How the West *Really* Got Rich


Nina, Pinta, Santa Maria by BarbedWings

Yesterday, I got into an exchange on Twitter that made me simultaneously remember what I enjoy so much about the platform and why I have significantly decreased my presence on it. I responded to a blog post by economist Jared Rubin titled Why The Middle East Fell Behind; his premise, at least to my understanding, is basically that institutional stagnation resulted from the political and economic elite’s need to manage around the influence of the religious elite, who had the weight of the Quran behind them. The progressive economic improvements codified in the Quran had a major stimulative effect on growth in the Middle East; however, because they were indeed codified into the religion, they prevented economic innovation and thus impaired the region’s ability to progress through economic adaption. I don’t want to misrepresent Rubin’s work so please read his post.

I decided to respond to his post because, while I generally agreed with his reasoning, it gave me the impression that he was making the case of a Middle East that had complacently chosen a path of stagnation. As someone who has read the Quran and learned a lot about Islam’s “golden age,” Rubin’s premise did not seem consistent with the dynamic cultures from that region of that era. The Islamic Empire from 600 A.D. to 1200 A.D. was arguably one of the most progressive and advanced in history; the Middle Eastern cultures of that time forwarded the disciplines of mathematics, science, literature, philosophy, and art to unprecedented levels and it seemed incongruous that such innovation would not touch their economics. Why would a region so advanced in every other endeavor of learning fall behind so dramatically when it came to finance and economics?

To me, history easily provides that answer: war. Between the Crusades and the Mongol invasion, the Middle East endured roughly 300 years of war in some form or another. The Mongol invasion was particularly devastating as it was routine for the Mongols to depopulate and destroy entire cities, including valuable libraries and scholars likely representing hundreds of years worth of technological advancement. My premise is that much of the stagnation of the institutions of that region in that era wasn’t by choice but by necessity. Civilizations at war tend to only progress in technology that facilitates fighting war more effectively versus making other societal improvements. With the destruction of some of its most valuable technological and philosophical resources as well as the ruthless murder of tens of thousands of its brightest minds, the Middle East was devastated beyond repair. The cultures that supplanted the Arab and Persian hegemonies, particularly the Mongols and the Ottoman Turks, were assimilators versus being innovators. Though many of the advancements of the Islamic Empires of the Middle East survived, the Mongols and Turks were cultures with very different motivations and histories; while they assimilated Islam, they were not its progenitors and thus likely could only respect its traditions rather than build upon them.

I advanced my (unoriginal) premise to Rubin and the result was this thread and adjacent related ones. All in all, I think it was a pretty interesting exchange but, once again, intellectual vigor slowly started to yield to tribalism and general suck-uptitude. Thankfully, my involvement reached a natural end before too many people jumped in to “put me in my place” for the apparently serious Internet crime of engaging someone with better bonafides than mine in a fashion that wasn’t completely fawning.

I think Rubin’s premise is well reasoned. His argument reminded me of economic historian Deidre McCloskey’s recent essay on the so-called Great Enlightenment and the rise of the West which I addressed in a rebuttal. Rubin’s juxtaposition of the Middle East with Western Europe seems to me like another angle on the concept of Western Europe’s apparent exceptionalism. A lot of words have been written regarding why Western Europe came to dominate the world economically, militarily, and socially; the basic thread is that, around 1800 A.D., Western Europe, particular England, embarked on an unprecedented technological advancement called the Industrial Revolution.

I don’t intend to challenge fact. However, I’d like to advance my own theory for why Western Europe came to dominate the world.

Let’s start from the period of Islam’s Golden Age in the timeframe of 600 A.D. to 1200 A.D. Around this time, Western Europe was pretty much a backwater. In every meaningful way, the dominant cultures of the Middle East and Asia were far more technologically, militarily, and culturally advanced.

Now consider this: In what direction could Western European culture spread at that time? In pretty much any direction east or south, the peoples of Western Europe were going to encounter a more advanced culture. Are they getting through the eastern Europeans or central Asians, who have already been exposed to the advances of Islam? Nope. Are they going through the Mongols, who have militarized largely from conflict with the Islamic Empire? Nope. Are they going through the Middle East or North Africa, the heart of the Islamic Empire, which at that time is likely the most technologically and militarily advanced in the world? Nope. And, if by some miracle, they make it to the Far East… are they going through India or China, also two cultures far more advanced than them? Definitely not.

The first thing that needs to be understood is that, for a great deal of history, conquest was not an avenue for Western European cultures, at least not on land. The Western European nations (if you could even call them that) were stuck fighting each other on their little, fairly undesirable plot of land. Any attempts at serious expansion would have put them directly in the sights of a more powerful culture.

So Western Europe spent most of its time stuck in Western Europe. However, it does have something that everyone else mostly doesn’t (with the exception of China and Japan): unfettered access to a great, big ocean. When going east isn’t an option and going west means traveling over a huge body of water, an enterprising people start trying to figure out how to travel long distances over that water. So they start innovating. Their ships get bigger, faster, and more capable. Then they start exploring. Yeah, it’s expensive but not as expensive as war (even though you still continue to indulge that pastime every now and again). Now here’s where it gets interesting… they send ships out into the ocean and start finding things. People, places. But, more importantly, they start finding riches. Even better, the cultures protecting those riches, while advanced in some ways, aren’t even close to them technologically and, more importantly, militarily. On top of that, their presence has the devastating effect of making massive portions of the indigenous populations terminally ill from disease, far more effective than any army. So now, Western Europeans are raping and plundering “inferior” cultures all over the globe.

But then, it gets even better. Some enterprising individual has learned on their travels of entire cultures that can be enslaved. The best part is that those cultures are so primitive in comparison that the moral dilemma solves itself. Now they’ve discovered a whole new concept: scale. Slavery allows them to take the first timid steps in understanding the value of economies of scale. Now, there is virtually unlimited manpower to grow their economies.

But they also reached a tricky part: slavery requires space. Using slaves in all that new stolen/conquered land is fine, but those slaves can’t come to Western Europe. There’s simply not enough room. On top of that, Western Europeans figured out early that slavery is expensive. Mouths to feed and all that, which is why they switched to serfdom. “Let the nouveau rich in ‘the colonies’ deal with that headache.”

Now we’ve reached the turning point. An interesting thing happened in the colonies: a man named Eli Whitney found a way to use a machine to do the work of many slaves. In other words, a new method for developing economies of scale was developed, one that was far cheaper and far more efficient than manpower. Now, the concept of substituting machines for labor takes root.

At that point, the floodgates open. The confines of using finite physical resources, particularly physical manpower, to create wealth are circumvented by turning to an unlimited, free resource to achieve the same end: human ingenuity. In the end, it was a combination of necessity and circumstance that allowed Western Europe to make the technological leap that gained it worldwide preeminence.

Is this all a gross simplification? Yeah. I’m definitely sacrificing nuance and detail for succinctness. And I’m also fairly certain this isn’t an original idea. But it is definitely more logically coherent than the concept of Western European exceptionalism, which is really just the intellectual forerunner to white supremacy.

It wasn’t “liberty” or superiority that created the dominance of Western Europe, it was necessity along with the proper conditions. At least, that’s what makes sense to me.

Your mileage may vary.


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