When I sat down to figure out what I wanted to do for my Master’s degree, one of the topics highest on my list was rescuing the reputation of the Industrial Revolution (IR). I presented this topic to my condescending (and very short-lived) thesis advisor, who patiently explained to me that the Industrial Revolution had no root cause.
I found this rather fascinating, and questioned him further. If the IR had no root cause, what on earth could? The IR was the single greatest event in the history of our species –it rescued us from a hundred thousand years of slavery to brute nature and callous rulers. The ‘before’ and ‘after’ pictures of the IR seem to be from completely different worlds. From rural ignorance, poverty, disease and starvation, mankind vaulted – in the span of a generation or two – to a self-subsistent and growing world of urban opportunity.
How could such an unfathomable transformation not have a root cause? If an ancient desert was suddenly replaced by a fertile valley, wouldn’t agriculturists and climatologists be fascinated? If a stable land mass suddenly sprouted a massive volcano – wouldn’t that excite geologists? If human beings suddenly developed immunity to all forms of cancer, wouldn’t that propel the greatest medical investigation in history?
The IR – which was even greater than all the above – merits no such investigation. Instead, we rely on resentful liars such as Marx and Dickens for ‘analysis’, and muddy all penetrating questions with smug assertions of ‘historical complexity’.
The common historical approach is that the IR was the result of complex interactions of unrelated factors. The improved horse harness of the eleventh century produced more crops, as did the upgrading of crop management throughout the 12th and 13th centuries. The re-discovery of Roman law sped up urbanization, and the plague decimated existing social structures – especially the Catholic church. Protestant ideas contributed a new ethic of saving and hard work, and the invention of certain technologies sped up the potential for industrialization.
All these factors – and a thousand others – are then thrown into a magic cauldron which somehow produces the IR.
This is the most ridiculous approach that can be imagined. I got a Masters degree from the University of Toronto – how would these ‘historians’ explain that? Well, I attended this class, ate that meal, took that exam – and somehow it all came together, and I got the degree! That is the purest nonsense! The question is not how I got my degree, but why? Why was I even interested in getting a Masters? ‘How’ anything happens in history is unimportant – only the why is relevant, because only through the ‘why’ can we understand the future.
The central premise of the Ptolemaic system of astronomy was that the Earth was the center of the universe. However, to explain the baffling retrograde motion of Mars, incredibly complex ‘circles within circles’ were posited – sometimes into the hundreds. How they calculated the orbit of Mars is now unimportant – no one studies it these days. Why they took their approach to their calculations is important, and forms the fundamental principle called Occam’s Razor. Their calculations became ludicrously complex because their central premise was wrong – which is an invaluable lesson for the future, courtesy of the past.
In the same vein, how I took my Masters – the specific steps – is utterly uninteresting. Why I took my Masters was:
1. to gain access to a better career
2. to make more money
3. to pursue my love of knowledge
If we look at my first reason – a better career – the real question is: why does having a Masters help my career?
The answer is two-fold. Either the free market places a high value on a Masters degree, or some regulatory body requires me to have one. Since I have a Masters in History, and no regulatory body requires that, it must be because the free market values a Masters.
So why weren’t people getting a Masters in the Middle Ages? Quite simply – because there was no value in it. And the reason there was no value in it? Because the free market did not exist, and no regulatory body required a Masters degree.
How do we know that the free market did not exist in the Middle Ages? Well, there were no property rights (other than vague ‘historical inertia’ squatting privileges), and because ‘trade’ was subject to endless reams of violent coercion. Guilds controlled the production of goods, requiring years of pointless ‘apprenticeship’ in order to make something as simple as a pair of shoes. Sons were forced into the trade of their fathers. Advertising was illegal – in a medieval market, even sneezing as a potential customer passed by was illegal, since the passer-by was required to say ‘bless you’, which might lead to a conversation, and so a sale. Both the Church and the aristocracy conspired to keep usury illegal – and, because interest was disallowed, it was impossible to start a business. Foreign trade was strangled with punitive tariffs.
Why all the coercive bullying? Well, both the Church and the aristocracy stood to lose if the middle class was allowed to develop – the Church because the optimistic materialism of the entrepreneurial spirit directly opposed the death-cult and guilt-metaphysics of Christianity – and the aristocracy because when wealth depends more on capital than land, the political power of land-owners is undermined.
The answer to the question ‘why did people not take a Masters degree in the Middle Ages?’ is thus simple: because they were not allowed to gain value from it. If men are not allowed to choose their own professions – or their professional associates – self-improvement becomes a net negative. Where there is no competition, there is no need for excellence – and so self-improvement is a complete waste of time and resources.
