Posts tagged ‘Ben Franklin’

My View on the Source of Wealth in the Modern World

About 15 years ago, I wrote something I wanted to repeat here just because I keep looking for it and a lot of my old Typepad blog era stuff is hard to find.  The original post is gone but I quoted from it in 2005.

Since 1700, the GDP per capita in places like the US has risen, in real terms, over 40 fold.  This is a real increase in total wealth, created by the human mind.  And it was unleashed because the world began to change in some fundamental ways around 1700 that allowed the human mind to truly flourish.  Among these changes, I will focus on two:

  1. There was a philosophical and intellectual change where questioning established beliefs and social patterns went from being heresy and unthinkable to being acceptable, and even in vogue.  In other words, men, at first just the elite but soon everyone, were urged to use their mind rather than just relying on established beliefs
  2. There were social and political changes that greatly increased the number of people capable of entrepreneurship.  Before this time, the vast vast majority of people were locked into social positions that allowed them no flexibility to act on a good idea, even if they had one.  By starting to create a large and free middle class, first in the Netherlands and England and then in the US, more people had the ability to use their mind to create new wealth.  Whereas before, perhaps 1% or less of any population really had the freedom to truly act on their ideas, after 1700 many more people began to have this freedom. 

So today's wealth, and everything that goes with it (from shorter work hours to longer life spans) is the result of more people using their minds more freely.

At the time, perhaps to my shame, I had never even heard of Deirdre McCloskey nor her work that has been published in three volumes called the Bourgeois Era explaining what she calls the "great enrichening" (which I am slowly plowing through).  My thinking when I wrote this seems reasonably consistent with her conclusions, though she has obviously been a lot more systematic in thinking about it.  This exchange with Gregory Waymire is a short but quite readable window on her thinking.  She writes in part:

You're adopting a conventional and somewhat silly view that the bourgeoisie were especially diligent, when it is not true as fact and is anyway not the character of the bourgeoisie that
mattered to the Great Enrichment (which by the way was a factor of 30 per capita in countries that fully adopted economic liberalism, not the factor of 10 you quote: look at the passage again, and read slower and longer). Weber sometimes got this right, sometimes wrong. But people tend to read him as saying that higher savings and more diligence, Ben Franklin style (and even Ben did not actually do it), is what made us rich.

One trouble which such a conventional argument is an economic one that Solow-type models (and Smith- and Marx- and Weber- type models) that reduce growth to savings and labor effort are radically mistaken. What matters is human creativity released from ancient trammels....

What made us rich, I argue at no doubt tedious and unreadable length in the Bourgeois Era trilogy, is imagination, ingenuity, radical ideas released. They were released in turn by liberalism, Smith's "liberal plan of [social] equality, [economic] liberty, and legal [justice]."

Please Discuss

Today, here on Cape Cod, where every car has an Obama sticker, I was struck by two cars which had Obama stickers as well as this same slogan, a paraphrase of a Ben Franklin bon mot:

Those who give up their liberty for more security neither deserve liberty nor security.

I have absolutely no problem with this bumper sticker in its original context, which I presume was to protest things like the Patriot Act, indefinite detentions, and wiretapping during the Bush Administration (and all retained, so far, by this Administration).

But my question back to them would be -- do you still support this statement in the context of pending health care legislation, which is yet another example of trading individual liberty for security, albeit security of a slightly different type?

"Privilege" to Conduct Commerce

Almost every piece of government waste paper I have to fill out has the power to irritate me  (and doing business in 13 states, I get a lot of such garbage).  But the one thing that sets me off more than any other is when I get forms from a state government that say I owe a tax for the "privilege" of conducting commerce.  Arizona calls their sales tax a "transaction privilege tax" and Texas calls their franchise tax a "privilege" tax.  In fact, the Texas form is covered with the word "privilege" -- for example, the form I am looking at covers the "privilege period" of January-December 2007.

By calling commerce, and by extension property, a privilege that can only be exercised with a license from the government, the government is saying that the right to trade and make transactions with other people flows not from our humanity, but from the government.  These "privilege" taxes and licenses are based on the theory that man does not have any inherent right to trade freely with other men, and that ability can only be granted (or taken away) at the whim of our masters in the state government. 

The Supreme Court is acknowledged to have the power to strike down laws it deems to be in conflict with our Constitution.  But what about laws that violate something more fundamental than the Constitution?  What about laws that violate the very theory of government on which the United States was founded?    We often think about the Constitution as the top of the legal hierarchy, but I would suggest that sitting even higher than the words of the Constitution is the idea that our rights flow from God, or in a more secular interpretation, from the very fact of our humanity, and what power government has is given to it (and can be taken away) by its citizens, NOT THE OTHER WAY AROUND.

The more correct statement, then, would be that we citizens have given government officials the privilege of regulating and taxing commerce  (a privilege, I might add, that they have abused and we should take away).


"Freedom is not a gift bestowed upon us by other men, but a right that belongs to us by the laws of God and nature."  --- Ben Franklin