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The European miracle

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The IPA Review has a book review by Richard Allsop, looking at two books on the rise of European civilization. A very large book by the Oxford archeologist Barry Cunliffe advocates a kind of geographical determinism, so “over millenia [the Europeans] became hardened to be mobile” largely due to the proximity of water to much of Europe.  He sees trade as a central factor, whether of goods, ideas or practices. John Hirst, an Australian historian, has written a brief overview with the emphasis on classical learning, Christianity and the German warrior culture.

These bold sketches bring to mind a contribution from the late Gerard Radnitzky who attributed the “European miracle” to the rise of autonomous science and the “taming of the state” which came about in Europe but not in China which a thouand years ago would have looked a better bet for the rise of an industrial civilization.

He wrote a long and densely argued paper addressing two themes. First he looked at the evolution of two levels of scientific theories (descriptive and metaphysical) and then he looked at the the factors that accounted for the explosion of wealth and personal freedom in modern Europe.

The Rise of the West rests on three pillars: in the economy, the market order; in the political sphere, the taming of the State; in intellectual life, autonomous science. (1) The market order or competitive capitalism is the key factor. It presupposes and rests on private rights, i.e., that property rights are respected by the rules at least to such an extent that their predatory appetites are kept in check. (2) The existence of private rights in turn entails and presupposes the existence of some sort of legal framework protecting such rights. (3) Autonomous science as a model of a particular cognitive mode — the competitive mode — achieved its breakthrough only with Galileo and Newton.

Why did suitable political conditions develop in Europe rather than a other places? Like all historical processes the ‘Rise of the West’ is a singularity and a contingent process. We can explain the principle by pointing out certain possibilities which have opened up. Which of the possible developments has been realized, depends essentially on the initial conditions; these in turn depend on the crossing points of causal chains, which contain a substantial chance clement.

In the case at hand, among the initial conditions natural constraints have played a key role. By contrast to the conditions which Asian and Islamic rulers were confronted with, European geography — soils, geology, climates, etc. — varies from place to place and core-areas are comparatively small. For European rulers it was far more difficult to project military power from the core-area to the periphery. Hence, the European states faced neighbors with roughly equal military capabilities, and the international game of power was characterized by a permanent and fierce competition… Historical accidents reinforced that development and one important factor was the power struggle between the State and the Church. Competition between states together with practicable opportunities to exit facilitated the spread of innovations throughout Europe.

In sum, sustained economic growth has been based on trading across an area large enough to be important but divided among a number of rival nation-states. Each of these states was large enough to protect property in a territory large enough to be important, but not so large as to become an empire with inefficiencies analogous to those of the monopolistic firm. The possibilities for capital mobility and the risk of losing valuable human capital operated as a deterrent to political confiscation or confiscatory taxes.


He ended on a downbeat note because the European community is in the process of dismantling the conditions that made the miracle possible, a process that is proceeding with bipartisan support on the other side of the Atlantic.

Written by Rafe

December 30, 2009 at 11:49 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

One Response

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  1. I’m not sure I buy this “geography is destiny” which is also Jared Diamond’s thesis. Sure, it all fits very nicely together as a just-so story. However it relies on a view of human society that’s, well let’s call it the ant metaphor. People are running around gathering food and building nests, and in the case of ants, the physical structure of the nest and how successful it is, is dictated pretty much by physical space and the presense of predators. That’s it. The ants have no impact at all.
    But for humans, societies can head off in all kinds of crazy directions. Examples are too numerous and obvious to bother with. Social developments are impacted by physical environment as well as internal processes and many other things.
    bottom line? the geography argument for Europe’s rise doesn’t ring true for me.

    daddy dave

    December 31, 2009 at 5:53 pm

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