George Orwell makes this point in ‘Down and Out in Paris and London’. He mocks the pompous sociologists who wax on about how a ‘gypsy spirit’ or ‘sense of restlessness’ keeps tramps on the move. Tramps keep moving, he says, because they are compelled to keep moving. If they stay more than one night in a particular locale, they are thrown in jail.
Tramps keep moving simply because it is illegal for them to stay in one place. People were poor in the Middle Ages simply because it was illegal for them to become rich. It really is as simple as that.
This approach also answers another essential question about IR, which is: why did the IR occur in the 18th-19th centuries, rather than at any other time in human history?
There is absolutely no reason why the advances of the IR could not have occurred in Ancient Rome, or Greece, or China – anywhere in fact. Physics hadn’t changed. People weren’t magically more intelligent or entrepreneurial or materialistic in the 18th century. No accidental alignment of multiple factors produced the IR, because those ingredients had always existed, all throughout history. Romans dabbled in steam power, but the existence of slavery made labour-saving devices pointless. The growth of political corruption in ancient Greece – always synonymous with increased State power – created a world where ambitious men were certain to make more money through politics than business – thus escalating State coercion at the expense of the productive economy.
The results of this were inevitable. Rome fell for one simple reason: the massive increases in taxation and conscription required to support a brutal and expansionist foreign policy. Rome could only profitably tax and conscript those who lived in cities – thus, as taxes rose, people fled the cities for the countryside. Unable to conscript its own citizens, Rome had to hire more mercenaries – which in turn required more taxation – which drove even more people out of the cities, further lowering the taxable population. This vicious circle destroyed Rome remarkably quickly. When Rome ran out of money to pay its mercenaries, they marched on Rome and destroyed it. Violence always begets violence. Taxation always destroys the State – and, sadly, this destruction only occurs after the State has corrupted the population to the point where they cannot function without a brutal State.
So – why did the IR happen in the 18th and 18th centuries? The answer is quite simple, and can be traced through the growth in property rights, destruction of the guilds, and the limitations placed on arbitrary State power:
The Industrial Revolution occurred because it was allowed to occur.
Or, put another way:
People became productive because they were no longer punished for being productive.
The IR could have happened at any time throughout human history – and tens of thousands of years of pointless suffering could have been averted. The endless famines, wars, plagues – the misery of millions – were all completely unnecessary.
Why, then, do modern academics refuse to point all of this out?
The answer is quite simple: because the State pays them not to. This is a very common pattern. The State always takes money from the general population, then uses that money to pay moralists to justify State power. For the aristocracy, these moralists were priests – now, for secular demagogues, they are academics and school teachers, who continually praise the State that pays them.
All the above underlines an essential truth about human society, which should be obvious to any historian:
All general social patterns result from universal (i.e. State) coercion.
Here are some examples:
· If people do not engage in trade, it is because they punished for trading.
· If people do not lend each other money, it is because they are punished for charging interest.
· If people accumulate useless knowledge, it is because they are punished for practicing their profession without it (this applies to academia, apprenticeship programs in the trades – as well as the ten years of medical school required to write a prescription for antibiotics or refer someone to a specialist).
· If people do not accumulate wealth, it is because they are not allowed to, or because their wealth can be taken arbitrarily.
· If a large number of businesses fail, it is always due to State policies, usually to do with the money supply, taxation or punitive regulation.
· If people become warlike, it is because the State is paying them to be warlike – either through direct pay, in the case of soldiers, or through subsidies, in the case of arms manufacturers.
· If a group of people do not criticize the State, it is because they are directly benefiting from the State. Some examples:
o The media must apply to the State for operating licenses, and rely on the State for news.
o Teachers and academics are paid and protected by the State.
o Large businesses need State regulations to punish potential competitors.
o Scientists rely on State grants and academic appointments to survive.
o Health care professionals rely on State coercion to limit competition and price-cutting.
o The old, the sick and the poor receive massive payments from the State.
…the list goes on and on.
This is the simple truth of historical causality. Random factors do not affect all people simultaneously. The only force powerful enough to affect the whole of society – to choke, enslave and define the actions of the entire body politic – is the universal power of the State.
When the State is eliminated, and historians no longer have to be court toadies to the power that pays them, this simple truth can finally be made clear.
Stefan Molynuex, is the host of Freedomain Radio (www.freedomainradio.com), the most popular philosophy site on the Internet, and a “Top 10” Finalist in the 2007-2010 Podcast Awards.