We have briefly reviewed three of William J. Bernstein’s four factors that led to today’s unprecedented prosperity: property rights, scientific rationalism and capital markets. Bernstein refers to the fourth factor as “power, transportation and light.” I’m simply referring to this as “technology and infrastructure.” (1)
Not every technological innovation that contributed to Europe’s growing prosperity originated with Europeans. A number of inventions similar to ones Europeans developed appeared earlier in other cultures like China or in the Muslim world. But the central issue is not how early a specific invention occurred but the ability of that invention to have an impact on culture and the economy. Europe made slow but steady innovations in the 1,200 years following the fall of Rome. Then over the last 200-300 years, an explosion in technological innovation began, nurtured and sustained by property rights, scientific rationalism and capital markets. The advances in technology in turn influenced these other factors.
One of the theses of Rodney Stark’s book, Victory of Reason, is that the so called “Dark Ages” were not so dark. (2) Historians often point to the days of the Roman Empire as the Zenith of Western Civilization. The fifth century saw Rome’s demise and then there was 1,000 years of “darkness” until rediscovery of the classical West gave birth to the Renaissance and Enlightenment. The evidence says otherwise.
Stark points out that Roman society knew nothing of waterwheel powered technology. When William the Conqueror took his census in England in 1066 he counted approximately one water powered mill for every fifty families.(3) What had changed over the previous five centuries? Motivation. What need did the master of a Roman villa have for water power when he could simply acquire more slaves to do the work? Common Europeans had no such luxury and turned to ingenuity to solve their production problems.
Much is made of the elaborate Roman road system but rarely is it noted that roads were largely restricted to military traffic and luxury goods “extracted” from outlying regions for the wealthy in the city. They had little impact on the economic wellbeing of the average person in Roman society.
Most of the significant early European innovations were related to agricultural production. Roman agriculture was based on a two crop rotation system and required half the land to lie fallow at any given time. Europeans created a three crop rotation system in the seventh century in which only one third of the ground had to be kept out of production. By rotating crops in a particular order, the land’s fertility was actually enhanced. The fallow land also served as excellent grazing land for livestock. Livestock produced manure and further increased the lands fertility. These innovations began to produce an agricultural surplus, freeing some for pursuits other than agriculture. Monasteries owned vast tracts of land and benefited greatly from the technological advances, allowing them to begin to specialize in other activities. They eventually became centers of commerce in European life and developed many features of modern corporations.
Rodney Stark points out that it was Europeans who invented the horse harness and horseshoes by about the eleventh century. A horse with a harness can pull more than an ox and can work twice as long. The horseshoe greatly decreased the injury to horses and improved their traction on difficult surfaces.(4) The Europeans also invented wagons with brakes and swiveling axels. These wagons combined with harnessed horses greatly enhanced the ability to move heavy loads over long distances.(5) Europeans also greatly improved ship design including the use of rudders. They invented windmills that greatly increased the agricultural productivity in the lowlands of Northern Europe. Eyeglasses were invented in the thirteenth century, greatly extending the working life of many craftsmen.(6) From the end of the Roman Empire to the eighteenth century there was a slow but steady flow of technological improvements. From about the eighteenth century on, the steady flow became a tidal wave.
Proto-capitalist enterprises were emerging in Northern Italy in the first centuries of the second millennium. Forerunners of the modern corporation were in place that included double-entry bookkeeping, by-laws and financial markets. Water powered fulling mills, developed in England during the thirteenth century, created small factories all across the English countryside. The thirteenth century also was when a reliable mechanical clock was invented. Town clocks were installed in bell towers with chimes to mark the day. For the first time people over a wide area of real estate could coordinate activities. By the end of the seventeenth century property rights and capital markets had been well established and more people than ever had strong incentives to innovate. The pace of innovation and invention began to increase in a variety of areas through the use of scientific rationalism.
(1) William J. Bernstein, The Birth of Plenty: How the Prosperity of the Modern World was Created, (New York: McGraw-Hill, 2004), 161-188.
(2) Rodney Stark, The Victory of Reason: How Christianity Led to Freedom, Capitalism, and Western Success, (New York: Random House, 2005), Chapters 2 and 3.
(3) Stark, 38.
(4) Stark, 40.
(5) Stark, 48-50.
(6) Stark, 43-48.