NYTimes | What, then, caused this Great Enrichment?
Not exploitation of the poor, not investment, not existing institutions, but a mere idea, which the philosopher and economist Adam Smith called “the liberal plan of equality, liberty and justice.” In a word, it was liberalism, in the free-market European sense. Give masses of ordinary people equality before the law and equality of social dignity, and leave them alone, and it turns out that they become extraordinarily creative and energetic.
The liberal idea was spawned by some happy accidents in northwestern Europe from 1517 to 1789 — namely, the four R’s: the Reformation, the Dutch Revolt, the revolutions of England and France, and the proliferation of reading. The four R’s liberated ordinary people, among them the venturing bourgeoisie. The Bourgeois Deal is, briefly, this: In the first act, let me try this or that improvement. I’ll keep the profit, thank you very much, though in the second act those pesky competitors will erode it by entering and disrupting (as Uber has done to the taxi industry). By the third act, after my betterments have spread, they will make you rich.
And they did.
You may object that ideas are a dime a dozen and that to make them fruitful we must start with adequate physical and human capital and good institutions. It’s a popular idea at the World Bank, but a mistaken one. True, we eventually need capital and institutions to embody the ideas, such as a marble building with central heating and cooling to house the Supreme Court. But the intermediate and dependent causes like capital and institutions have not been the root cause.
The root cause of enrichment was and is the liberal idea, spawning the university, the railway, the high-rise, the internet and, most important, our liberties. What original accumulation of capital inflamed the minds of William Lloyd Garrison and Sojourner Truth? What institutions, except the recent liberal ones of university education and uncensored book publishing, caused feminism or the antiwar movement? Since Karl Marx, we have made a habit of seeking material causes for human progress. But the modern world came from treating more and more people with respect.
Ideas are not all sweet, of course. Fascism, racism, eugenics and nationalism are ideas with alarming recent popularity. But sweet practical ideas for profitable technologies and institutions, and the liberal idea that allowed ordinary people for the first time to have a go, caused the Great Enrichment. We need to inspirit masses of people, not the elite, who are plenty inspirited already. Equality before the law and equality of social dignity are still the root of economic, as well as spiritual, flourishing — whatever tyrants may think to the contrary.