sabato 21 maggio 2016

How the West (and the Rest) Got Rich

  • Two centuries ago, the average world income per human (in present-day prices) was about $3 a day. It had been so since we lived in caves. Now it is $33 a day—which is Brazil’s current level and the level of the U.S. in 1940. Over the past 200 years, the average real income per person—including even such present-day tragedies as Chad and North Korea—has grown by a factor of 10. It is stunning. In countries that adopted trade and economic betterment wholeheartedly, like Japan, Sweden and the U.S., it is more like a factor of 30—even more stunning. 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.
  • What caused it? The usual explanations follow ideology. On the left, from Marx onward, the key is said to be exploitation. Capitalists after 1800 seized surplus value from their workers and invested it in dark, satanic mills. On the right, from the blessed Adam Smith onward, the trick was thought to be savings. The wild Highlanders could become as rich as the Dutch—“the highest degree of opulence,” as Smith put it in 1776—if they would merely save enough to accumulate capital (and stop stealing cattle from one another).
  • A recent extension of Smith’s claim, put forward by the late economics Nobelist Douglass North (and now embraced as orthodoxy by the World Bank) is that the real elixir is institutions. On this view, if you give a nation’s lawyers fine robes and white wigs, you will get something like English common law. Legislation will follow, corruption will vanish, and the nation will be carried by the accumulation of capital to the highest degree of opulence.
  • 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... The Rational Optimist” (2010), what happened over the past two centuries is that “ideas started having sex.”
  • If capital accumulation or the rule of law had been sufficient, the Great Enrichment would have happened in Mesopotamia in 2000 B.C., or Rome in A.D. 100 or Baghdad in 800. Until 1500, and in many ways until 1700, China was the most technologically advanced country. Hundreds of years before the West, the Chinese invented locks on canals to float up and down hills, and the canals themselves were much longer than any in Europe. China’s free-trade area and its rule of law were vastly more extensive than in Europe’s quarrelsome fragments, divided by tariffs and tyrannies. Yet it was not in China but in northwestern Europe that the Industrial Revolution and then the more consequential Great Enrichment first happened.
  • 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