In the Wall Street Journal, economist Deirdre McCloskey pinpoints the launch point of the greatest increase in global human wealth ever seen:
In the 18th century, liberal thinkers such as Voltaire and Benjamin Franklin courageously advocated liberty in trade. By the 1830s and 1840s, a much enlarged intelligentsia, mostly the sons of bourgeois fathers, commenced sneering loftily at the liberties that had enriched their elders and made possible their own leisure. The sons advocated the vigorous use of the state’s monopoly of violence to achieve one or another utopia, soon.
Intellectuals on the political right, for instance, looked back with nostalgia to an imagined Middle Ages, free from the vulgarity of trade, a nonmarket golden age in which rents and hierarchy ruled. Such a conservative and Romantic vision of olden times fit well with the right’s perch in the ruling class. Later in the 19th century, under the influence of a version of science, the right seized upon social Darwinism and eugenics to devalue the liberty and dignity of ordinary people and to elevate the nation’s mission above the mere individual person, recommending colonialism and compulsory sterilization and the cleansing power of war.
On the left, meanwhile, a different cadre of intellectuals developed the illiberal idea that ideas don’t matter. What matters to progress, the left declared, was the unstoppable tide of history, aided by protest or strike or revolution directed at the evil bourgeoisie — such thrilling actions to be led, naturally, by themselves. Later, in European socialism and American Progressivism, the left proposed to defeat bourgeois monopolies in meat and sugar and steel by gathering under regulation or syndicalism or central planning or collectivization all the monopolies into one supreme monopoly called the state.
While all this deep thinking was roiling the intelligentsia of Europe, the commercial bourgeoisie — despised by the right and the left, and by many in the middle, too — created the Great Enrichment and the modern world. The Enrichment gigantically improved our lives. In doing so, it proved that both social Darwinism and economic Marxism were mistaken. The supposedly inferior races and classes and ethnicities proved not to be so. The exploited proletariat was not driven into misery; it was enriched. It turned out that ordinary men and women didn’t need to be directed from above, and when honored and left alone, became immensely creative.
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.