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A Thought about Ideas and Classical Liberalism

" . . . In the two centuries after 1800, the goods and services made and consumed by the average person in Sweden or Taiwan rose by a factor of 30 to 100—that is, a rise of 2,900 to 9,900 percent. The Great Enrichment of the past two centuries has dwarfed any of the previous and temporary enrichments. It was caused by massively better ideas in technology and institutions. And the betterments were released for the first time by a new liberty and dignity for commoners—expressed as the ideology of European liberalism. Not "liberalism" as it's come to be understood in the United States, as ever-increasing government, but its old and still European sense, what Adam Smith advocated in 1776: "allowing every man to pursue his own interest his own way, upon the liberal plan of equality, liberty and justice."

"Why did such ideas shift so dramatically in northwestern Europe, and for a while only there? Why did Leonardo da Vinci in 1519 conceal his engineering dreams in secret writing, yet in 1825 James Watt of steam-engine fame was to have a statue set up in Westminster Abbey? In 1400 or even in 1600, a canny observer would have bet on an Industrial Revolution and a Great Enrichment—if she could have imagined such freakish events—in technologically advanced China or the vigorous Ottoman Empire. Not in backward, quarrelsome Europe.

"The answer does not lie in some 1,000-year-old superiority, such as English common law, or in the deep genetic ancestry of Europeans. The liberalism that led to ordinary people being allowed to have a go, and then bettering their lives and ours with a wave of gadgets, lies rather in the black-swan luck of northwestern Europe's reaction to the turmoil of the Early Modern—the coincidence in northwestern Europe of successful reading, reformation, revolt, and revolution. The dice were rolled by Gutenberg, Luther, Willem van Oranje, and Oliver Cromwell. By a lucky chance for England their payoffs were deposited in that formerly not-so-consequential nation in a pile late in the late 17th century. A result of those four Rs was a fifth R, a crucial revaluation of the bourgeoisie, an egalitarian reappraisal of ordinary people."

~ Deirdre McCloskey

Source: her May 12, 2016 essay, "Bourgeois Equality," posted at Reason.com. The essay appears in the June 2016 issue of Reason magazine. She teaches economics, history, and English at the University of Illinois, and economics, philosophy, and art and cultural studies at Erasmus University, Rotterdam. Her latest book is "Bourgeois Equality: How Ideas, Not Capital or Institutions, Enriched the World."


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