Each time I doubt that the National Review’s mavens could surpass themselves, I discover fresh evidence of their invincible ignorance. Being a man of little faith, I didn’t believe that Rich Lowry could say anything dumber than his 2003 remarks about the Spanish Civil War which revealed he had no idea who fought whom in that bloody conflict. But now Rich has come up with something even more noteworthy: a view of human history in which circa 1800 “almost all the world was Bangladesh.” Rich paraphrases a book by Deirdre N. McCloskey celebrating “bourgeois dignity” and the modern era’s unexcelled glory. He quotes McCloskey’s encomium to our exalted place with glowing approval:
Starvation worldwide is therefore at an all-time low and falling. Literacy and life expectancy are at all-time highs, and rising. Liberty is spreading. Slavery is retreating.
Rich explains that capitalism can’t be credited for this happy turn of events “because the mere accumulation of capital is beside the point. The kings of Spain collected lots of gold from the New World and no economic miracle ensued.” What turned us from Bangladesh into the paradise on Earth that Lowry sees each morning while headed to work in the Big Apple is “innovation…[and] entrepreneurial ‘alertness,’ the ceaseless drive for the new, the better, the cheaper.” Up until recently, he argues, we weren’t free to do this because “lords or bishops” controlled us. Then around 1820, “the fruit of the new dispensation first made itself felt.”
Although his column’s spatial limits may have prevented Rich from revealing his educational gaps’ full depth, I’ll note a few errors in his unflattering picture of the European past coupled with his unrealistic glorification of the present. First, Rich demonstrates zero historical understanding of capitalism or economic development. Capitalism has nothing to do with the mercantile policies of Spain’s kings, who imported gold usually to fight Habsburg dynastic wars. Capitalism is not about allowing precious metals to accumulate in state treasuries. Since presumably even Rich knows this, why does he give inept examples of capitalist practice that stick out like sore thumbs? My daughter Barbara produces texts for middle-school students that provide a more accurate understanding of capitalism as a productive process than Rich’s column. She also tutors students in economics and would give them holy hell for stating the idiocies found in Rich’s nationally distributed pontifications.
The economic growth process that Rich refers to began centuries before 1820. Evidence of material improvement, extensive capital formation, and agricultural innovation existed in the eighteenth century and even before. According to Italian medieval historian Carlo Cippola, the volume of thirteenth-century commercial activity was only reached again in the eighteenth century because of European banking’s collapse in the fourteenth century combined with the Black Plague. Longtime Dean of Economic History at the University of Chicago J. U. Nef provided extensive figures on cumulative economic growth in Western Europe before the magic date picked out of a hat, 1820. Cippola came up with a theory of economic behavior that I have always applied to my studies of American conservatism: “Always and inevitably each of us underestimates the number of stupid individuals in circulation.”
Describing Europe at the dawn of the nineteenth century as a Third World basket case is as ridiculous as referring to first-century Judea or fifth-century-B.C. Athens as primitive societies. Europe’s cultural, literary, and intellectual achievements even before 1820 were the most extensive and possibly the most impressive the human mind ever produced. Rich’s description of this now-vanished world as a priest-ridden poorhouse betokens his utter repugnance for the West’s true civilization. There is no West for him and his minicon buds except for living it up in Manhattan, manhandling Obama and other Dems, and calling for technological expansion.
In the real West’s real history, there were economic dips and turns, although once certain hurdles had been surmounted, material progress continued unfolding. Certain negative effects also resulted, such as pollution, urban sprawl, and the loss of economic incentives for preserving extended families. Moreover, some forms of material progress took longer than others to reach. As medieval historian Norman Cantor noted, medical advances are mostly products of the twentieth century.
But the reason for such problems is not that society was priest-ridden or ground under heel by noblemen. Many medical breakthroughs came about as lucky accidents or were built on rapid communication among English, German, French, and other modern-era researchers. Finally, the bourgeoisie’s rise as a cultural and social force goes back to the High Middle Ages in tandem with the “bourgeois dignity” the guilds represented. But the Protestant work ethic, which Rich disparages on his way to nonsensical conclusions, shaped bourgeois attitudes about capital accumulation in the early modern period. The Weber thesis about the nexus between Calvinism and capitalism’s rise is still perfectly defensible. Dismissing all such arguments in about three words is monumentally arrogant or perhaps indicative of “conservative” commentary’s present state.
The triumphal picture of the present furnished by Lowry-McCloskey is utterly Pollyanna and looks like a promo ad for some new war of global democratic liberation. European countries are well below replacement population levels. The Western family is in retreat before sterile live-in arrangements and alternative lifestyles. Educated or not, Westerners have no more appreciation for their national, religious, and cultural pasts than Lowry does (except when he’s talking about American exceptionalism). I conclude that the opera ain’t over until the fat lady stops singing.
It is possible that Europeans in their current madness (particularly the guilt-obsessed Germans) may allow Islamists to occupy and reconstruct their societies. And what will the U.S. look like if in the next century it becomes demographically indistinguishable from Central America? Note that infinitely greater minds than those found on NR’s editorial board believed in the early nineteenth century that they were standing at human history’s apex. (They probably were back then.) Much of what they admired about Europe came apart in the following century, and there is no reason to assume that the global democratic pretensions our material achievements have bred carry the mark of eternity. As King Solomon wisely taught, “Pride goes before destruction, And a haughty spirit before the fall.”