Business Today

Of Open Minds and Borders

The author argues that for the idea of the West to prevail, the values of openness and equality must be embraced.
Devika Bahadur   New Delhi     Print Edition: November 5, 2017
Of Open Minds and Borders

An exceptional addition to the recent spate of books and articles examining the forces that led to the election of Donald Trump and the Brexit vote is Bill Emmott's The Fate of the West: The Battle to Save the World's Most Successful Political Idea. Emmott, the former editor-in-chief of The Economist, constructs a comprehensive thesis of what the 'West' and the recent crises afflicting it really mean. The book spans a vast range of subjects from politics, finance and philosophy to international affairs.

He says the West is not a geographical location, but an idea, the 'world's most successful political idea' - Yuval Noah Harari may describe it as an 'inter-subjective imagined order'. Emmott's 'lodestars' of this idea are the values of openness and equality. Openness represents a society that is open to new ideas, new elites, new circumstances and new opportunities. For openness to thrive, equality is essential. These conditions enable free flow of ideas, innovation and competition to flourish in an atmosphere of high social trust. Emmott's enunciation of equality is a refreshingly pragmatic ideal - equality is not an equality of income or wealth, but one of voice, treatment and rights.

To his credit, Emmott does not approach the rise of Trump with the disbelieving dismissiveness that has characterised many liberal responses. He also refrains from allowing these events to spell doomsday. He recognises that these trends reflect genuine failures of the West to ensure openness with equality of voice and opportunity. He emphasises that these problems need to be confronted if the idea of the West is to persist. By undertaking a thorough diagnosis of the problems ailing the West, the book recognises that openness, while being one of the biggest strengths of the West, is also its greatest vulnerability, as it allows the self-interested minority to undermine the essence of Western values. Equality is similarly threatened by monopolies that are used to erect barriers to equal opportunity.

The book explores the openness conundrum through various examples, notably that of immigration ('how much is too much?'). Emmott explains the xenophobic attitude towards immigration by looking at unemployment and income figures. While the immigration debate undeniably rests on economic imperatives, Emmott is noticeably silent on the related religious and cultural tensions. At several places, he examines the causes and effects of the immigration problem and also devotes a chapter to ISIS and the terror threat (terror is inevitable, but is not a bigger threat internationally than the rise of China). Yet, he avoids drawing any links between the two, perhaps intentionally.

The book identifies international cooperation as one of the characteristics of open societies. The author rightly sees moves like Brexit and Trump's plans to build fences along American borders as a renunciation of this fundamental ideal. International cooperation, based on a shared notion of rule of law, is valuable in that it has allowed open societies to respond flexibly to external pressures without having to compromise on openness. While Emmott discusses many of the factors shaping the international political order today (China, ISIS, the Middle East), this part has been left under-explored.

Among Emmott's more provocative ideas is his proposed solution to the inevitable demographic crisis to be caused by rising life expectancy around the globe. To combat high dependency ratios, he advocates a longer working life for tomorrow's senior citizens supported by a retraining policy. Emmott's analysis of counter-arguments here is scant, and his solution appears primed to lead once again to a cycle of inequality.

This book will strongly appeal to a reader interested in the broader trends of contemporary events in the West. For the well-informed Indian reader, the discussion on the nature of democracy and its inbuilt contradictions would find resonance with events we are seeing even today in India (not the 'West' by any stretch of interpretation, just yet!). Emmott talks of the challenge of undertaking structural reforms, which must necessarily involve some form of liberalisation. Yet, this process inherently risks capture and subversion by powerful interest groups. To that extent, the proponents, as well as the opponents, of today's Indian government would find much to buttress their respective views in this book.

Emmott believes that the greatest strength of the West is its inherent power of evolution; he makes an impassioned plea for immediate and corrective action. In the end, he returns to the fundamentals - education, rule of law and freedom of speech - in order to drive the rejuvenation of openness and equality. For those who find news these days increasingly distressing, Emmott's optimism makes this book a must read.

The reviewer is a lawyer and social development specialist

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