If you ask a typical Pakistani about the geographic distribution of global wealth, the most probable answer you will get is that the West is the wealthiest part of the world. Similarly, if you ask him in which part of the world, maximum individual freedoms are guaranteed, you are almost sure to receive the same answer. Do access to large riches and substantial individual and social freedoms make a nation developed? Not really.
Considering economic development as synonymous with the West is one of the most fundamental myths about economic development. Mad pursuit of wealth is considered as a symptom of moral decay across nearly all civilizations, cultures, and religions of the world. The Bible states that the “love of money is the root of all evil” and that “it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” Lao Tzu said, “Do not race after riches … or you will let slip the Heaven within you.” Similarly, Islamic teachings condemn greed, selfishness, and hoarding of money and praise generosity and spending for the sake of Allah.
In nearly all societies, people are praised and honored for character, spirituality, wisdom, heroism, literary, artistic, and many other accomplishments, but not for the acquisition of wealth by loot and plunder. However, in modern society, wealth trumps all other accomplishments. There are no moral bars to the most powerful country in the world, making a naked unprovoked attack on a weaker country, killing one million civilians, and destroying the lives of forty million to secure oil supplies and making profits for the military-industrial complex.
It is only recently that many spectacular failures have led to a questioning of these assumptions. Stiglitz, Sen, and Fitoussi (2009) believe that GNP measures production but not destruction or depletion, such as using up exhaustible resources, damaging the environment beyond repair, and destroying species of plants and animals. Many intangible social costs are ignored. Worse, if environmental hazards lead to sickness, expenses on medical care add to the GNP. Other intangible assets such as stability of families, high moral standards are very important to human welfare, but not accounted for in GNP.
Like material wealth, freedom is highly prized in the West. The French Revolution provoked Hegel to believe that “the History of the World is none other than the progress of the consciousness of Freedom.” There is no doubt that certain types of freedom are extremely valuable. However, freedom is a plastic word and can be reshaped to have many different meanings. Should the poor be free to sell their organs to the rich? Pedophiles are currently demanding the freedom to practice their perversion. This is not what Hegel or other principled advocates of freedom, had in mind.
The use of freedom as a defense of capitalism is one of the most egregious abuses of the word. On the surface, laissez-faire, or let everyone do as they please, appears to be a most egalitarian philosophy. All are to be given freedom. The laborers are free to sell their labor for the market wage, and the capitalists are free to earn suitable returns on their wealth. The grossly inequitable nature of this freedom is not immediately apparent. Millions were given the freedom to starve in Irish and Bengal famines to preserve the freedom of the markets. Grains guarded by the military against hungry mobs were shipped out of Bengal at the height of the famine because higher prices were available elsewhere.
Economic freedom is ideal if the playing field is level, but when a few are enormously advantaged, then “freedom” is equivalent to freedom of the rich to enslave the poor. The poor have no choices, and cannot take any advantage of their supposed freedom.
The truth is that both wealth and freedom could be double-edged swords. As Aristotle noted: “wealth is not the good we are seeking, and is merely useful for the sake of something else.” This knowledge was lost in the West. In a secular society, goals of life were left to be determined by individuals, since common social goals could not be agreed upon. In the absence of common goals, the social agreement was only possible by providing freedom and wealth as the means to all possible goals. Gradually, failure to prescribe realistic and meaningful life goals at the social level led to these instruments and means becoming prized and valuable goals. This has led to a social disaster. This apparent paradox is expressed in the Quran as follows:
They who hoard up gold and silver and spend it not in the way of Allah, unto them give tidings (O Muhammad) of a painful doom (Quran 9:34).
This is in direct contrast with the wisdom of Keynes, currently being pursued with vigor all over the world:
The love of money as a possession (… is …) somewhat disgusting morbidity … But beware! The time for all this is not yet. For at least another hundred years, we must pretend to ourselves and to everyone that fair is foul and foul is fair; for foul is useful and fair is not” (Keynes, 1930 cited in Skidelsky, 2001).
Exactly as wealth has a dual nature, so freedom has a dual nature. If used wisely in the pursuit of good ends, it is extremely valuable. If used unwisely to pursue bad goals, it can cause tremendous damage to all. The Quran contains a clear message:
Verily, We did offer the trust [of reason and volition] to the heavens, and the earth, and the mountains: but they refused to bear it because they were afraid of it. Yet man took it up – verily, he has proven to be most wicked, most foolish (Quran 33:72).
Freedom places a tremendous responsibility on our shoulders – the heavens and the earth shrank from bearing it. This is our responsibility to be wise (have knowledge of the good), and to be virtuous (to act on this knowledge). In general, human beings have failed on both counts. They have been foolish, in failing to learn what is the best course of action, and they have been wicked, in failing to act on the knowledge of the good, even when they had it. Thus, instead of being a blessing, freedom has been the bane of humanity. Those with wealth and power have abused their freedom by using these to exploit the poor and powerless:
Corruption has appeared on land and in the sea as an outcome of what men’s hands have wrought (Quran 30:41).
It is certainly possible to use our freedom for the benefit of humanity, but this requires wisdom and virtue.
Development: Myths and Truths describes 12 myths about development. Materialism Versus Idealism – covers the first 3 myths: Central Myths of Eurocentric History: Covers myths 4,5,6 regarding the Rise of the West. The seventh myth is covered in Myth 7: Racial Superiority of Whites. Myth 8 states that governance systems in Europe in infinitely superior to those of the East – this is discussed in The Myth of Oriental Despotism. Myth 9, “blaming the victims” highlights well-orchestrated propaganda of the imperial powers to blame the masses in the colonies for their underdevelopment.
Zaman, Asad (2013) “Is Development Accumulation of Wealth? Islamic Views,” Afro Eurasian Studies, Vol. 2, Issues 1&2, Spring & Fall 2013, 144-203.