One of the great mysteries of civilization is why it was that Western Europe led the world in industrialization. The answer has to do with decentralization of power and individual liberty.
The study of economics poses many great questions. But there’s one in particular, which anyone who has ever studied the subject, must at some point have thought about.
How come people in the West have had it so good, and for so long, compared to the rest of the world?
What was it about Western Europe which enabled it to industrialize?
Why did it not happen in some other great civilization instead – such as in China or India or Egypt or Greece or Rome or Turkey or wherever?
Why was it they never made it to the next level?
Niall Ferguson, in this lecture, put it as follows:
“How are we to explain this, the ultimate global imbalance, which placed a minority of mankind – at most a fifth – in such a position of material and political superiority over the rest? It seems implausible that it was due to some innate superiority of Europeans, as the racial theorists of the 19th and 20th Century often argued. The gene pool was surely not so different in the year 500, when the Western end of Eurasia was entering a period of nearly a thousand years of relative stagnation. Likewise, the climate, topography and natural resources of Europe were much the same in 1500 as they had been in 500.”
And then, as if addressing any Marxists present, he adds rather pointedly:
“It cannot have been imperialism either. The other civilisations did plenty of that.”
So … we’re back to the question.
Where do we start? Would it be with the Renaissance, or the Reformation, or the Age of Enlightenment? Or maybe we could zero in on particular events – like the establishment of the first Parliament in England in the thirteenth century, or with Gutenberg in the fifteenth, or the Union of Utrecht in the sixteenth or the Glorious Revolution in the seventeenth?
Unfortunately not – any such starting points would be very much premature.
These scholars see the above periods and events, not as possible starting points, but rather as part of a process which was to lead to industrialization – a process which started many centuries before.
The history of great empires and dynasties is that they were ruled by tiny elites who had the power to behave with impunity – which they all did. The lot of the masses was one of subjugation and abject misery – of the kind which is still with us today in many third world countries.
As one great empire or dynasty faded so another would rise up to carry on where the other had left off – and so it always was – until something happened which would break the mould.
As the Roman Empire decayed and collapsed another did not spring up to take its place.
Instead, Raico writes, Western Europe fragmented into, “a mosaic of kingdoms, principalities, city-states, ecclesiastical domains, and other political entities.”
In other words – there was a massive decentralization of power.
“Within this system, it was highly imprudent for any prince to attempt to infringe property rights in the manner customary elsewhere in the world. In constant rivalry with one another, princes found that outright expropriations, confiscatory taxation, and the blocking of trade did not go unpunished. The punishment was to be compelled to witness the relative economic progress of one's rivals, often through the movement of capital, and capitalists, to neighboring realms.”
Put another way, if things got bad enough, people in this civilization had the possibility of “exit”.
Add to this the spread of Christianity and the consequences of adopting its core values; something which would take in everything “from the mitigation of slavery [right through] to the concepts of natural law, including the legitimacy of resistance to unjust rulers”.
Although very slow and gradual, the result would be transformational – the makings of something quite different from anything which had gone before.
As Raico explains:
“Decentralization of power also came to mark the domestic arrangements of the various European polities … Through the struggle for power within the realms, representative bodies came into being, and princes often found their hands tied by … charters of rights … which they were forced to grant their subjects. In the end, even within the relatively small states of Europe, power was dispersed among estates, orders, chartered towns, religious communities, corps, universities, etc., each with its own guaranteed liberties.”
And the upshot was a first:
“The rule of law came to be established throughout much of the Continent.”
Europe was on its way – and there was no going back.