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How The West Won

Rodney Stark

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For millenia, most people lived lives of misery and exploitation under tryranical rulers. Most lived just a notch above bare subsistence, little better off than their oxen. Predatory ruling elites extracted every ounce of 'surplus' ptoduction, and used it to support armies to either gain or protect loot.

One short miracle of progress took place in Greece among people who lived in city states instead of emoires. Here was the foundation of Western civilization. The beacon was eventually extinguished, but the legacy remained.

Command economies still persist today, and still have advocates. But the most basic fact of economic life is that all wealth derives from production. When wealth is subject to devastating taxes or confiscation, the challenge is to keep one's wealth, not make it productive. This principle applies with even greater force on those with little, and this accounts for the substantial underproduction of command economies.

Late in C10 an iron industry began to develop in northern China. Exploited easily mined local coal and iron ore, and located along canals and rivers for distribution. The local owners amde huge profits and reinvested them in new mines and smelters. The availability of iron tools lead to an increase in food production, and China began to enter an industrial revolution. But it was snuffed out. The court mandarins noticed that some commoners were getting rich and peasants were getting good wages, and deemed it a threat to society. They declared the industry a state monopoly, and by the end of the century the smalters had been abandoned.

This pattern applied everywhere. Everything of value was seized. But none got reinvested in improving production, Instead it went either for armies or for displays. From the pyramids to the Taj Mahal - beautiful monuments to oppresive rule - they were without productive value and were paid for with misery and toil.

Goegraphy helped preserve independence of Greek city states, but otherwise did it no favours. Poor soils and a lack of navigable rivers stunted production and commerce. Yet they made huge progress from about 600BC until defeat by Philip of Macedon (Alexander the Great's father) in 338BC. Started with military prowess, then advanced democracy, economics, literacy, the arts and technology.

Military prowess. Greeks figured out that numbers didn't matter so mmuch as what you did where forces met. They came up heavy infantry - heavy bc heavily armoured, with large shields that protected their left side and the right side of the soldier next to them, and long (8 or 9 feet) lances that could stab opponents befor ethey got close to the Greek forces. Opponents usually only lightly armoured and favoured swords which needed room to swing. So tight-packed Greek phalanx outnumbered opponents 3 to 1 at the point of contact.

Democracy (with qualifications - it didn't include women or slaves, and every so often a tyrant emerged, but re-established every time until P of Macedonia - made it possible for individuals to profit from their innovations. Taxes were lower and property was not subject to arbitrary sdeizure. In most socities only a very few, usually scribes, could read and write. In Athens about a third of freemen were literate. Schools for both boys and girls. Knowledge was written down and circulated.

Attributed to this Greek period - flour-milling powered by waterwheels, gears for the wheels, Archimede's screw, winches to tighten cables, cranes (using winches and pulleys to lift heavy loads), water clocks and the astrolabe. Greeks were first to propose that the Universe is orderly and predictable. Based on observable underlying principles and not the arbitrary whims of this or that god. Thales gave this view a huge boost when he successfully predicted asolar eclipse on 28 May 585BC.

From 872 to 1012, a third of all popes died a violent death, including at least one killed by a jealous husband.

Religious conversion is rarely a matter of deciding you like the doctrine. It is invariable a matter of aligning your religious behaviour with that of your friens, family and neighbours.

Sanctions applied to some who went too far. Fulk III, Count of Anjou 972 to 1040. Hadhis first wife burned to death in her wedding dress, allegedly for farking a goatsherd. For that, his confessor insisted he make a pilgrimage to Jerusalem as penance, and he went. But when he returned he went back to standard raping, pillaging and killing. Eventually he was forced to make four pilgrimages to Jerusalem (dying on his way back from the fourth).

Genoa, like most medieval city states, was usually ruled by leader of one faction or another. But after a series of bloody and expensive civil wars, they tried a different system. Hired an outsider on a one-year-then-leave contract. Provided his owm soldiers and judges, none of whom were allowed to marry Genoese or buy local land. By the mid C14 this had evolved to a 10 year contract but with a democratically elected council.

