"Let My People Go"
History - World Released - Aug 14, 2016
Something happened. Where once the world had been poor, now it was rich. Called the Great Enrichment, it’s “the most important secular event” since the Agricultural Revolution that began in the 10th century B.C., and “it has pulled millions and millions of people out of poverty and destitution.” How to explain this startling transformation is the subject of “Bourgeois Equality: How Ideas, Not Capital or Institutions, Enriched the World” by distinguished economist and historian Deirdre McCloskey.
The answer, in a nutshell, is something akin to what Moses demanded of Pharaoh who held the Israelites in bondage: “Let my people go.” It began in the Netherlands in the 17th century, spread to England, to America, and to Western Europe—in that order—and now to many parts of the world. If allowed to continue it will eliminate poverty from the face of the earth. Behind it is a single, powerful idea—equality. Wherever equality goes, the creation of wealth follows, and with it democracy. If you don’t know, “Bourgeois” (pronounced “boor-zhwah) is the French word for the middle class.
The numbers behind the Great Enrichment are startling. Two centuries ago, the average world income per human (in present day prices) was about $3 a day. And it had been so since he lived in caves. Today it is $33 a day. In the U.S.—the richest country in the world—the average income per person is $130 a day. In China it is $20 a day, and in India $10, even after their emergence from a crippling socialism of $1 a day. Over the past 200 years, the real average income per person has grown by a factor of ten. In Japan, Western Europe and the U.S.—it is more like a factor of 30. These figures do not take into account the radical improvement since 1800 in commonly available goods and services. Look at the abundance and variety of foods in supermarkets, the overwhelming variety of clothes, gadgets and goodies in shopping malls, the miracle of modern dentistry, indoor plumbing, washing machines, refrigeration, central heating and cooling, electric lights, trains, planes and automobiles. Taking everything into account, a revolutionary betterment of 10,000 percent has taken place over the past 200 years.
Nothing in the history of the world compares with it. Doublings of income—mere 100 percent betterments in the human condition—had happened before, in classical Greece, imperial Rome, Song China, and Mughal India. But it didn’t last. Eventually people fell back to the miserable routine of Afghanistan’s income nowadays, of $3 or worse.
What held the Great Enrichment back for eons was power in high places—kings, clergy, the nobility. Under such rulership, most people lived in grinding poverty and had absolutely no power to better their lives. Ignorant and tied to the land, their only lot in life was to serve at the behest of the ruling elite. And those in power—like the pharaohs of Egypt—were not about to let the masses off the hook of servitude and poverty. They never do. In the few instances where democracy governed—in classical Greece and to a degree in the Roman Republic—it was reserved for the elite few landowners, and buttressed by the enslavement of others (much like the Antebellum South).
The change began on the fringes of northern Europe, out of the reach of kings and nobles, in the Hanseatic towns of Hamburg, Lubeck, and Kiel, but especially in the Netherlands which had fought a bloody 80-year war to free itself from Spanish rule. Once free, the Netherlands embraced everything the Spanish had been against—individual freedom, tolerance, and pluralism. The change was transformative. Free to call their own shots, the Dutch embraced free trade and grew rich. After the Glorious Revolution of 1688, which greatly diminished the power of the monarchy, the English followed in the Netherlands’ footsteps, as did the North American colonies, England’s impoverished neighbor, Scotland, and then Belgium, Northern France and the Rhineland.
The key to this economic miracle is something that can’t be consumed or quantified. It’s an idea—“liberty.” It seems liberated people are ingenious. When not governed from above, honored and left alone, they become immensely creative. Among the many results—the Industrial Revolution. Writes the author: “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 Dutch revolt against Spain after 1568 and England’s turmoil 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.”
Not everyone was happy with these ideas and the changes to society they ushered in. Intellectuals on the political right, looked back with nostalgia to an imagined Middle Age, free of the vulgarity of trade, a non-market golden age of in which rents and hierarchy ruled, yes, back to the bad old days of servitude to the ruling class. On the left, meanwhile, a different cadre of intellectuals looked forward to a future that returned the masses to enslavement of a different sort. While enjoying the fruits of bourgeois equality (Karl Marx made a killing on the London Stock Exchange while failing to put food on the table for his wife and family), this group developed the first in what would become a long line of “isms” designed to destroy what the middle class had wrought—personal freedom, individual rights, rule of law, private enterprise, democracy, and abundance. The result—socialism, communism, fascism, naziism—ultimately would lead to the death of countless millions of people in the 20th century.
If left to run its course, Bourgeois Equality someday will end world hunger and poverty. Writes the author: “For a good part of humankind, it already has. China and India, which have adopted some of economic liberalism, have exploded in growth.” Other nations, meanwhile, which have reverted to state control of the economy, such as Brazil, Russia, and South Africa, have stagnated.
“Bourgeois Equality” is long (at 650 pages) but engagingly written. The author calls herself a “rational optimist.” Her book is an uplifting journey of ideas, examined and debated much as one would examine the goods in the town marketplace looking for the best buy. No stone is left unturned. Ideas are kicked around, argued over, and held up to the light of reason. I felt a bit exhausted at times but was never less than entertained while being thoroughly schooled in economics, philosophy, history, and literature.
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