Optimistic Look at Modernity Ahead

The Washington Times (Washington, DC), October 4, 2011 | Go to article overview

Optimistic Look at Modernity Ahead


Byline: Tom Bethell, SPECIAL TO THE WASHINGTON TIMES

Stockbrokers will tell you that predicting the future is risky. Max Singer's method in History of the Future is to assume the future will be like the past, which skirts a multitude of pitfalls. He worked with Herman Kahn at the Rand Corp., and his book, in its optimism, would have met with Kahn's approval. Later they founded the Hudson Institute together. In outline, Mr. Singer's thesis is straightforward: Over the past 200 years, a sizable number of countries have moved from traditional ways and customs to an embrace of modernity. The rest will follow.

These modernizing regions and countries - Western Europe, North America and Japan are the most obvious - have completed their passage to modernity, Mr. Singer writes. They haven't stopped changing, but they have passed from one plateau to another, and they won't change fundamentally. Mr. Singer gives various indexes of modernity. Compared with the traditional world, most people in modern societies can expect to live longer, enjoy a high school education and live mainly in cities, where we are protected from the environment. Mostly we work with our minds, contributing to information-dominated economies. We enjoy freedom of choice in many matters and are self-governed (by majority rule). Families are much smaller than formerly.

Modern societies are far richer than traditional ones, and Mr. Singer's vision of the future is simply stated. Traditional societies will go down the already beaten path to modernity and prosperity. The inequality of wealth between the two sets of countries will diminish because poor societies can catch up more quickly than modern ones can keep up the pace. The future, then, is broadly egalitarian.

Mr. Singer's future in bare outline strikes me as plausible. Changes already happening in traditional societies are approaching modernity as defined by Mr. Singer - conspicuously so in Brazil and India. Were it not for its ruinous 30-year diversion into the dead end of communism, China would be fully modernized by now. It soon will be. Over the past decade, developing countries have grown nearly four times faster than developed ones. Fertility rates, collapsing everywhere, are the most striking confirmation of Mr. Singer's prediction.

His optimism is conspicuous in his chapter on the Jihadi challenge. Although much of Islam is in conflict with modernity, that will change. Arabs, and Islam generally, will insist that groups and rules that impede modernization will have to give way. A new synthesis will then prevail. Islam will endure, but its reformation cannot be long delayed. Societies in which Islamists attempt to dominate by violence will immediately become poorer and therefore will self-correct.

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