Capitalism first appeared, not as some suggest, with the Reformation, or earlier with the rise of Italian trading cities, but with C9th monasteries. Capitalism is a lot more than the simple buying and selling that has gone on for millenia. It involves free markets, secure property rights and free labour. Free markets allow new entrants with innovative methods or products. Secure property rights lets people invest for future productivity, rather than hide valuables from state plundering. Need free labour bc slaves are expensive to keep if you can't keep them fully employed.

By the C9, the Church was by far the biggest landowner in Europe, and its annual income and liquid assets far greater than any monarch. The monasteries were given or bequeathed land, and used church funds to buy more land. Before then, each monastery self-sufficient at subsistence level. But as population began to increase they started to specialize and trade. The invested for long term growth with meritocratic rather than families. And they developed a cash economy and provided credit and lending.

From about 800 to 1250 the Medieval Warm Period. As temperatures rose, more food was grown, and the population grew (fewer children died). The ice pack receded and there were fewer Atlantic storms, so the Vikings could explore and then colonise Iceland, Greenland and Vinland (Nova Scotia). Europe prospered as well. This is the era of great Gothic cathedrals. Then temperatures gradually dropped back and Europe had Little Ice Age right through to abour 1850. The Thames froze over, as did Atlantic harbours and even the Baltic Sea. Famines due to heavy rain affecting harvests were common - one long famine from 1310 to 1325 killed 10% of European popn. Ships no longer risked the voyage to Greenland, and the entire Viking population, no longer able to grow grain, and unable to build ships to escape (no trees), starved to death.

Then came the Black Death 1347 onwards, with repeated outbreaks. A third of the population diedin the first round of disease, at least another 10% in 1361 outbreak and another 10% in 1369. For those who survived, there was a silver lining. A huge amount of farmlnd was left untenanted, and was scooped up by surviving landowners. A labour shortage meant the end of serfdom - serfs simply walked off the land, secure in the knowledge that they could get good wages from another farmer desperate for workers. And urban wages grew for same reasons and bc of growing wool trade and processing industries.

Chimneys first appeared (in rich people's homes) in C12. Historians claimed that poor people didn't have them until nearly modern day. But if they'd asked art historians, they'd have been told that C15 paintings showed most house with chimneys. That meant the end of great halls with a huge fireplace at one end. Rooms grew smaller, people had more privacy, and with it, greater modesty.

Muslim clerics reject science bc see it as heretical - natural laws imply limits to Allah's freedom to act; all that needs to be known is written in the Koran. In contrast, Christian theologians have devoted centuries to reasoning about God's nature. So the pursuit of knowledge became central to medieval church-based universities, and led directly to the rise of Western science. The unis were based on empiricism - if something could be tested, it was.

Whereas earlier societies, and contemporary Islam banned dissection, Christians held that it was man's soul that set him apart, and that once gone, there was no reason to consider the body sacred.

Myth of a "Scientific Revn" that sprang forth from nothing, as a challenge to the hide-bound church. In fact, it was the steady accumulation of knowledge, almost evry bit contributed by religious scholars exploring the glory of God. Beginning often dated from Copernicus discovering that earth orbited the sun, and the church tried to suppress his story. In fact (a) Copernicus built on a long sequence of scientific and maths scholarship from previous three centuries and (b) he got everything wrong except the sun centred solar system. (He postulated circular orbits, which still screwed up the math, and it wasn't untll Kepler, a century later, that elliptical orbits solved all the calculation problems).

British capitalism began with wool trade. British advantage of political freedom - secure property rights and free markets - which meant that innovators and investors could be confident of keeping their profits. The first innovation that laid foundation for all to follow was the mechanisation of fulling (process which produces much finer wool material).

The English hooked up water-powered fulling hammers which allowed much higher production levels of most valuable cloth. English wool factories could safely move to country to exploit local rivers, to free from oppressive guild regs, and for lower wages. In Europe, only cities were secure enough for factories - in the country they would be at the mercy of rapacious gentry. And free to expt with creative designs, colours and patterns in England, whereas Europeans the guilds restricted innovations.

