Magazine article The Spectator

Getting Better All the Time

Magazine article The Spectator

Getting Better All the Time

Article excerpt

ROAD TO RICHES, OR THE WEALTH OF MAN by Peter Jay Weidenfeld, L20, pp. 383

Ever since economic philosophers dispensed with final causes, at about the time of Adam Smith's Wealth of Nations, they have found it hard to say why humanity has developed as it has rather than in some other direction.

In the absence of God or some other all-- wise Author of Nature to direct it, economic history risks being just one damned economic thing after another, or at best the unpredictable interplay of more or less casual cultural and mechanical phenomena such as freedom of speech or the waterwheel. Yet economists yearn for the prestige of the natural sciences and are for ever in search of universal laws.

Peter Jay, for all the brilliance of this long history, occasionally succumbs to such theorising. The growth in the world's population and the improvement in living standards since the Stone Age are, he writes, driven by the `natural selection of innovations that work and the invisible hand that, under the right conditions, channels private appetite into the attainment of social ends.' If this marriage of vulgar Darwin and vulgar Smith weren't enough, he adds a sort of vulgar Hegel - he calls his dialectic `the waltz motif - which keeps drawing him onto the dance floor until he falls over on page 168:

In that sense Columbus and his like had opened the ball with a figure that was to whirl in an accelerating crescendo down to our own time and beyond, spawning in its frenzy thousands upon thousands of figures conforming to the orginal motif. Johann Strauss . . . .

Fortunately for the spectator, Jay sits out the rest of the dance. On the questions that most exercise the universal economic historians - how did population rise beyond the limits of sustenance postulated by Thomas Malthus, what set off the improvement in Western living standards after 1750, why were China and India left behind, why was the depression of the 1930s so severe? - Jay is content to say what happened, and what else was happening at the time or just before, without concerning himself too much with causation.

In truth, the plain story is interesting enough. In 10,000 years, the world's population has grown 1,000-fold and material conditions of living have changed out of all recognition. As Voltaire used to say, it costs less to live well under Louis XV than to live badly under Henri IV.

Jay's is quite a conventional history, taking us from the emergence of Homo Sapiens to 1997, by way of Mesopotamia, the invention of agriculture, writing and money, Greece and Rome, the Dark Ages (I thought those had been illuminated), mediaeval finance and book-keeping, the growth in trade and capital markets, the European merchant empires, the railroad and telegraph, the world wars, the Soviet Union and Mao's China and finally the collapse of the barriers between markets for investment and workers in a single `globalised' economy. …

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