Throughout almost the entire span of human history, material privation and chronic insecurity were the norm. Not even those at the peaks of social status and political power could enjoy the creature comforts and consumer delights that “poor” people take for granted in the West today. At times, certain populations fared somewhat better – in ancient Greece and Rome, perhaps, and in China during the Sung Dynasty (960 – 1279) – but those cases were exceptional.
As late as the 14th century, the Chinese probably enjoyed the highest level of living of any large population. Recall the amazement with which Europeans greeted Marco Polo’s account of China in the latter part of the 13th century, even though, as Polo declared on his deathbed, he had not described the half of what he had seen.1
As the Middle Ages waned the Europeans began to make quicker economic progress, while the Chinese lapsed into economic stagnation. Even more remarkable, the economic energy of Europe began to shift away from the great commercial centers of northern Italy and toward the periphery of civilization in northwestern Europe. The barbarians, it seemed, had somehow stumbled onto the secret of economic progress. Henceforth, despite many setbacks, the western Europeans – and later their colonial cousins in North America as well – steadily pulled ahead of the human pack. By the 18th century they had far surpassed the Chinese, not to speak of the world’s more backward peoples, and until the late 20th century the gap continued to widen.
How did the West succeed in generating sustained economic progress? Historians and social scientists have offered various hypotheses, and so far no single explanation has gained general acceptance. Nevertheless, certain elements of an answer have received wide agreement. The growing individualism of Western culture, rooted in Christian doctrine, seems to have contributed significantly.2 In addition, the political fragmentation of the European peoples in the high Middle Ages and the early modern period – a political pluralism with hundreds of separate jurisdictions – fostered the institutional and technological experimentation by which entrepreneurs could discover how to make labor and capital more productive.
This post was published at Ludwig von Mises Institute on 2017/12/29.