By Harold James
A provocative book by a Japanese mathematician has reignited the debate about
whether there are specifically "Asian" values. As yet untranslated
into other languages, The Dignity of a State by Masahiko Fujiwara is an
emotional plea for a Japanese "special path". In particular, it
argues that liberal democracy is a Western invention that does not fit well
with the Japanese or Asian character.
The reasoning is peculiar, and seems to revive a 19th-century critique, usually
associated with German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, that Christianity (and
Islam) produces an acquiescent or even subservient mentality, in contrast to
the heroic virtues of classical antiquity or of warrior societies, such as the
world of the Japanese samurai. Likewise, according to Fujiwara, democracy
overemphasizes reason, another Western construct. "But we Japanese,"
he writes, "don't have a religion such as Christianity or Islam, so we
need something else: deep emotion."
Many non-Japanese Asians will dislike most or all of Fujiwara's message, for
they will hear unpleasant historical echoes. After all, there is no reason to
believe that Asians share a particular yearning for authoritarianism, or that,
say, Chinese pro-democracy movements are insincere stooges for Western
But Fujiwara's book has also revived an old debate about capitalism and the
values that are needed to sustain it. That debate stems from the fact that
capitalism, or the market economy, cannot simply go on forever, driven by an
internal momentum or dynamic. Any of the basic proclivities that drive
capitalism, on their own, are destructive of long-term success.
For example, while capitalism depends on investment and consumption, an excess
of the former leads to production gluts, and too much of the latter causes
economies to overheat. Similarly, capitalism depends on competition, but
competition can be brutal and destructive. As a result, elaborate systems of
laws are needed to ensure that competition is open and fair, that monopolies
and trusts do not destroy competition itself. But even this may not be enough,
because each legal reform is answered by entrepreneurial ingenuity on the part
of those who want to circumvent the new restraints.
Some thinkers, most notably Max Weber, floated the idea that capitalism must be
sustained by a value system that could not initially be created from within.
Almost every modern analyst, however, has come to the conclusion that Weber's
attempt to link that capitalist spirit historically to a form of Christianity,
namely Protestantism, is fatally flawed.
To begin with, the founders of Protestantism, Martin Luther and John Calvin,
were, as Weber recognized, more hostile to the dynamic capitalistic world of
the Renaissance than was the Catholic Church. Indeed, pious Catholic Italian
city-states were the cradle of early modern capitalism.
But there are two crucial aspects of the debate on religious values that should
not be overlooked. First, the core of Weber's argument was that religious
values that emphasize restraint and a sense of duty may support dependability
and reliability in business relations, which is especially vital in societies
that are just opening up market relations. Where there is a legacy of violence
and suspicion, it is hard for people to feel secure enough to enter into
long-term contracts. They tend to look for short-term gains at the expense of
others, reinforcing a generalized skepticism about the market.
Second, religious values that emphasize social solidarity are an important
corrective to the tendency of markets to polarize society by rewarding success.
Periods of globalization have been eras of considerable economic advance; but
they have also increased inequality within particular countries, as markets
rewarded scarce factors of production, thus fueling powerful political
backlashes that endangered the continuation of trade and financial integration.
The debate about the contribution of religious values is parallel to the debate
over the relationship of freedom to economic development - a central issue in
the work of Nobel laureate economists Friedrich Hayek and Amartya Sen. It is
clearly tempting for critics of authoritarian regimes to argue that freedom is
good because it promotes economic growth. But a deeper view of freedom regards
it as having intrinsic value.
So, too, with religious values. Backed by evidence from large empirical
studies, some claim that belief in religion is good because it boosts economic
performance. That may be the case, and it may be a tempting argument to make in
authoritarian societies that are unsympathetic to beliefs that challenge their
own legitimacy. But is it possible to imagine the pope whispering such a
message to the Chinese leadership?
In the 18th century, Voltaire constructed an analogous argument, claiming that
religion's major virtue was its social usefulness. He thus sought to subvert
religion by making it purely instrumental. But to do that is to destroy the
true character of religious belief. By reviving the debate over
"Asian" values, Fujiwara's book may contribute to a similar mistake.
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