Stephen Davies – The Wealth Explosion: The Nature and Origins of Modernity
In some ways, I have been waiting on this book for 20 years. When I was college age, I saw Davies give several historical lectures at Cato University seminars, read numerous articles by him, and have met him a few times over the years at various events. This book captures his big-picture thoughts on world history. Why is the world so rich today compared to ancient or medieval times? Davies’ answer is similar to Deirdre McCloskey, but not quite the same: cultural attitudes towards openness and change, plus compatible politico-economic institutions are what did it.
But it’s not so simple as that. Nothing is in history. The arrow of causality runs in both directions. Guns, germs, and steel played a role, and so did geography. There are also several instances where a modern takeoff began, but couldn’t sustain itself. There were flowerings of various degrees in China, Japan, Peru, Africa, and Europe, but none of them stuck until 19th century England. Davies argues that there is nothing special about Europe or its people that made it destined to be the place where a modern wealth explosion first sustained itself and spread throughout the world. But Enlightenment ideas, in combination with the many, many other factors listed above, seem to be what did it.
Davies’ other contribution is a proper understanding of what modernity is. It is not a thing or a place, or even a certain set of technologies, or amount of wealth, or percentage of urban dwellers. Modernity is a process. Better players don’t make a better game; people are the same today as we were back in Caesar’s day. But better rules make a better game, as do the players respecting those rules and knowing their importance. Institutions, and the people working within them, need to prefer neophilia to neophobia. They need to be tolerant of people different from them, whether that’s religion, race, appearance, or numerous other characteristics. People who do not go along will not get along—and if political institutions do not encourage or allow people to act civilized, very often they will not.
Davies’ view of world history is unusually humble. He knows enough to know he doesn’t know everything. He doesn’t give a single magic bullet cause for modernity because there isn’t one. It is multicausal, and even then, modernity relies on having an ongoing process in place, not this or that outcome.
As important, he reminds the reader that the culture and institutions behind that process are fragile and reversible. They must be defended.