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Classical Liberalism in “Guns, Germs and Steel” by Diamond


Twenty-five years before the publication of Jared Diamond’s book, Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies, the author was a biologist studying Papua New Guinea’s native bird population. In his pursuit of knowledge, the author came to know a local politician named Yali. The said political leader quizzed Diamond regarding the relationship between the local inhabitants and the white masters who were able to dominate the region for hundreds of years. Yali wanted to know about the economic inequality between two groups of people, the different capabilities between white settlers and the native Papua New Guineans. He framed a question using his own words: “Why is it that you white people developed so much cargo and brought it to New Guinea, but we black people had little cargo of our own?” (Diamond, 1997, p. 14). Twenty-five years later, Jared Diamond wrote a book in reply to the said query. The proponent of this study will attempt to do the same, using a classical liberalism approach tempered by colonialism as an alternative theory, and insights from an analytical framework based on concepts related to guns, germs, and steel.

Classical Liberalism and Three Major Contributors to Its Development

It is important to point out that it is impossible and impractical to use only one development theory in order to answer a complicated question, such as the one that Yali formulated and directed at Diamond. Nevertheless, if compelled to use only one model, a good way to explain the emergence of powerful societies is a theoretical framework defined by a classical liberalism approach.

One can make the argument that classical liberalism came from a seed germinated through the English Magna Carta (Butler, 2015). This was a charter signed by England’s reigning monarch hundreds of years ago. It was a document that the English nobility accepted as fair and square because the Magna Carta enforced ancient laws asserting the rights of the individual, especially rights concerning the private ownership of land (Butler, 2015). One of the key principles of the charter was the assurance that even the king of England was under the rule of law. The concepts and the principles that came from the Magna Carta became foundation stones for the establishment of classical-liberal thought.

During the Age of Enlightenment, John Locke synthesized the disparate but related ideas under a framework characterized by freedom and natural rights. Locke was able to develop a skeletal structure of ideas that resembled the modern version of liberalism as a development theory.

In the same era of enlightenment, a French philosopher named Montesquieu made the assertion that a free society is defined by cooperation, a community that requires little direction from the central power. Further down the road, a Scottish philosopher and economist named Adam Smith made improvements on the Frenchman’s work. Smith made known his observation that greater cooperation leads to more favorable results. In other words, peaceful co-existence leads to greater security and enhanced productivity.

There are several examples in human history that support Smith’s conclusion. A significant number of societies and communities all over the planet attest to the power of adhering to the rule of law and leveraging the advantages of shared responsibilities. In the said communities, the residents are dependent on each other for mutual support. For example, farming communities exemplify the benefits of honoring the social contract. The same thing can be said of fishing villages and tribal societies that valued the multiplier effect of a mindset to share resources, and the belief in the importance of complimenting each other’s strengths and weaknesses.

It is difficult to understand the existence of societies that are thriving in the midst of topographical or geographical challenges without acknowledging the importance of cooperation and shared efforts. In the same way, the rule of law, and respect for basic human rights are powerful factors in explaining the emergence of successful and powerful governments.

One way to define classical liberalism is to examine ten core tenets of the said theoretical framework, and these are listed as follows: 1) presumption of freedom; 2) the importance is given to an individual; 3) limitations on the use of coercion; 4) tolerance; 5) limit the power of the government; 6) rule of law; 7) spontaneous order; 8) property, trade, and markets; 9) voluntary associations; and 10) common human values (Butler, 2015). An overview of 20th-century political regimes underscores the critical importance of the aforementioned ten-point principles that defined classical liberal thought. For example, the repressive government once known as the Union Soviet Socialist Republic was at a certain time one of the most powerful regimes on the planet, second only to the United States of America. However, less than 50 years after it was established, the USSR was no more. The same fate befell copycat polities in East Germany and Cambodia. North Korea is the exception to the rule. However, it is not hard to see the backward development of the said rogue nation. The economy is in a pitiable state, and the people are suffering under a dictator’s iron rule.

A review of several examples of failed states and failed economies magnified the benefits and rewards paradigm promised by the adherents of classical liberalism. Surely the accumulation of wealth is only possible in societies characterized by a well-functioning law enforcement agency and a court of law that sifts through administrative and criminal cases with an eye towards justice and equality for all. At this point, it is now possible to revisit Yalin’s question and explain to the Papua New Guinean native the root cause of his country’s failure to surpass the economic power of the United Kingdom or France. However, the argument falls flat on its face if Yalin belongs to a tribal group that espouses the importance of cooperation and the rule of law. In fact, it does not require an anthropologist to realize that primitive societies, or at least those that were not yet transformed by modern living, they exemplify the importance of shared cooperation.

