that these ingredients take centuries to evolve. Europe developed as it did because of two lucky developments - the gradual replacement of feudalism in Europe by the world's first mixed economy between 900 and 1900; and the invention of modern politics in Europe and America between 1600 and 1900. I will try to describe briefly what happened, but please bear in mind - what happened was fortuitous, accidental, extremely fortunate, could easily have had less happy outcomes, and very nearly did.

Europeans were the first people in the world to escape from the agricultural economy based on "manors", self-sufficient lands which relied on the use of servile labor, with the lord exercising economic and political control. In the year 1000, this feudal system, which made freedom impossible, was prevalent everywhere in the world. By 1900, uniquely in Europe and countries settled by Europeans, it had utterly gone.

European feudalism retreated as autonomous city states developed in Italy, Holland, and on the Baltic and North Sea coasts. Only in European towns did traders, artisans, and craftsmen escape feudal restrictions on freedom. Then, something happened within the manors themselves. Instead of the manors being self-sufficient, they started trading crops on the open market outside the manors. It turned out that the best way to do this was to turn peasants into small independent farmers ("yeomen"). This system started in Holland, England, and France, and it was so successful that it spread to most of Europe, Russia and a few other places excepted.

The lords gave up power - liberating their serfs, and allowing the city states to exist - in the pursuit of wealth. Merchants need customers. The landowning classes were willing accomplices of the merchants, selling crops, wool, wood and minerals to the merchants, and buying imports from them - spices, tobacco, exotic goods. As trade and industry grew, so did the income of landowners, and the value of their land. Squires and lords benefitted from the expansion of science and technology, trade, universities, royal courts, mining, and eventually manufacturing. Where a largely autonomous business class developed first - in Europe as a whole, but especially in England and Holland - it was because the habits of tolerance and reciprocity, of mutual self-interest between different economic groups, had become widespread. Rulers gave up the power to confiscate property in return for the right to tax regularly at agreed rates. Nothing like this happened in the Asian and Islamic empires.

And then there was the invention of modern politics. The pivotal event, without which liberal society might never have developed anywhere, was the English Revolution of 1640-60. A coalition of dissident gentry, yeomen, merchants, and artisans asserted the supremacy of Parliament, took up arms against the King, executed him, and set up a Commonwealth. The monarchy was restored in 1660 but only on sufferance. When the new king went too far, the "Glorious Revolution" of 1688 ejected him, and brought in William and Mary, liberal and constitutional monarchs from Holland.

The American Revolution of 1776-83 provided an even better liberal blueprint. The American Constitution was adroitly designed to gradually introduce democracy, while imposing checks and balances that minimized the risk of violence or tyranny. Like the English Revolutions of 1640 and 1688, the American Revolution ditched the King, and established the ideals of "no taxation without representation" and the British traditions of law, justice, the rights of individuals and private property, and restrictions on executive power.

The Struggles of Liberalism from 1900 to 2014

Liberalism continued to make extraordinary progress - though often two steps forward and one step back - throughout the nineteenth century. By 1900, in all Western countries, the vote had been given to more and more citizens - though not yet to most women. The slave trade and slavery had been abolished - the first civilization in history to do so. Nations had gained their freedom from foreign oppressors. Trade unions had been allowed, and some monopolies curbed. Universal education and the first rudiments of social welfare had begun to be introduced. The power of monarchs waned, and that of legislatures waxed. Restrictions on Jews and some other minority groups had been relaxed. Liberalism had never been in better shape.

It did not last. In the twentieth century, liberalism was nearly wiped out, before staging a marvelous comeback. In our own time, however, liberalism is under threat again - this time, perhaps, more insidiously than ever before. Tune in same time next week for the final thrilling installment!