The Millennium's Great Idea
[From the January 1999 issue of issue of The Free Market ]
Thank goodness this bloody century, the era of communism, national socialism, fascism, and central planning—in short, the century of government worship—is coming to an end. May we use the occasion to re-pledge our allegiance to human freedom, which is the basis of prosperity and civilization itself, and to repudiate every ideological force that opposes it.
The first blows struck by the enemies of liberty in this century were World War I and the Bolshevik Revolution. These two events broke the hearts of an entire generation of classical liberals, because they interrupted centuries of progress towards peace and freedom. These men understood something that we do not today: that the moments in the history of mankind characterized by comfort and security (to say nothing of prosperity) are sadly rare.
The truth is that, for the masses of men, the history of the millennium has been one of hunger, famine, and disease. In 12th century, England, for example, a deadly famine occurred every fourteen years. From the 13th to the 17th centuries, famine characterized every ten years. A famine has no relation to what we call deprivation today. These episodes killed tens of thousands, and forced average people to eat dogs and tree bark.
Not that daily life without famine was comfortable. For the masses of men, houses were tiny, with a hole in the thatched reed roof for smoke. The town pump was the only water supply. Sewage disposal was primitive, and outbreaks of scurvy, leprosy, and typhoid were common and expected. People pronounced themselves blessed when their child lived past age one, while few adults lived past age 30.
Economic opportunity was unknown, as was the idea of constantly advancing material prosperity. The first break in this long history of misery came with the rise of commercial society in Spain and Northern Italy, and then the industrial revolution in Britain. People flocked from the countryside to the factories. We’re told that conditions were deplorable, and hours long and hard.
But as compared with what? The alternative for most people was the life of a beggar or prostitute, or rural starvation.
Too little attention is paid to the heroic owners of the first factories. They were usually from a humble lot, and they undertook enormous risks, while pouring profits back into the business.
Their factories opened only over the opposition of the entrenched elites, and they faced relentless attacks from court propagandists for filling the cities with supposed riffraff. Their only intellectual backers were the classical-liberal economists, who saw that their efforts represented freedom and prosperity for the common man.
What was being produced in these factories? Not goods for the nobility, but clothing and equipment used by average people to improve their daily lives. As Mises said, this was the first time in history that mass production was undertaken for the masses. (If you read nothing else this next year, see Mises’s treatment of the industrial revolution on pages 613-619 in the Human Action).
The population of England doubled in the century following the industrial revolution–proof enough that it dramatically expanded living standards. In our own times we have also seen an extraordinary flowering of enterprise wherever and whenever freedom has been permitted. Consider that in 1900, worldwide life expectancy averaged 30 years. Today, it averages 65 years. As Nicholas Eberstadt has argued, this is what accounts for the astonishing increase in global population.
But what is the fundamental cause? Economic development, which has brought food, good nutrition and sanitation, as well as medicine, to the world. And look at us today, taking Walmart and Wendy’s for granted, as if they always existed and always will. We are irritated when the grocery runs out of prime rib roast, and we won’t touch lettuce that is wilted. We should remember that we are only the third or fourth generation in world history that has access to these things year round.
And what, in turn, is the cause of economic development? That much-reviled institution called capitalism, a word that means nothing more than the freedom to own property, to trade, and to innovate. Capitalism has proven to be the most spectacular engine of progress known to man, and its expansion the greatest idea of the millennium. Every material comfort we enjoy today we owe to the free economy, the least-understood and most assaulted foundation of civilized life.
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Llewellyn H. Rockwell, Jr., is president of the Ludwig von Mises Institute in Auburn, Alabama.
FURTHER READING: Henry Hazlitt, The Conquest of Poverty (FEE, 1994 ) and F.A. Hayek, Capitalism and the Historians (University of Chicago, 1954).