Author’s Note: Since this article has caused some controversy, it is worth noting that nowhere in its contents are eugenics, race, inferiority or superiority mentioned. It is merely an examination of difference, and why those differences should be understood and celebrated.
Not many people have the good luck to be born in Ireland. More than that, most of us have had the good fortune to be born in years of growth and prosperity. Our youth has only ever known an era of progress in a modern civilised country with one of the highest qualities of life in the world. The rest of the world can seem a faraway concept with little bearing on life in Ireland.
As a people we don’t appreciate how unique and rare a nation like Ireland is in this world. We live in an orderly country, with a mostly competent administration, and share it with good natured and fair people. It is all too easy to take these things for granted. It is precisely why Westerners like ourselves should take some time to travel beyond the developed world, or at least read the accounts of those who have.
It is true that we have our problems. We can all remember the 2008 crash and the years that followed, with great increases in unemployment, poverty, crime and all the social problems that came with them. Even now a homelessness crisis wracks the country, while hardworking people can barely afford a roof over their heads.
But compared to the world at large, our island is a paradise.
Functional societies are not a given. Countries like Ireland are the exception, not the rule. In most of the world, from the edges of Europe to the heart of Africa, and from Caracas through Baghdad all the way to Bangkok, you can’t take any of these national qualities for granted. Instead, you’ll find society is often divided into innumerable political, ethnic, religious affiliations that don’t always get on.
The governments can be corrupt, and societal attitudes can be harsh or even cruel when compared to what we’re used to here in Europe (as can be observed through rates of homicide and violent crime as well as the targeting of minority groups). That’s not to say that there isn’t incredible hospitality, warmth, and generosity in these places all over the globe, which of course there is – sometimes even more energetically than in our now-atomised Western societies.
Not so long ago (especially in the 90s) the world of politics and academia seemed to thoroughly believe that we were on course to global unity and great developmental leaps. Francis Fukuyama wrote his now infamous essay and then book The End of History, under the assumption that liberal democracy had triumphed, and an ever-converging world of globalisation was the inevitable path of history.
The world lived in the assumption that one day, possibly soon, every nation would become an Ireland. With thirty years approaching since the publication of The End of History, the world is a very different place than what was imagined within those pages. Illiberalism is resurgent in the West and much of the developing world is no closer to converging with Western nations across virtually all metrics than they were fifty years ago.
However, even back in ’90 an astute observer without the mental fog of ideology might have seen through these predictions. It simply didn’t line up with the data comparing socio-economic performance both between nations and between groups within the same nation.
Why is it that some countries are simply so much poorer than others even after decades of development with the help of Western financial aid and expertise?
Take the Koreas as an example. Sixty years ago, there was barely a building left standing on the Korean peninsula, having been subject to decades of Japanese colonialism and then a brutal war that saw American and Chinese armies obliterate what remained of their nation.
Now South Korea is one of the world’s wealthiest countries with a massive high-tech industrial economy rivalling anything in Europe. Even its Northern counterpart, which has been isolated and sanctioned by the entire Western world since its inception, has managed to put together successful nuclear and space programmes. That is no small achievement.
If we follow the argument that the developing world was held back developmentally by the brutal exploitation of colonialism, we have to ask ourselves: Why did Korea succeed, yet so many other former colonies fail?
The idea of ‘convergence’ is a core tenet of modern thinking. If all humans are fundamentally equal in their potential, then the logical conclusion is that all societies, and therefore all nations, are equal too and therefore have the same capacity to develop socially, culturally, and economically.
If you believe this, then the failings and dysfunctions of particular societies are only because of historical circumstance. Therefore, their problems can be solved by adopting the social and economic practices of developed nations. This ‘convergence assumption’ is behind much of the ideology of supranational organisations like the European Union and the United Nations. It is also a major part of academia, especially in developmental economics.
We can assume then, that if peoples and nations are equal, they will equalise over time.
The main problem with this is that it simply doesn’t happen. Convergence only seems to occur in Europe and Northeast Asia, but even then convergence is rarely complete. The peripheries tend to be substantially less developed than the core. There are legitimate historical reasons for this of course; peripheral Europe was more often subject to war, invasion, and disaster for example.
The former Soviet Bloc poses an interesting question in this regard. After half a century or more of brutal and economically incompetent communist governance, they were finally freed from its clutches in the early ‘90s and have since been on the path of convergence. Poland has exceeded Greece, and Czechia in turn exceeded Poland and is on course to overtake Spain in socio-economic terms.
