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William Easterly is Professor of Economics at New York University, joint with Africa House, and Co-Director of the NYU Development Research Institute. He is also a non-resident Fellow of the[…]

The tension between collective and independent action has shaped both the developing and developed worlds.

Well if I had to give a one-sentence answer as to what drives human progress, which is the biggest question of all time, I would have to say individual freedom. It was really the freedom of creative individuals to figure out how to solve their own problems, how to solve other people’s problems that led to remarkable discoveries like the accidental discovery of penicillin by a guy just tinkering around in a laboratory. That kind of individual creativity is the mainspring of all human progress, I think. And it’s a society that values the individual, that lets individuals be free to find their own solutions – those are the societies that progress, that value individual freedom. Well I think the divergence between the success of the west and the rest was again this issue of individual values versus collectivism, that the rest continued to embrace a kind of collective approach to society where they valued clan, or nation, or ethnic group above the individual. And the individual’s kind of sacrificed to the well being of the clan, or ethnic group, or nation. To where I think of the great breakthrough in the west was to place the value on the individual instead of the nation, the collective; to value the individual more than collective. And of course individuals in the west are also patriotic and feel a group pride and group loyalty; but the fundamental unit of value is the individual. That’s what I think really made the big difference in the success of the west.Well I think human nature is really pretty much the same everywhere. Nobody likes to be told what to do by other people. Nobody likes someone else coming in to your home and telling you what to do. That’s just basic human nature. And so I don’t think the west was different in that it had a different human nature, and that people valued their own individuality more in the west more than other people did. It’s just that social arrangements evolve that people were able to protect their individual rights against infringement by the collective, by the nation, by the tyranny of the group, and protect individual rights so that individual creativity could be expressed. Recorded On: 7/6/07

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