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The Israel Test: A guide for capitalism

Early in 1981, with his million-copy bestseller Wealth and Poverty, George Gilder established himself as the intellectual herald of the Reagan Revolution. The New York Times aptly described the book as "an eloquent defence of the capitalist high ground" - apt because the high ground is mostly a matter of ethics, not economics, and Mr. Gilder is primarily a moralist. "Faith in man, faith in the future and faith in the providence of God," he wrote, "are all essential to successful capitalism." Without a vision, in other words, the people perish.

Even in his exuberant embrace of free-market economics, though, Mr. Gilder conceded that capitalism remains everywhere threatened - by the envy of people (especially intellectuals) who can't abide the greater success of other people. A dedicated churchman and "classic WASP," Mr. Gilder found this ubiquitous sin a serious violation of the 10th Commandment. (Indeed, he once observed, the only people desperate for capitalism are people who don't have it.) In the 28 years since Wealth and Poverty, the number of impoverished people denied the benefits of a competitive economy has fallen dramatically (along with poverty itself). Without doubt, George Gilder is one of the reasons why.

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In the intervening years, Mr. Gilder published a number of books that celebrate the capitalists and the entrepreneurs who pull the world along with them as they invent the future and then reinvent it again and again. Among his other significant books are The Spirit of Enterprise, his 1986 volume on entrepreneurial achievement, and Microcosm, his 1989 treatise on technological achievement.

Now he's back with another celebration of extraordinary free-market achievement. In The Israel Test, published earlier this month by Richard Vigilante Books, he boldly asserts his thesis: "Israel has become one of the most important economies in the world and is second only to the United States in its pioneering of technologies that improve human life."

Mr. Gilder is an iconoclastic thinker with his own particular perspectives. He is certainly controversial. But against a background of growing anti-Semitism, there is a need to recognize Israel's importance for democracy and its contribution to the global economy, and to ponder the reasons behind this tiny country's outsized contribution.

Simply put, Mr. Gilder asserts that Israelis now form "the vanguard of human achievement." In commerce, in science, in technology and indeed (necessarily, under the circumstances) in military strength, Israel has forged one of the most creative societies on Earth. It is crude envy of Israel's success, Mr. Gilder says, that explains contemporary anti-Semitism: "At the heart of anti-Semitism is resentment of Jewish achievement."

It is the same crude envy that has afflicted other exceptional peoples throughout history, Mr. Gilder argues - from Armenians in the Ottoman Empire, for example, to the overseas Chinese in Indonesia and Malaysia. But Jews attract extraordinary hostility because they have succeeded in extraordinary measure, he argues.

This of course is not the only explanation for such ancient and difficult hatreds. The roots of anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism are deep and complex and rooted in a long history.

Still, some facts are difficult to refute. Citing research by sociologist Charles Murray in Human Accomplishment, Mr. Gilder says that in the first half of the 20th century, Jews won 14 per cent of the Nobel Prizes awarded in literature, chemistry, physics and medicine. In the second half of the century, the percentage rose to 29. Thus far in the 21st century, the percentage has risen to 32 per cent. Further, Jews have won 51 per cent of the Wolf Prizes (physics), 28 per cent of the Max Planck Medals (theoretical physics), 38 per cent of the Dirac Medals (theoretical physics), 37 per cent of the Heineman Prizes (mathematical physics) and 53 per cent of the Enrico Fermi Awards (lifetime achievement in energy research).

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Among these award winners were some of the most gifted minds of the past century. John von Neumann (the brilliant mathematician whose life story is cherished by Mr. Gilder) won the Enrico Fermi Award in 1956. Born in Hungary, the son of a banker, Mr. von Neumann could joke with his father in classical Greek at age six - and given a minute or two with a phone book could recite in perfect order every name, address and phone number on any given page.

Now, though, Israel "concentrates the genius of the Jews," according to Mr. Gilder. Since 1990, he notes, the country has "sloughed off its manacles of confiscatory taxes, oppressive regulations, government ownership and socialist nostalgia."Mr. Gilder's rule of capitalism is that the good fortune of others is one's own good fortune too. He frames his "Israel Test" in personal terms: What is your attitude toward people who surpass you in accomplishments? Do you aspire to their excellence - or do you seethe at it?

The Israel Test, he says, is "a pivot, a litmus test, a trial" that will decide the survival of democracy and freedom in our time.

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About the Author
Neil Reynolds

Neil Reynolds is an Ottawa writer whose columns on national economic issues appear in Wednesday's and Friday's Globe and Mail. He is the former editor-in-chief of The Vancouver Sun and the Ottawa Citizen. More

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