To know the actual economic history of enrichment and civilization, you have to know the numbers. Most people don’t. People got rich and civilized by liberty, not by coercion.
Let’s be clear ethically. Imperialism, as in South Asia, was very bad. Enslaving people, as in West Africa, was too. So was shooting striking workers, as in Kentucky. There are no excuses for the Opium Wars or King Leopold II in the Congo or the U.S. seizure of the Philippines or Ford’s goons beating up workers at the Battle of the Overpass. Stealing, coercion, murder are evil.
Wealth and its civilization, though, did not depend on the evil. The Left channels Vladimir Lenin in claiming that the West got rich by robbing the poor. And the Right channels Theodore Roosevelt in claiming that the world got civilized by conquering the poor. Both sides are wrong. People got rich and civilized by liberty, not by coercion.
To know the actual economic history of enrichment and civilization, you have to know the numbers. Most people don’t. The surpassingly wise Swedish professor of public health Hans Rosling reported that even well-informed people score worse than a chimp would throwing darts at the numbers. People think that the rich are getting richer and the poor poorer. They think that economic growth is perpetually threatened by new headwinds requiring urgent tacking by the ship of state. They think that things are worse than ever. They think that The End Is Near. And in reaction to such horror movies, they think that perhaps a bit of tyranny from left or right would be a Good Thing.
No. Nearly forever, from the caves until about two centuries ago, the average human, except for a few lords and priests, dragged along in today’s prices on less than $2 a day. Try living on $2 a day. Some people still do: South Sudan. Then, from 1800 (or 1900 or 1960) to the present, a Great Enrichment, dwarfing the mere doubling in the so-called Industrial Revolution of 1750 to 1850, made the average human 25 times richer. The number nowadays in the same prices is about $50 a day. Think China, Brazil, and Botswana. And Finland, Ireland, and Iceland, once miserable and colonized, stand well above $100 a day. At $50 or $100 a day, people get food instead of famine, long lives instead of parasites, Ph.D.s instead of illiteracy, high-rises instead of hovels.
Every nasty jerk in history has stolen, and usually gotten away with it. As Gibbon said in 1776, “history is little more than the register of the crimes, follies, and misfortunes of mankind.” So stealing by imperialism and enslavement caused the Great Enrichment, yes?
No. Do the numbers. If you seized your neighbor’s house and her stuff and enslaved her husband, you might get 20 percent richer. Maybe 50. Call it 100. Great for you. “Foreigners shall rebuild your walls,” said the Lord to Jerusalem through His prophet Isaiah, “and their kings shall be your servants…Your gates shall be open continuously…that through them may be brought the wealth of nations and their kings under escort.” Good for Jerusalem. In the zero-sum world before 1800, stealing and enslaving got the jerks 10, 50, even 100 percent richer. Hallelujah.
But the Great Enrichment has been two-and-a-half thousand percent. By fourth-grade arithmetic, the present $50 minus the miserable base in 1800 of $2 is $48, which divided by the base is about a factor of 25, or about that 2,500 percent. Blimey. Stealing can’t come remotely close to accounting for it. Stealing from the wretched of the earth doesn’t even sound like a good criminal plan. And anyway, stealing from Peter to pay Paul can’t enrich both, and certainly not by 2,500 percent.
Consider, for example, British imperialism. Half of the Royal Navy, which was paid for by Britons at home, was assigned to protect the sea routes to India. Glorious. Yet India itself yielded no stolen benefit to the average Briton. Not a shilling. India traded with Britain, sure. But trade is not stealing, and the trade would have happened regardless of whether the Raj was Britain or France or the domestic rajas.
Straightforward stealing from India happened only once. A window opened after the Battle of Plassey in 1757 through which some bold thieves entered. Robert Clive of India and Warren Hastings and some other nabobs made fortunes by stealing. Clive remarked that in view of his opportunities, “by God,…I stand astonished at my own moderation.” Then the stealing stopped and the paying for the glory began, as did a little peaceful trade of Sri Lankan tea and Indian jute for Lancashire dhotis and Yorkshire railway locomotives. And as rich as Clive and his fellow nabobs briefly became, their enrichment was trivial in national terms. Clive’s wealth at his death was half of one-tenth of 1 percent of Britain’s. Nice to have, you say, roughly $200 million nowadays. But it’s not average-enrichment-making, then or now. It’s a fly on the scale.
Something therefore is deeply screwy about blaming the West’s undoubted stealing and enslaving and other malfeasance for the poverty that remains. While the malfeasance was taking place, humans for the first time went from misery to sufficiency, and they can now look forward in a few more generations to universal enrichment. As late as 1960, 4 billion out of the 5 billion souls on the planet earned the old $2 a day. Now it’s 1 billion out of nearly 8 billion, and truly rich places that were once shockingly poor, such as the Italian South or South Korea or South Tyrol, multiply.
Stealing does not a Great Enrichment make. Our friends on the left claim that rich people stealing from the English working class around 1800 resulted in…uh…everyone getting richer by a factor of 25. Huh? You break into your neighbor’s house and, like the assassin in the 2002 Tom Hanks gangster movie Road to Perdition, you brutally murder Hanks’s wife and one of his sons. Then you make off with his stuff. Out of this, says the Left, the real incomes of everyone—you, Hanks, his other son, the gangster boss, everyone—rise by 2,500 percent.
It’s Monty Python loony. In 1930 the spoof of English history 1066 and All That put it this way: “Many remarkable discoveries and inventions were made [about the year 1800]. Most remarkable among these was the discovery (made by all the rich men in England at once) that women and children could work for 25 hours a day…without many of them dying or becoming excessively deformed. This was known as the Industrial Revelation.”
After all, the historical problem with the hypothesis of stealing for enrichment is that stealing is historically commonplace, yet it never resulted in a Great Enrichment. Until it did. Whoops. What kind of a historical explanation is that?
And the economic problem is that the Enrichment after 1800 was so very Great that it can’t possibly be explained by routine projects, whether financed by evil stealing or by virtuous abstention from consumption. Canals, for example. Projects such as the Swedish state’s stealing of the conscripted labor of 58,000 soldiers to dig the Göta Canal from Söderköping to Gothenburg between 1810 and 1832 face sharply diminishing returns. Normal capital accumulation does. That’s besides being economically idiotic in this case, and in the case of most of the canals that were financed as nice-sounding “internal improvements” in the United States during the 1830s. Compare stealing tax money to build a high-speed railway between L.A. and San Francisco. Just sayin’.