Russia, despite the best attempts of the United States to pillage its wealth in the ‘90s and early ‘00s, has developed immensely in the past decade and is on course to exceed Southern Europe in development. After two devastating world wars and communist genocides that left the better part of 70 million Russians dead over a thirty-year or so year period (1914-47), followed up by another forty years of Communist economics, it still managed to emerge a superpower in the 21st century. All the data shows that convergence is now happening there.
Yet it is not happening everywhere. China has grown incredibly since it freed itself from Maoist economics – far outperforming India, a country which inherited many excellent economic and political traditions from the UK. Aside from the sleeping dragon, few countries have seen such improvements in recent decades. Even inside Europe, divergence has been happening in many places rather than the expected convergence. Germany and Northern Europe have deepened their economic lead over the Mediterranean, though much of this might be down to EU policy damaging the industries of its Southern members.
Outside Europe, South and Central America are no closer to convergence now than any time before. Brazil has spent half a decade in recession and Argentina defaulted on its debts. Though it isn’t all bad news on that front, much of Latin America can be expected to improve, if not necessarily converge, in the coming decades.
Along with some others post-colonial nations, many countries in Sub-Saharan Africa cause concern for believers in convergence. Despite it being over half a century since colonial administrations vacated the continent, not only has it not improved, but much of the continent’s infrastructure has fallen into disrepair and it is now poorer than twenty years ago.
A common argument used is that of the Marshall Plan, and the idea that it contributed massively to the development of post-war western Europe while the colonies fell behind and were neglected, but once again the data does not agree. In reality all the Marshall Plan did was show how ‘generous’ the United States could be when it wanted to stop the spread of its ideological opponent.
Ultimately there was little correlation between the amount of Marshall aid received and economic growth. Britain received the most Marshall aid but fell into stagnation. West Germany received the least and grew the most. France enjoyed solid growth even though it wasted massive amounts of money in failed wars in Indochina and Algeria.
Marshall aid may have sped up European recovery by a few years, but by no means was it a major factor in the convergence of European nations. Eastern Europe grew more slowly than West not because it didn’t receive aid, but because it was forced to adopt communist economic and social policy.
The idea of the Marshall Plan as a driver of convergence is popular because it gives us the illusion of having the power to solve the world’s problems with simple solutions. We prefer to think that we can fix things by throwing lots of money at them rather than raise uncomfortable questions. The stats however, don’t agree. Total aid to Africa, for example, since 1960 adds up to over $5 trillion – the equivalent of about 50 Marshall Plans.
If we look not only to historical circumstance (which is an important part), but also to our cultural and biological heritage to answer this conundrum, we might get a better answer. In the modern world, even questioning whether genes make a difference will often result in being shunned and blacklisted. Yet people far wiser than today’s opinion-makers have been asking these questions throughout history. All the way back in the sixteenth century, Niccolò Machiavelli was complaining that Italians were not as industrious, organized, and ‘virtuous’ as the Swiss. Such ideas have been common in politics and philosophy all the way up until the 21st century.
The uncomfortable question we have to ask ourselves is how much our heritage affects groups of people. Human beings are defined both by their genetic inheritance and by their culture. We have both ‘hardware’ so to speak (genetically-determined), and software (culture, customs, habits, and norms). Human hardware is difficult to change, software is not. Both have a massive impact on the development of a people and their nation. The pure equality viewpoint claim humans are all software, which just isn’t credible.
In an age so obsessed with equality there are few questions more important than this. Obviously all people deserve to be equal in the eyes of the law, in regards their rights, and in terms of their value as a person. But when the conversation turns to national and socio-economic inequalities, we are faced with the question of individual potential.
It is this question that the entirety of modern political and academic discourse seeks to ignore. Attempted explanations such as that of the Marshall Plan fall flat, but another exists; that of national institutions. Many an economist and social scientist have grown popular by promoting this thesis: poor countries are poor not because there is anything different about their genes or their culture, but because the institutions differ.
In fairness to the proponents of this theory, institutions are extremely important. Their theory is at least half-true. The Japanese, for example, had not taken the idea of capitalism beyond its primitive form until Commodore Perry’s use of force opened up their country to foreign trade in 1854. The Japanese proved very adept at capitalism.
