FRIDAY, JUNE 15: I recently wrote a three-part commentary on “Poverty in Bermuda” which I thought was enough for any reader to absorb.
However, a recent letter in the Sun by Alvin Williams makes the assertion that “the wealth and economic lead that the West has had up to now is not a natural state of affairs or the result of a more superior economic vision.
“Through much of mankind’s societal and economic development has a western face, it was built on colonialism, slavery and military power, which allowed Europe and Britain to seize lands and exploit the natural resources and manpower to their benefit.”
I think Mr Williams has got it wrong, but then wrongheaded notions about the economy are never in short supply. Let me mention just a few historical facts, which I suspect are in opposition to the cartoon version of history that is an ingredient of local politics.
Slavery has existed in every society, in every part of the world for thousands of years. It was almost 200 years ago that it was first abolished in the British empire (as it was then known) and latterly in the United States in 1865, and several others countries even later.
If colonialism and slavery were the cause of economic prosperity, I wonder why countries like Egypt 2,000 years ago, or countries 500 years ago in Asia, which had lots of slaves, failed to accumulate the wealth that triggered economic growth comparable to that of the West?
Indeed, the last country in the Americas to abolish slavery was Brazil in 1888, but by US and European standards, Brazil is impoverished.
If Mr Williams is correct in his proposition that slavery promoted economic growth, why are Egypt and Brazil (and other countries) much poorer than Europe and the US? Indeed, why is the Southern United States poorer than the North, which abolished slavery years before 1865?
The fact is that slavery disappeared at the time industrial capitalism and the science of economics first emerged in Britain. This was not a coincidence; slavery was effectively destroyed by capitalism and the Industrial Revolution.
On purely economic grounds, modern capitalism rejects slavery as unworkable because slaves are productive only when doing simple repetitive tasks that can easily be monitored — such as picking cotton or in agriculture. Slavery would be impossible in 99 per cent of modern jobs, because employees have to show initiative and willingness, and are unlikely to be encouraged by the whip.
Let me change tack a little.
Nearly everyone knows that economics is known as the dismal science and that it was so dubbed by Thomas Carlyle — the essayist and historian.
In his essay entitled ‘An Occasional Discourse on the N****r Question’ given at Exeter Hall in London in 1849 he attacked liberal economists like John Stuart Mill, David Hume and Adam Smith who had made revolutionary statements (at that time) to the effect that it was freedom, institutions and incentives that explained why some countries were rich whilst others were poor.
Early economists argued that all human beings shared the same basic nature and intelligence.
Adam Smith, Hume, Mill and other early economists were as hostile to colonialism as Mr Williams, which they thought was a central building block of mercantilism.
To “progressive” thinkers like Carlyle, Charles Dickens, and Francis Galton, such ideas were heresy. This could not go unchallenged because everyone knew in the words of Carlyle “that blacks were sub-humans and two legged cattle”.
Capitalism said exactly the opposite — hence the epithet, the dismal science.
Mr Williams may check the facts of what I write by referring to the March 2011 newsletter Imprimis from Hillsdale College.
He may also wish to refer to the ‘Library of Economics and Liberty’ essay entitled ‘The Secret History of the Dismal Science’ by David Levy and Sandra Peart.
It has always been a mystery as to why intelligent people like Mr Williams attack the free market and capitalism. The historical facts speak for themselves.