In Diamond’s book, he discussed the fate of tribes and primitive societies that were exterminated by more powerful rival groups. It is interesting to note that the Moriori people embraced liberal ideas before 500 Maori warriors came to their village and slaughtered men, women, and children (Diamond, 1997). One can even make the argument that the Moriori people understood the implications of liberalism even if they did not have the same access to a sophisticated education system that shaped the minds of John Locke and Adam Smith. The Moriori were committed to liberal ideas to the point that they even allowed the castration of male infants in order to control the nation’s population growth. In other words, these people practiced a version of birth control due to a profound understanding of the perils of overpopulation. Nevertheless, these smart, kind, and peace-loving people were exterminated by the Maoris.

Colonialism: An Alternative Theory of Development

It is not difficult to expose the inherent weakness of liberalism as a theoretical framework utilized to explain the emergence of economic superpowers located in the Western hemisphere. One way to do it is in the realization that this system of understanding human development, trade, and the creation of a global economy lacks the ability to deal with problems or dilemmas associated with inequalities and exploitation.

A review of Butler’s ten-point principles highlighting the advantages of classical-liberal thought makes the reader consider the need to evaluate the underlying assumption that in order for the system to work, the participants are expected to agree to the benefit of accepting the wisdom of the said framework, and immediately enter into a social contract with key players and stakeholders. However, in the real world, it is against the natural instinct of people from different social backgrounds to come together and make a pact to build a better world.

Classical liberalism failed to consider the real consequences when people or social groups are not going to come together and establish a nation-state governed by an acceptable set of laws. Classical liberalism does not have a clear answer when inequality and the fear of lack cause tension to arise between neighboring states or in a particular socio-economic region shared by different ethnic groups. In the event that one group is deprived of access to a vital resource, a state of insecurity sets in and this mental state drives people to attain a certain level of equilibrium. However, there are leaders that are not going to be contented with the idea of sharing limited resources with others. Thus, the need for greater security may compel leaders to use the resources at their disposal in order to dominate others.

When European migrants left the Old World to settle into the New World, some of them were hoping to establish friendly relations with the indigenous people of their target destination. However, they were in a desperate situation that they never thought of going back to their homeland. Therefore, even if a council of elders decided to give them an eviction notice, the new settlers are going to fight for their right to live in territories affectionately called New England, New Hampshire, New York, and New Zealand. They are not going to be intimidated, and they are not going to pack up and return to where they came from. In fact, conquistadors like Hernan Cortes and Francisco Pizarro were ready for battle, and they were willing to annihilate the local population if that was the key to success. Due to these realizations, it is imperative to use another theoretical framework explaining the rise of the Western world.

It is of crucial importance to perceive both the positive and negative sides of colonialism. The positive side of colonialism becomes clear after the realization that the root word is a Latin term that equates to the idea of a farmer tilling the soil (Kohn, 2012). Thus, in the ideal interpretation of colonialism, there is a way to harmonize key principles of classical liberalism and colonialism, especially when it comes to maximizing the return of invested capital. For example, European business entities establish companies in India and coastal territories in the New World to help the local population. The foreigners came in to introduce new technology and enhance the trade between the two nations. However, there is a dark side to colonialism, and this comes to the fore when the idea is also synonymous with imperial rule. Thus, the bad side of colonialism is the subjugation of another ethnic group or nation-state.

Guns for Weapons, Germs for Epidemic and Steel for Technology

At this point, the analyst has enough information to answer Yali’s question. There is no honor in admitting that colonial masters utilized violent force to subjugate the natives. As a consequence, they were able to control the land and force the inhabitants to work for them as if they were slaves or as if they were second-class citizens in their own country. This is a good explanation, but the logic of the reasoning process assumes something without considering the root cause of the event. Diamond was correct when he described Yali as an intelligent man. The author was implying that there was no such thing as a superior race. If this is true, then, the subjugation of the native inhabitants must follow a process that is nothing different from the tribal wars or regional conflicts that the natives experienced all their lives. If this holds true, then, there is a probability that the native inhabitants are going to win in a head-to-head battle with the colonizers. For instance, if this idea holds true, it is possible to discover an island nation wherein the slaves are white people and the slave masters are the black people.

