'Why the West Rules — For Now: The Patterns of History, and What They Reveal About the Future' by Ian Morris
From On Point:
“When a man is tired of London,” said Samuel Johnson, “he is tired of life; for there is in London all that life can afford.” It was 1777, and every current of thought, every bright new invention, was energizing Dr. Johnson’s hometown. London had cathedrals and palaces, parks and rivers, mansions and slums. Above all, it had things to buy—things beyond the wildest imaginings of previous generations. Fine ladies and gentlemen could alight from carriages outside the new arcades of Oxford Street, there to seek out novelties like the umbrella, an invention of the 1760s that the British soon judged indispensable; or the handbag, or toothpaste, both of them products of the same decade. And it was not just the rich who indulged in this new culture of consumption. To the horror of conservatives, tradesmen were spending hours in coffee shops, the poor were calling tea a “necessary,” and farmers’ wives were buying pianos.
The British were beginning to feel they were not like other people. In 1776 the Scottish sage Adam Smith had called them “a nation of shopkeepers” in his Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, but he had meant it as a compliment; Britons’ regard for their own well-being, Smith insisted, was making everyone richer. Just think, he said, of the contrast between Britain and China. China had been “long one of the richest, that is, one of the most fertile, best cultivated, most industrious, and most populous, countries of the world,” but had already “acquired that full complement of riches which the measure of its laws and institutions permits it to acquire.” The Chinese, in short, were stuck. “The competition of the labourers and the interest of the masters,” Smith predicted, “would soon reduce them to the lowest rate which is consistent with common humanity,” with the consequence that “the poverty of the lower ranks of people in China far surpasses that of the most beggarly nations in Europe…Any carrion, the carcase of a dead dog or cat, for example, though half putrid and stinking, is as welcome to them as the most wholesome food to the people of other countries.”
Johnson and Smith had a point. Although the industrial revolution had barely begun in the 1770s, average incomes were already higher and more evenly distributed in England than in China. Long-term lock-in theories of Western rule often start from this fact: the West’s lead, they argue, was a cause rather than a consequence of the industrial revolution, and we need to look back further in time—perhaps much further—to explain it.
Or do we?