Deirdre McCloskey has an outstanding article in the WSJ this weekend asking how America and other countries got rich. I hate to quote as the whole thing is worth your time, but here’s a few choice selections:
Nothing like the Great Enrichment of the past two centuries had ever happened before. Doublings of income—mere 100% betterments in the human condition—had happened often, during the glory of Greece and the grandeur of Rome, in Song China and Mughal India. But people soon fell back to the miserable routine of Afghanistan’s income nowadays, $3 or worse. A revolutionary betterment of 10,000%, taking into account everything from canned goods to antidepressants, was out of the question. Until it happened.
McCloskey asks how this happened, dispenses with the usual explanations and focus on this:
What enriched the modern world wasn’t capital stolen from workers or capital virtuously saved, nor was it institutions for routinely accumulating it. Capital and the rule of law were necessary, of course, but so was a labor force and liquid water and the arrow of time.
The capital became productive because of ideas for betterment—ideas enacted by a country carpenter or a boy telegrapher or a teenage Seattle computer whiz. As Matt Ridley put it in his book “The Rational Optimist” (2010), what happened over the past two centuries is that “ideas started having sex.” The idea of a railroad was a coupling of high-pressure steam engines with cars running on coal-mining rails. The idea for a lawn mower coupled a miniature gasoline engine with a miniature mechanical reaper. And so on, through every imaginable sort of invention. The coupling of ideas in the heads of the common people yielded an explosion of betterments.
OK. But then why did that happen? Why did human ideas, which had been basically celibate for a hundred millennia, suddenly start “having sex”? Well, something we’ve been on about in these very pages:
The answer, in a word, is “liberty.” Liberated people, it turns out, are ingenious. Slaves, serfs, subordinated women, people frozen in a hierarchy of lords or bureaucrats are not. By certain accidents of European politics, having nothing to do with deep European virtue, more and more Europeans were liberated. From Luther’s reformation through the Dutch revolt against Spain after 1568 and England’s turmoil in the Civil War of the 1640s, down to the American and French revolutions, Europeans came to believe that common people should be liberated to have a go. You might call it: life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
To use another big concept, what came—slowly, imperfectly—was equality. It was not an equality of outcome, which might be labeled “French” in honor of Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Thomas Piketty. It was, so to speak, “Scottish,” in honor of David Hume and Adam Smith: equality before the law and equality of social dignity. It made people bold to pursue betterments on their own account. It was, as Smith put it, “allowing every man to pursue his own interest his own way, upon the liberal plan of equality, liberty and justice.”
I would particularly focus on freedom of speech and property rights. Freedom of speech allowed ideas to be communicated, now at literally the speed of light. And property rights removed the fear that communicating your ideas would deprive you of their benefits.
I’ve mentioned this before, but it’s worth rehashing: my dad did the War College in the 1980’s. He argued that classifying military technology to protect us from Soviet spies was actually a bad idea. Ideas flourish under communication; progress flourishes when ideas “have sex”. The freedom of the United States meant that we could publish our military tech secrets on the front page of Pravda and the Soviet Union would still not be able to keep up. We would always be steps ahead of them technologically because our people were free to develop and exploit those ideas while the Soviets were not. And since the Cold War ended, we’ve seen our technological progress only speed up.
Anyway, the article is worth your time. It’s inspiring. And it suggests that the way to get of our two-decade long economic doldrum is more freedom, not more regulation and redistribution.
Post-Scriptum: McCloskey, incidentally, is a trans woman. She had some great thoughts on the whole bathroom kerfuffle:
The bathroom “issue” is entirely phony. It has never been a problem. Anyway, if men wanted to sneak in (they don’t), they could always have done so, with or without North Carolina’s law. How is it to be enforced? DNA testing by the TSA at every bathroom door? Anyway, your house has a unisex bathroom, I presume, and in Europe they are not entirely uncommon—after all, the stalls have doors. Etc, etc. On both sides it is just a club to beat up the other side in the silly Cultural Wars, and to make people hate and disdain each other. Adam Smith would not have approved.
Again, the link is worth a clickthrough. Anything McCloskey writes, including grocery lists, is usually worth your time.