Another problematic issue that arises without determining the root cause of the white man’s success is seen in the difficulty of explaining the high success rate when faced with difficult odds. In a typical battle, the superiority of forces usually takes the day. For example, the Sioux warriors easily outnumbered General George Custer’s men, and the American soldiers were massacred in the battle of the Little Big Horn (Diamond, 1997). However, in the battle at Cajamarca, Pizarro’s 168 soldiers defeated an army of 80,000 men. It does not make sense to say that the sheer will to subjugate native inhabitants is the key to victory. Thus, it is imperative to discover the reasons behind the white man’s overwhelming success (Payne & Phillips, 2013).

A closer examination of the battle revealed that native Indian warriors under the command of King Atahuallpa did not possess a single sword, dagger, or lancet. They wore thin quilt-like armor that was no match against the hardened metal armor of the Spaniards. The foreign soldiers although inferior in numbers was also armed with crude rifles. These were inferior weapons compared to the rifles that became famous in the New World against Native Americans, however, the novelty of the weapons created a tremendous psychological advantage over the hapless foes (Diamond, 1997). It is interesting to note that aside from the steel weapons they carried, the Spaniards caused great havoc with their warhorses.

The conquistadors’ access to superior weapons was the tipping point in the lopsided battle. However, it is not accurate to simply attribute the victory to advanced weapons systems. It was discovered later on that the defeated Peruvian government under the control of King Atahuallpa did not have a system of writing that was a critical advantage when it comes to intelligence gathering. News about Pizzaro’s army traveled by mouth, and it is easy to understand the inaccurate information that gets added to the original as it went along the chain of command. Even with the use of superior weapons, the mere fact that King Atahuallpa had 80,000 men at his disposal was enough to have given him a slight advantage, especially if he was able to plan in accordance to accurate and relevant information that he could have received if he had a writing system in place. Therefore, aside from superior weaponry, it was the technology that gave rise to efficient communication systems that gave the Spaniards another level of advantage over their enemies.

Decisive victories were possible through the use of advanced weapons technology and military strategy honed by high-level knowledge acquisitions in military schools (Lyons, 2016). However, this is not enough to explain the rate of success enjoyed by white settlers in other countries. Jared Diamond pointed out that white settlers developed partial immunity to pathogens that were the deadly vectors of pandemics in the New World and other colonies (Diamond, 1997).

Answering Yali’s Question

It is possible to answer Yali’s question through the use of the classical liberalism approach. The mere fact that white settlers were able to travel long distances using advanced shipbuilding technology and bringing with them high-quality products never before seen outside the European continent was a testament to cooperation and adherence to the rule of law. It is impossible to build and finance expeditions without adherence to the rule of law. It is impossible to establish military schools and business organizations without the support of civil society (Chandler & Sisk, 2013). However, it is truthful to acknowledge that Europeans utilized two types of colonization processes. The first one was along the lines of liberalistic thought, the desire to maximize profit for the benefit of all stakeholders. The second one was the use of violent force and coercive behavior to subjugate a technologically inferior people. The subjugation was not only accomplished through advanced weaponry, but it was also due in large part to the use of other types of technology not related to war. Finally, great assistance came from an invisible force, the spread of deadly diseases that decimated large populations more effectively and efficiently than the armies of Pizarro and Cortes could ever have done in such a short period of time.


Classical liberalism is an acceptable theoretical framework for explaining the emergence of economic and military superpowers. It is difficult to imagine a society succeed beyond the hunter-gatherer phase without a strong belief in the rule of law. It is hard to imagine the absence of voluntary associations and shared cooperation in the development of military schools and business enterprises that were instrumental in the creation of armadas and business companies. These developments in turn successfully established colonies in the New World and Asia. On the other hand, it is less true to say these things without acknowledging the impact of colonialism in subjugating native populations from America to Australia. It is also impossible to understand the whole process without mentioning the impact of weapons, diseases, and cutting-edge technology.


Butler, E. (2015). Classical liberalism: A primer. London, UK: The Institute of Economic Affairs.

Chandler, D. & Sisk, T. (2013). Routledge handbook of international statebuilding. New York, NY: Routledge.

Diamond, J. (1997). Guns, germs and steel: The fates of human societies. New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Company.

Kohn, M. (2012). . Web.

Lyons, J. (2016). . Web.

Payne, A., & Phillips, N. (2013). Development. Malden, MA: Polity Press.

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