Monday, January 07, 2013

The Birth of Plenty & Civilization, The West and the Rest

I read William Bernstein's The Birth of Plenty, How the Prosperity of the Modern World Was Created, a few years ago.  It was published in 2004.  He lists four conditions necessary for human progress to take off: property rights, scientific rationalism, capital markets and improvements in transportation and communication.  

These four conditions were obviously most likely to be found in a relatively free society, such as those he mentions, the Dutch Republic, England and the United States.  To the extent other societies adopt these principles, such as mainland China today, they loosen the bonds of tyranny somewhat, giving birth to a middle class that one day will become fed up with dictatorship.  

Along comes Niall Ferguson in 2011 with Civilization, The West and the Rest, with his take on how Western Europe came to dominate the world.  He lists six components: competition, science, property rights, medicine, the consumer society and the work ethic.  It seems to me he is restating in a slightly more elaborate manner Bernstein's list.  Yet among the hundreds of works and authors he cites, The Birth of Plenty or Bernstein do not appear.  Are we to believe he did not refer to this book at all?  I find that pretty hard to believe.  

Neither does he cite Hernando deSoto's The Mystery of Capital, which Bernstein does reference,  on the consequences of making the ownership and transfer of private property a bureaucratic nightmare, as it is in many Third World nations.  He does analyze the development of property relationships in South America, as does deSoto, but relying on different souces apparently.  Or perhaps avoiding an author Bernstein relied upon.  

Anyway, I think both books make a valuable contribution to the discussion of what role capitalism and freedom make to improving the lives of ordinary men and women.  They make it clear that socialist and ever-expanding government control of the economic lives of  citizens causes poverty and political subjugation to the all powerful State.

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