Conversely, a nation can be held back by an overzealous application of socialism. Eastern Europe until 1989 and Mao’s China are prime examples of this. Arguably this was also the case for the post-war United Kingdom, where Labour governments passed ambitious socialist programmes seeking to solve longstanding inequalities between the economic classes. This seems to have inadvertently caused Britain’s economic underperformance when compared to the Continent (though attempting to maintain Great Power status almost certainly contributed too). By 1980 it was about 20% poorer than France.
The institutional argument also applies to Ireland. For almost the entire 20th century we were an economic basket case thanks to an ill-conceived vision for the country’s future promoted by successive governments. The agrarian catholic ideal for Ireland did more damage to us than any force bar British occupation. Millions of people were forced out of the country simply because our institutions could not (or did not want to) successfully manage an economy. Often our most educated were the ones to leave, resulting in a case of globally unprecedented brain-drain that devastated our national potential and actually lowered our average IQ.
Despite this, the institutions argument is a jigsaw puzzle with missing pieces. It requires an understanding of human diversity to make sense on a global scale. For example, why can’t certain countries create good institutions? Proponents of innate potential differences argue that a nation’s development is constrained by the basic psychological and cultural makeup of the population. The most important traits in this regard are intelligence and social trust, though there are many other lesser factors.
Intelligence strongly correlates with many important factors like innovation and self-control. A high density of intelligent people means you can be a world-leader in cognitively-demanding fields. Sweden, for example, can produce fighter jets despite having only nine million people. Low numbers of intelligent people means you have more non-functional people. These people might not be able to hold a job (especially in advanced economies), they might be erratic or in need of care, and your society will often have to look after them at considerable cost to the taxpayer.
Social trust correlates to corruption and selfishness, but it is much more malleable than intelligence. An low-trust country will tend towards creating incompetent and selfish institutions, and therefore find itself in a negative feedback loop. When it comes to the other main factor, the effects of national intelligence seem to be exponential. Take Singapore, London, Moscow or other IQ Shredders and notice how they accumulate an intellectual critical mass and become inordinately important nationally and internationally.
Charles Murray hypothesises a phenomenon of cognitive sorting; intelligent people congregating around other intelligent people. This plays into the concept of IQ shredders and has also led to social fragmentation and polarisation in many countries. Consider the way in which London gathers the people with the best abilities and potential in the UK – the North of England isn’t less intelligent than the South, the most highly skilled people simply move to London. The exact same thing happens in Ireland with Dublin except on a smaller scale.
Underdeveloped East Germany similarly saw its intelligent professionals move to the wealthier West, leading to much slower convergence within a unified Germany than expected. The same thing could be said for North and South Italy.
Not only does this happen within nations, but internationally too. Europe and America often take the most intelligent and highly skilled of the developing world, incorporating them into their workforces. India’s best and brightest have seen huge movement to the United States and the United Kingdom. By taking the cream of the crop from poor nations, we hamper their development – if we in the West did not take them, they would be the agents of change in their home nations and facilitate convergence to some extent.
We must also apply this thinking to unskilled migration. Our policymakers assume that all it will take for an Afghan farmer to integrate into the West is an education and a job. But in a world where the job market is increasingly complex and high-skill exclusive, we ought to realise that not all new arrivals are capable of navigating it. Many of our native people aren’t capable of navigating it for that matter.
Now that automation is becoming widespread, tens of millions of low-skill jobs will be eliminated across the West in the coming decades. It is not unreasonable to suggest that twenty years down the line, there will be a whole section of society (both native and migrant) that are permanently locked out of the workforce. Not everyone has it in them to be a mathematician or a roboticist. This will change the way we understand money and reshape our economies to their core. The only way to understand, prepare for, and manage this is through acknowledging real diversity among peoples.
If we stick to a purely egalitarian understanding of humanity, we are forced into increasingly complex and ridiculous mental acrobatics to explain the differences between humanity’s many peoples. Setting aside the politics of the question, many people buy into the egalitarian idea because the heritage explanation seems inherently pessimistic. The idea of a world where all people are equal in ability and potential is a prettier picture than the alternative. For the same reason we so often prefer stories of great heroes and evil villains, we tend to prefer idealism to pragmatism.
Just because some nations and people might have less potential does not mean we should disparage them for it. Every nation and person should have self-esteem and pride. Instead we should think of nations like individuals: each one has its unique qualities, interests, aptitudes, and failings. And that’s perfectly fine, it’s great in fact. Why would we want or expect everyone to be the same? If anything, it demonstrates the need for greater understanding and cooperation with our fellow man.
Only when we learn to understand and appreciate our inherent differences without the clouding lens of ideology will we be able to work towards a better future for all humanity.