Deirdre McCloskey wrote The Saturday Essay for today’s edition of the Wall Street Journal . It’s entitled “How the West (and the Rest) Got Rich.” Below are some slices (link added). (Tonight at 8:30pm EDT on C-SPAN2’s BookTV there will air my April 21st Conversation with Deirdre .)
And these figures don’t take into account the radical improvement since 1800 in commonly available goods and services. Today’s concerns over the stagnation of real wages in the U.S. and other developed economies are overblown if put in historical perspective. As the economists Donald Boudreaux and Mark Perry have argued in these pages , the official figures don’t take account of the real benefits of our astonishing material progress.
Look at the magnificent plenty on the shelves of supermarkets and shopping malls. Consider the magical devices for communication and entertainment now available even to people of modest means. Do you know someone who is clinically depressed? She can find help today with a range of effective drugs, none of which were available to the billionaire Howard Hughes in his despair. Had a hip joint replaced? In 1980, the operation was crudely experimental.
Look around your room and note the hundreds of post-1800 ideas embedded in it: electric lights, central heating and cooling, carpet woven by machine, windows larger than any achievable until the float-glass process. Or consider your own human capital formed at college, or your dog’s health from visits to the vet.
The ideas sufficed. Once we had the ideas for railroads or air conditioning or the modern research university, getting the wherewithal to do them was comparatively simple, because they were so obviously profitable.
The Great Enrichment is the most important secular event since human beings first domesticated wheat and horses. It has been and will continue to be more important historically than the rise and fall of empires or the class struggle in all hitherto existing societies. Empire did not enrich Britain. America’s success did not depend on slavery. Power did not lead to plenty, and exploitation was not plenty’s engine. Progress toward French-style equality of outcome was achieved not by taxation and redistribution but by the Scots’ very different notion of equality. The real engine was the expanding ideology of classical liberalism.
The Great Enrichment has restarted history. It will end poverty. For a good part of humankind, it already has. China and India, which have adopted some of economic liberalism, have exploded in growth. Brazil, Russia and South Africa, not to speak of the European Union—all of them fond of planning and protectionism and level playing fields—have stagnated.
If you’ve not yet read it, read ASAP Deirdre’s new volume, Bourgeois Equality .