We have visited five elements within the cycle of prosperity: technology, food supply, human capital, economic growth and wealth, and trade. We have seen how each of these five interacts in mutually reinforcing organic ways to generate prosperity. We have also seen how environment and natural resources can influence the way an economy develops. We turn now to the cultural environment.
Examining our cultural environment is a bit like trying to describe water to fish. It is so much a part of our experience that is all but invisible to us. It rarely occurs to us that life could be ordered in alternative ways. Yet assumptions we make about the order of the world, about human nature, and about matters of ultimate meaning deeply affect how we function with regard to economic decisions, sometimes in very subtle but important ways. Here are just a few questions that highlight some of the issues.
* Do the fates or the gods arbitrarily enter into human affairs and the functioning of the natural order, or is there a predictable orderliness to the way the world works? Are deities and nature separable? What impact would this have on developing technology? What impact would it have on assessing risk for any activity? What impact would it have on the development of human capital?
* Can individuals own land or is land communal property? Or maybe land is held only at the pleasure of a ruler who has ultimate ownership? What impact would values about land ownership have on agricultural practices and the food supply?
* Do individuals have a right to keep the fruits of their labor and not be imprisoned at the whims of powerful people? What impact would this have on wealth accumulation and investment? What impact would it have on human capital?
* Are people outside of society enemies or subhuman, or are outsiders fellow human beings with whom interaction can be beneficial? What would this mean for trade?
History shows that European culture was late to the scene compared to the Near East fertile crescent, or civilizations of Egypt and China, and possibly even civilizations in the Americas. David Landes in “The Wealth and Poverty of Nations” notes that the water wheel, eyeglasses, the mechanical clock, printing and gunpowder were all developed in China long before Europeans developed and learned similar technologies. As late as the 15th century, on the dawn of Europe encountering the New World, the Chinese had ships far in excess of anything the Europeans could muster in size or technological capability. Greece and Rome were developing various models of statecraft two millennia ago that still have influence on our lives today. Muslims in the Middle East were ahead of Europe in science and technology by the time of the centuries bridging the turn of the first and second millennia. Yet none of these cultures ever approached the widespread prosperity and personal freedom expanding throughout the world today. What was different about the European experience?
A central factor is the rise of market economies. While there have always been markets and trade, market economies and trade in the modern sense began more than a millennium ago in southern Europe eventually taking root in Northern Italy. Later the central activity moved to Flanders before jumping the Channel to England, on to America, and then out to the world. Over the next few posts I will explore four features that emerged in European culture that I believe had a central impact on the unique rise of Western prosperity that is now expanding throughout the globe. Each of the four links to distinctly Judeo–Christian perspectives on life and the world.
Two caveats. First, I’m not saying that these cultural characteristics alone led to European prosperity. For instance, I’ve already mentioned Europe’s unique geography as contributing factor in the previous post. Second, I’m not saying that everything introduced by European culture has led to the most desirable outcomes in terms of a shalom filled world. But I am saying that I don’t think we can look at bringing others into the cycle of prosperity we have experienced without first examining “the water we are swimming in” and asking if those we are engaging share swim in the same water.
We now turn these four cultural features.