Core values by John Blundell in The Business

The West’s pluralistic liberal capitalist system is peculiarly friendless. We in the West have lost the self-confidence which used to define us all. But we are not going to dissolve under the threats of Islamic terrorism. Communism – plus all its cousin-isms – have all expired. So say serial entrepreneur Richard Koch and former Culture Secretary Chris Smith, authors of Suicide of the West. They have read widely and deeply. They worry for us all.

Suicide of the West is a bold attempt to try to distil the essence of western civilisation. The idea is more slippery than an eel. It wriggles while you define it.

Their first thesis is that Christianity was a unique basis for what we became. Yet this is no amiable flannel about Protestant virtues. The evolution of symbolic truths which I take the Gospels to be, shape even the minds of atheists. This is an erudite trip through the Hebrew captivity in Babylon with the synthesis of Greek ideas after the destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem. They claim that Ezekiel, the Prophet, declared responsibility rested with individuals not on a family or tribe. This, they argue, was a key moment.

I enjoyed their account of how Jewish morality broke from its limits and was opened to the Gentiles – in Hebrew “the poor”. I am not clear how Islam, another religion of The Book adapted from the Old Testament fell away, from what they regard as the western canon. Islam was a triumph of an open civilisation in its earliest years.

“God is doing better than the churches,” argue the authors. I see what they mean, especially in the United States. Darwin’s evolution and other huge advances in biology, plus scholarly textual criticism, has gnawed away at religion but leaves the power of the metaphor untouched.

The other ingredients in the recipe they term “western civilisation” are optimism, liberalism, science, growth and individualism. It is a great curiosity how two intellectual fashions reached their high watermark in about 1950 – Freudianism and Marxism. We seem to have an appetite for error. This was more than gullibility. It took psychiatry a long time to show Freud to be a fraud and Marx an empty vessel. Both gave legitimacy to cruelties rather beyond our ability to comprehend, one on the couch the other in industrialised evil.

I relished their account, derived from Matt Ridley, of how trade is a defining human characteristic: “There is simply no other animal that can explore the law of comparative advantage between groups.” If this is correct, and I think it is, David Ricardo pre-dates Darwin in the history of ideas. Mankind had a language beyond the grunts that evolved into speech – he had price.

Even in barter, without money, diversity can flourish to mutual advantage. A capitalist, in his daily quest of experimentation, is a sort of scientist. To be an entrepreneur is to test ideas and alternatives. This invests business with a nobility unimagined by the Confederation of British Industry or the Chambers of Commerce. Capitalism, the core value of the West, is a far grander enterprise than we can see through mere balance sheets.

Here is another crux point. Trade is cooperative. It is collaborative. It is civil. It is civilised and civilising. Why did science flourish in the West and barely exist elsewhere? Is there a secret elixir? Koch and Smith express it differently but it seems to me to lie in the diversity of late medieval Europe with competing princelings and city states.

Christopher Columbus tried six different sponsors before he secured patronage to find the New World for Spain. He at least had options. The Chinese once had far greater fleets than any European power but they turned inwards and abandoned trade with the rest of the known world. Any Cantonese Columbus had no rival source of sponsorship to cajole.

Suicide of the West jolted me with the disclosure that 77% of Americans believe in angels – yes, the winged benevolences we save for Christmas cards; 60% believe in Satan; 27% believe aliens visit Earth.

Why do Americans have this un-European willingness to believe in supernatural forces? It’s all very odd. Is there a link here to President Bush’s anti-scientific perception that stem-cell research should be deterred? They explain succinctly how quantum mechanics and cosmology make Creation irrational at the tiniest and the largest scale. We might suggest, with no blasphemy intended, God is the Great Entrepreneur.

Growth, and its close relative optimism, are so familiar in our own mental furniture that we find it difficult to realise that the generality of human experience knew neither terms or could even recognise them. To most non-westerners life was static and explanations sparse. It is commerce, trade, business or exchange that developed at first tentatively but now as a vast global phenomenon.

Koch and Smith can be brutal. They say, while praising the Reformation, that Luther and Calvin were far from proto-liberalism. “In Calvin’s theocratic state, set up in Geneva in 1541, adulterous men were beheaded, adulterous women were drowned, heretics were burned alive and blasphemy was a capital offence.” Yet they had authenticated and legitimised defiance of the Catholic Church. Protestantism, almost inadvertently, enlarged our liberties.

I relished the account of how Oliver Cromwell and his cohorts, in defying Royal authority and asserting the supremacy of Parliament, helped establish our liberal inheritance. How I would love to see the House of Commons reassert itself against the European Union Commission. It is a far more ambitious tyrant than Charles I.

Suicide of the West argues that America is far too diffident to have imperial ambitions and coercion never works. American foreign policy is feeble and dithering. The Soviet Union collapsed not through Star Wars or the Pentagon. It evaporated because it had suppressed market price signals for so long it was too poor to be sustained.

The magic at the heart of our civilisation, the authors claim, is “Taking Personal Responsibility”. To do this, humans need markets to define property rights and rules of just conduct – laws. Here is a paradox of limitless depth. To be free liberty needs an absence of ends or purposes. Once you attribute priorities, coercion’s engines are fired up. The conclusion of Koch and Smith, and I think they surprised themselves, is to welcome the seeming inchoate muddle that is the market. It is both irrational and highly rational. It is a system of diffused equality of status but not equality of wealth.

So businessmen think their role self-seeking and banal but they are the defenders, unwittingly, of Adam Smith’s great motive force in civilisation – which he termed – sympathy. This is arresting. We often use terms to describe business as rapacious or merely applied self-interest. It is far more subtle.

We can be confident western civilisation will endure. This book will endure too.

John Blundell is director general of the Institute of Economic Affairs

Suicide of the West by Richard Koch and Chris Smith, Continuum Press, £14.99.