The big problem with mining was getting the raw material to a place where it could be refined. Around 1600 unknown inventors came up with an improvement - metal rails to support horse-drawn wagons, which enabled horse to pull much heavier load. Two methods - a metal gutter to guide wheels (preferred at first bc cart could still be used off the rails) or a flanged wheel (as in today's railway carriages). The latter prevailed bc much cheaper. So, long before steam engines, England had an extensive network of metal rail lines. Once Watt's steam engine became practical and reliable, it was a no-brainer to put it on (railway) wheels.

Criticism of Marco Polo's book misguided bc (a) he didn't write it and (b) the guy who did write it was trying to produce a best-seller (which he did). More than 80 hand-copied versions from C14 and C15 survive, with huge variatons between them - some with a lot of fictio, others very little. Ironically some of the early doubters questioned veracity bc he did not report the then-common fables about people in the East having no heads etc.

Spain extracted a huge fortune in gold and silver from American colonies in C16, but squandered the lot in miltary campaigns. Spain itself remained a backward nation. But Spain accelerated the rise of the West by opening the New World and spurring the growth of Danish and Dutch capitalism, and England to become a global power.

The two Spanish monarchs responsible, Charles V and Philip II, were conscientious and hard-working. Had they been wastrel palyboys they might have done a lot less damage to the empire they administered. In contrast, Elizabeth I left her captains on a long leash, and they responded with brilliant innovations to fill theirs and their queen's pockets. Free enterprise vindicated.

Catholic doctrine was that people who died without paying for the many sins they committed during their lifetime went to purgatory, a kind of semi-hell where they had to endure punishments until they were cleansed of their sins. Indulgences were payments to get souls out of purgatory. At first they were personal - you made payment as a form of doing good works. But at end C15 it was extended to cover souls of people who had already died. At this stage the Church started to make serious money. This was when Martin Luther pinned his Ninety-five theses to the door of Wittenberg Church.

This was first step that led to the Reformation, where Europe split between Catholics and Protestants. The peasants rarely cared about doctrine (and one of main complaints of the age was that hardly anyone bothered going to church anyway). The local ruler chose, and the deciding factor was who controlled the Church. If the ruler didn't have any say in appointmaents or where the church tithes were spent, he had a strong motive to break away, and that is what happened.

Arabs credited with saving many Greek and Roman texts which disappeared in the West, but they didn't really utilize them. They treated the works of Plato, Aristotle etc the same as they did the Koran - as established truths which could not be questioned. If observations differed from what the Ancients taught, it meant the observations were illusory.

Battle of Lapanto 1571, fleet of Christian sailing ships armed with moder cannons trapped an Ottoman fleet in harbour and smashed them. On the galley of commander Ali Pashi, they found a huge fortune in gold coins. Similar hauls on the galleys of other high ranking captains. Even though Ali Pasha was the brother in law of the ruling Sultan, he did not dare leave his money at home in case of arbitrary confiscation. Arab world had no secure banking system, so everyone hid their wealth from tax collectors rather than invest in productive enterprises.

European scholars of middle ages were just as religious, but they took position that God is perfect and so acts consistently and rationally, and therefore it was proper for scientists to try to understand the mechanisms by which God ran the world. And since God has given man the power of reasoning, it made sense to use that power to understand God's rules.

When Marxist regimes emerged, they turned out to be the same old-fashioned command economies. The difference being that, in comparison to Mao and Stalin, the Egyptian pharoahs and Arab sultans seemed enlightened and restarined tyrants.

Bourgeois society emerged in Britain bc there was sufficient liberty for merit and ambition to succeed, creating a society dominated not by the nobility but by 'achievers'. The US was bourgeois from the start, and it quickly caught up and surpassed Britain in industrial and economic development.

Atlantic trade foundation for the rise of the bourgeoise. Britain and the Netherlands embraced trade, where the absolutist states, dominated by nobility, looked down on traders, and in fact actively impeded the growth of commerce (French economy dominated by monopolies purchased under licence from the state, and so no competition). Rapid urbanizationin both Britain and Netherlands as industrial opportunities paid more than farming work. The rising merchant class demanded more property rights, especially patents.

In America, labour costs were astronomical - a constant shortage of workers kept wages rising - which encouraged owners to innovate with machinery.

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