The world is rich and will become still richer. Quit worrying.
Not all of us are rich yet, of course. A billion or so people on the planet drag along on the equivalent of $3 a day or less. But as recently as 1800, almost everybody did.
The Great Enrichment began in 17th-century Holland. By the 18th century, it had moved to England, Scotland and the American colonies, and now it has spread to much of the rest of the world.
Economists and historians agree on its startling magnitude: By 2010, the average daily income in a wide range of countries, including Japan, the United States, Botswana, and Brazil, had soared 1,000 to 3,000 percent over the levels of 1800. People moved from tents and mud huts to split-levels and city condominiums, from waterborne diseases to 80-year life spans, from ignorance to literacy.
You might think the rich have become richer and the poor even poorer. But by the standard of basic comfort in essentials, the poorest people on the planet have gained the most. In places like Ireland, Singapore, Finland, and Italy, even people who are relatively poor have adequate food, education, lodging, and medical care—none of which their ancestors had. Not remotely.
Inequality of financial wealth goes up and down, but over the long term it has been reduced. Financial inequality was greater in 1800 and 1900 than it is now, as even the French economist Thomas Piketty has acknowledged. By the more important standard of basic comfort in consumption, inequality within and between countries has fallen nearly continuously.
In any case, the problem is poverty, not inequality as such—not how many yachts the L’Oréal heiress Liliane Bettencourt has, but whether the average Frenchwoman has enough to eat. At the time of Les Misérables, she didn’t. In the last 40 years, the World Bank estimates, the proportion of the population living on an appalling $1 or $2 a day has halved. Paul Collier, an Oxford economist, urges us to help the “bottom billion” of the more than seven billion people on earth. Of course. It is our duty. But he notes that 50 years ago, four billion out of five billion people lived in such miserable conditions. In 1800, it was 95 percent of one billion.
We can improve the conditions of the working class. Raising low productivity by enabling human creativity is what has mainly worked. By contrast, taking from the rich and giving to the poor helps only a little—and anyway, expropriation is a one-time trick. Enrichment from market-tested betterment will go on and on and, over the next century or so, will bring comfort in essentials to virtually everyone on the planet, and more to an expanding middle class.
Look at the astonishing improvements in China since 1978 and in India since 1991. Between them, they are home to about four out of every 10 humans. Even in the United States, real wages have continued in recent decades to grow—if slowly—contrary to what you might have heard. Donald Boudreaux, an economist at George Mason University, and others who have looked beyond the superficial have shown that real wages are continuing to rise, thanks largely to major improvements in the quality of goods and services, and to nonwage benefits. Real purchasing power is double what it was in the fondly remembered 1950s—when many American children went to bed hungry.
What, then, caused this Great Enrichment?
Not exploitation of the poor, not investment, not existing institutions, but a mere idea, which the philosopher and economist Adam Smith called “the liberal plan of equality, liberty and justice.” In a word, it was liberalism, in the free-market European sense. Give masses of ordinary people equality before the law and equality of social dignity, and leave them alone, and it turns out that they become extraordinarily creative and energetic.
The liberal idea was spawned by some happy accidents in northwestern Europe from 1517 to 1789—namely, the four R’s: the Reformation, the Dutch Revolt, the revolutions of England and France, and the proliferation of reading. The four R’s liberated ordinary people, among them the venturing bourgeoisie. The Bourgeois Deal is, briefly, this: In the first act, let me try this or that improvement. I’ll keep the profit, thank you very much, though in the second act those pesky competitors will erode it by entering and disrupting (as Uber has done to the taxi industry). By the third act, after my betterments have spread, they will make you rich.
And they did.
You may object that ideas are a dime a dozen and that to make them fruitful we must start with adequate physical and human capital and good institutions. It’s a popular idea at the World Bank, but a mistaken one. True, we eventually need capital and institutions to embody the ideas, such as a marble building with central heating and cooling to house the Supreme Court. But the intermediate and dependent causes like capital and institutions have not been the root cause.
The root cause of enrichment was and is the liberal idea, spawning the university, the railway, the high-rise, the internet and, most important, our liberties. What original accumulation of capital inflamed the minds of William Lloyd Garrison and Sojourner Truth? What institutions, except the recent liberal ones of university education and uncensored book publishing, caused feminism or the antiwar movement? Since Karl Marx, we have made a habit of seeking material causes for human progress. But the modern world came from treating more and more people with respect.
Ideas are not all sweet, of course. Fascism, racism, eugenics, and nationalism are ideas with alarming recent popularity. But sweet practical ideas for profitable technologies and institutions, and the liberal idea that allowed ordinary people for the first time to have a go, caused the Great Enrichment. We need to inspirit masses of people, not the elite, who are plenty inspirited already. Equality before the law and equality of social dignity are still the root of economic, as well as spiritual, flourishing—whatever tyrants may think to the contrary.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times