The Enriching Idea of Freedom
Picture provided by courtesy of Deirdre McCloskey.

The Enriching Idea of Freedom

Over the last two centuries, humanity has become thirty times richer. The reason for this was not an economic, but an ideological change.


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The enrichment of humans has been recent and gigantic. It was caused, I claim, by a sustained ideological change in northwestern Europe in the 18th and 19th centuries. It spread to the rest largely through the ideology of liberalism, that uniquely recent notion of equality of permission – much disdained in these latter days by the left and the right, by the Pikettys and Deneens, not to speak of the Maduros and Putins.

During the millennia from the caves down to 1800 the average person on the planet earned and spent in today’s prices some $2 or $3 a day, as now in the Central African Republic. By 1800 the average person in the richest countries, such as Holland and Britain and Britain’s newly independent daughter in the New World, had attained perhaps $6 day, as now in Afghanistan. Still pitiful.1 Switzerland was worse.

But in the 19th century, after a precarious beginning during the 18th century in Britain, a Great Enrichment transformed western European countries and their offshoots. Later, of course, enrichment spread to more and more of the planet – not by policy, which was usually counterproductive, but by ethics and ideology. In the comedy “John Bull’s Other Island” (1904), Ireland had not shared in the recent comparative prosperity of Britain, even at the $6 level. As late as 1970 it was still notably lagging. Yet Ireland today, after adopting liberal economic ideas, is the fourth or fifth richest substantial country in the world. The Chinese, who not so long ago were thought to be trapped in an Asian Dilemma, adopted liberal economic policies after 1978, and are now enriched by a factor of upwards of 20, earn roughly $45 or $50 a day per person. It is the level of Brazilians – which is roughly the World Bank’s reckoning of the global average. The global average is a factor of 20 of enrichment over that $2 or $3 a day worldwide in 1800. The numbers are dizzying, and gratifying. Look at the charts, and stand amazed.

They make the recent obsession on the left with inequality within countries look very strange. Seizing in France the riches of all the people like the disgraceful Liliane Bettencourt, the ethics-less heiress to the L’Oréal cosmetics fortune, and giving it to the poor ­people of the country might do as much as double their incomes in one year. Good. But instituting an attainable liberal equality of permission increases incomes permanently by a factor of 20, or by much, much more. It has recently in Hong Kong or Botswana or Italy, and in France itself from the time of “Les Misérables.”

Along with the economic improvement has come along a social and cultural one. Life expectancy and literacy have increased dramatically, while child mortality has dropped around the world. We also ended slavery and the subjection of women, we care about the far Uighurs and the animals around us.

There is little chance that the Great Enrichment will now stop, unless we try hard – as for instance the European Civil War (1914–1945), which had an impact until 1989. A less violent way to stop the world’s enrichment, is to fall prey to imagined fears, finding every couple of years a new “headwind” requiring urgent tackling by the ship of state. The economist Robert Gordon in 2016, for example, pointed to such headwinds to justify extensions of statist policies.2 And the economist Tyler Cowen in 2011 and 2013 worried, too, about the headwinds, though with…