How the West Won

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One of my avocations is collecting pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. The puzzle consists of figuring out why the West changed so that during the past 200 years vast numbers of people rose above the II almost unrelieved wretchedness” that, as Nathan Rosenberg and L.E. Birdzell Jr. wrote in How the West Grew Rich, characterized humankind before the prosperity that has recently come to characterize the West.

Many people have contributed pieces to the puzzle. The contribution I have just discovered is Deepak Lal’s Unintended Consequences. What Lal brings to the project is knowledge of the civilizations of India and China, which had a head start in technology and perhaps natural endowments, but dropped out of the race. Perhaps even more important, as a Hindu, Lal brings a hard-edged look at the role of Christianity in developing the institutions of the West.

The concept of the Middle Ages as a long slump between classical civilizations and their rediscovery in the Renaissance was dashed long ago. Today, most historians see the Middle Ages as a landscape of fragmented and warring principalities. The fractionated conflict and unrest ultimately led to private property rights as we know them today, as princes wrested rights and serfs from overlords, and cities from kings.

The fragmentation of political power, of course, did not involve just belligerent principalities. There was also the Church, headed by popes eager to challenge the temporal power of others. And, according to some, by fostering the idea that the individual is accountable to God,’ not to the state, Christianity made it impossible for despotism – at least temporal despotism – to be all-encompassing. This attitude may have laid the foundation for limited government.

While this general overview is well- known and pretty well documented, it is somewhat insular. Comparison with other parts of the world, especially China, is less developed, at least among the authors I have read. What we are told is that China dropped out of the game of advancing knowledge and wealth, either because of stifling bureaucracy or imperial whim. The Muslim empires, while initially preserving classical knowledge, faded from the growth scene. And India, it is assumed, was never there – or was there so early that it hardly matters.

Starting with this background – fairly secure on the topic of European history, rather shaky with respect to the rest of the world – the reader who picks up Unintended Consequences is in for some provocative ideas. Lal is an economist with whom libertarians can be comfortable. Known for his work in contemporary economic development, he accepts the importance of private property rights, the value of markets, and the benefits of limited government. The goal of his book is to deter.; mine why Europe, and only Europe, made the leap from what he calls Smithian growth to Promethean growth.

Smith vs. Prometheus

Smithian growth, in Lal’s definition, is the increasing division of labor that comes from trade, which reflects the natural tendency of humans to “truck, barter, and exchange” under conditions of relative freedom. The Eastern civilizations had this trade and division of labor. But they did not have Promethean intensive growth, which Lal describes as a “mineral-based energy economy” that multiplies in its productive capacity as technology changes. In a phrase, it is the Industrial Revolution (p. 20). “Promethean intensive growth remains a European miracle,” says Lal (69).

Lal is a materialist in the sense that he thinks that factors such as economic pressure and geography led to the political arrangements that guided the course of growth. But economics and geographic situation also conditioned what Lal calls “cosmological beliefs,” and in the end these may be the ones that matter most in determining why Europe but not the rest of the world had an Industrial Revolution.

Lal’s book was written before Jared Diamond’s path-breaking Guns, Germs, and Steel, but it shares with it a recognition of the role of geography in setting people on a particular course. Thus, Lal explains the evolution of India’s caste system as a way of assuring that labor was available. Once the Aryan- speaking peoples settled there (around 1500 B.C.) and cut down the forests, the region had broad plains that had few limiting geographic features,. which led to constant instability because no monarch was able to maintain military control. The caste system provided a “decentralized system of control” that sustained a sufficient and effective division of labor, which, Lal says, was needed for intensive agriculture.

In China, the need for a steady supply of labor led to a system that differed from India’s. It was a system of agricultural manors, as in Europe, but

Capitalism is not inevitably connected with the nuclear family or even· individualism, although its genesis depended on both.

