Why did the western half of the great Eurasian landmass race so far ahead of the central and eastern parts even though the earliest civilisations rose in the valleys of the Tigris, Euphrates, Indus and Yellow rivers? When industrialisation did extend beyond Europe, why did it skip the Middle East, India and China, but transform eastern Asia into the land of tigers, completing in a few dramatic decades a process that took more than 150 years in England?
Within these bigger questions arise local conundrums. Will yesterday's roaring tigers, reduced to mewling kittens, ever regain their roar? If they do, will they remain autocratic societies replicating the dazzling totems of western prosperity with no understanding of the West's cultural heartbeat? Finally, the challenge that India faced in the 19th century: is it possible to be modern without ceasing to be Asian?
Between them, Deepak Lal and Victor Mallet, one a scholar (professor of international development studies at the University of California, Los Angeles), the other a journalist (former South-east Asian correspondent of The Financial Times ), address these questions. Lal's is an academic tour d'horizon of civilisation based on his 1995 Ohlin memorial lectures at the Stockholm School of Economics. Mallet's is a reporter's focused account of a region in turmoil. Even if their explanations leave gaps, and sometimes strain credulity, these absorbing books will help anyone concerned with the human condition understand a remarkable phenomenon of our times.
The conceptual and the practical here overlap in examining the factors of growth - history, politics, economics and culture - but, interestingly, neither author dwells on race as a reason for unequal development. On the contrary, Lal reiterates objections to Max Weber's famous thesis of Protestant creativity, arguing that since capitalist activities like banking gathered momentum long before the Reformation, it was practice that made the ethic, not the other way round.
Strangely, in discussing the Hindu caste hierarchy, he fails to mention that varna (caste) means colour, and that the system probably had a race origin. But India's internal dynamics do not affect his postulation that Christian politics inspired European growth. While Islam brokered the transfer of ideas rather than pioneered any breakthrough, and India and China peaked too soon, Western Europe's rise was rooted in St Augustine's extension of divine law to all Christendom in the fifth century, a coup that Gregory VIII's papal revolution legitimised in 1075. This, he argues, "was the crucial step in transforming the out-worldly into an in-worldly individual, a process completed by Calvin". The individualism it encouraged provided the catalyst for material progress, but also eroded the cement of social cohesion.
The more down-to-earth Mallet sees Europe and Asia as not so much different as at different stages of evolution. "The proposition that Asians are culturally inclined to shun individualism and to reject liberal democracy is looking increasingly shaky," he says, citing Dewi Fortuna Anwar, the Indonesian political scientist, on "the creeping development of civil society". Mallet also recalls that Spain, Portugal and Latin America were once regarded as bastions of authoritarianism, but, as Francis Fukuyama points out, are not only now mostly democratic, but reject the notion that human rights and liberalism are exclusively Anglo-Saxon attributes.
As for the "mysterious Asian miracle", Mallet argues - rightly - that it was based partly on the transient asset of cheap labour and partly on emulating western achievements - the catch-up factor. People worked hard and saved more, governments adopted sensible economic policies (instead of the Fabian socialism fashionable in South Asia), promoted exports, invested in education and encouraged industrial expansion. The cold war over, Japan and the West provided markets, finance and expertise. But success went to the heads of leaders who "made the mistake of being arrogant, when they should have been merely proud", and thought they had inherited a magic Asian elixir that would guarantee everlasting riches while individualism destroyed the West.
Much of this has been said before. But Mallet makes an important point in accusing South-east Asians of importing wholesale "the outward packaging of modern industrial societies" without grasping the internal dynamics. Desperate to surpass Europe and the US, they overlooked the essence of western civilisation, being content with the "unstable mixture of tawdry modernity on the outside, and a moral vacuum within" that assails the visitor to Bangkok or Singapore.
Transparent governance and greater public participation might restore stricken fortunes and ensure social stability, especially if chastened leaders accept the need to build effective political institutions. But will this make the region less insensitive to matters of the spirit?
Mallet writes with clarity, meticulously backing his detailed analyses with facts, figures and interviews with almost everyone of note. He and Lal differ significantly on the effects of modernisation, urbanisation and industrialisation. Mallet feels that having copied western affluence, South-east Asia cannot escape the consequences. Lal disagrees. His utopian verdict is that Japan has shown, as India and China are showing, that "it is possible ... to adopt the West's means to attain prosperity without giving up their souls". Would that it were so. In spite of Nathan Glazer's consoling statistics, the Japanese are worried about rising juvenile crime; as for India and China, there are no statistics at all. India's population shift from village to city produces the squalor associated with slums in Victorian England. South-east Asia's Chinese-influenced societies have moved so far from W.J.F. Jenner's idealistic view that "for better for worse, for richer or poorer, in sickness and in health, in the last resort the family is all there is" that Singapore's Maintenance of Parents Act had to substitute legal compulsion for filial affection.
In any case, a sudden descent into conditions on the ground goes ill with Lal's breathtaking roaming in the stratosphere, pondering on how geography moulded cosmological beliefs which, in turn, shaped polities; how ancient papal dictates triggered modern economic progress, and the difference between western "guilt", which is a goad to action, and the East's more passive sense of "shame". It makes fascinating reading, but trying to keep pace with Lal's dizzying gallop I found myself recalling Jan Morris's subversive remark that "Indians love to reduce the prosaic to the mystic". Few can do so with Lal's conviction and erudition.
Sunanda K. Datta-Ray was formerly editor, The Statesman, Calcutta and editorial consultant, The Straits Times, Singapore.
Unintended Consequences: The Impact of Factor Endowments, Culture, and Politics on Long-Run Economic Performance
Author - Deepak Lal
ISBN - 0 262 12210 3
Publisher - MIT Press
Price - £.95
Pages - 287