 

it was not feudalism. The imperial government was strong enough to maintain control without having to buy off the services of princes and nobles, as the kings did in Europe. Trade operated smoothly along the east-west river routes, where geography and products were similar, so creative merchants did not become powerful as they had along the Mediterranean, where resource-poor countries (including Mesopotamia and· Greece) had to figure out how to obtain goods .by trade in order to survive. Lal also argues that Confucianism strengthened the power of the Chinese emperor by inculcating disdain for merchants and for the accumulation of wealth. (This is a theme Mises also has developed.)

In Europe, the need for a stable labor supply led to feudalism. The fragmentation of power forced kings and princes to develop “mutual recognition of quasi-legal rights and obligations” (70). Europe had other distinctions, too, says Lal. One was the legacy of the Greek “inquisitive spirit” that spurred science. Another was the need for trade by the city-states of Italy, whose merchants developed commercial law.

Cosmic Economics

But the most important progenitors of Promethean growth, in Lal’s view, were· the “cosmological beliefs” engendered by Christianity. Here, Lays personal distance from Christianity gives him a boldness that most commentators do not share. His arguments are a little difficult to follow, but in essence they seem to be the following.

First, from the time of Augustine, Christians taught that the political world was beneath. the ideal “City of God.” Unlike the Greek and Roman societies that it followed, Christianity was characterized by “its separation and demotion of politics to the maintenance of peace and justice in the temporal world …” (99). There were two worlds, the holy and the profane.

Second, unlike the Eastern societies, which influenced behavior through shame, Christianity fostered a sense of guilt. Fear of hell or purgatory guided people’s actions the way that social pressure did in other societies. Lal contends that this dogma generated an attitude that the individual’s relationship with God was paramount, more important than the individual’s role as part of a family or community. Christianity viewed “the care of the individual soul as the basic purpose of life” (99). (Of course, that soul’s health depended on the approval of the church.)

More deliberately, Lal says, Christianity also took action to break up the extended family. This denigration of the family goes back at least to the fifth century, when Pope Gregory I made a decision that had “momentous indirect economic effects through promoting individualism” (88).

Gregory forbade a number of practices that had been widespread in the Middle East and even had roots in the Bible. Gregory opposed marriage to close relatives or to the widows of close relatives, as well as polygyny, transfer of children to a different family by adoption, and concubinage. Added to the church’s elevation of celibacy, these policies reduced the importance of family connections. They even set the stage for romantic marriage, which gave prominence to the nuclear, rather than the extended, family. (To illustrate this, Lal notes the friar’s encouragement of Romeo and Juliet’s elopement in Shakespeare’s play.) Lal points out that Gregory’s prohibitions enabled the church to obtain wealth by reducing the number of families with heirs. Lacking heirs, they would most likely bequeath their property to the church.

Lal follows the course of individualism through the centuries, but he believes that what happened after the 13th century wasn’t really critical in determining Europe’s path-breaking course. By then, individualism was already a key part of the European experience, setting Europe in the direction of economic growth.

Lal goes on to raise other issues. The role of the family is important to Lal because he wants to show that the Eastern societies – China and India at least – can embrace capitalism today without losing their communal and extended families and without losing the role of shame as a monitor and enforcer of behavior. Thus, he emphasizes that capitalism is not inevitably connected with the nuclear family or even individualism, although its genesis depended on both.

In his view, the European Promethean miracle occurred because

By fostering the idea that the individual is accountable to God, not to the state,· Christianity made it impossible for despotism to be all-encompassing.

 

Christianity unleashed individualism: But with the”death of God,” a cultural fact of the 19th century in his view, the religious restraints on individualism were lost, and the restraints of “manners” (the “shame” constraint) seem to have disappeared, too. The results are a society facing cultural collapse. Lal ends the book with an admonition to the Judaeo-Christian West that he believes has lost its way: “Physician, heal thyself.”

There is much to think about here. Lal doesn’t have all the answers to “how the West grew rich,” but he has offered some innovative ideas and valuable information. I am grateful.

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