The noted blogger Fjordman is filing this report via Gates of Vienna.
For a complete Fjordman blogography, see The Fjordman Files. There is also a multi-index listing here.
The idea that climate could somehow be related to the culture and mentality of different peoples has an ancient pedigree, going back to the Greek geographer Strabo, to China, Ibn Khaldun in medieval North Africa and to the great French political thinker Baron de Montesquieu in The Spirit of Laws (L’esprit des lois) from 1748. All of this was long before any coherent theory of evolution or knowledge of genetic mutation had been developed.
As we have seen, the main hypothesis for IQ differences between ethnic groups championed by Michael H. Hart in Understanding Human History is that people living in colder regions had to evolve a higher intelligence in order to survive in the harsh natural environment. For tens of thousands of years this may indeed have been the single most important driving force behind human evolution, though not necessarily the only one. In more recent millennia, after the rise of agriculture, towns and cities, other forces came into play, too. Human beings themselves increasingly shape the environment they live in and can now enjoy electric heating in near-Arctic areas. One of the most fascinating tales of human evolution apparently had nothing to do with cold weather, that of Ashkenazi Jewish communities in medieval Europe.
According to a hypothesis presented by Gregory Cochran, Jason Hardy and Henry Harpending in 2005, which is largely supported by Hart, the extremely high average IQ of modern Ashkenazi Jews is an example of Darwinian evolution in response to external social pressures, as European Jews for many centuries had to occupy a very narrow and unusual economic niche as merchants, tax collectors and moneylenders, occupations which placed great practical value on high intelligence. The Christian majority population were forbidden from taking interest, and many occupations were closed to Jews. Only those with very high IQs managed to flourish in this cultural climate and pass on their genes. This situation prevailed from the Early Middle Ages until legal emancipation after the Enlightenment and created a social environment which substantially raised the average IQ of an entire people.
This combination of factors had not existed in the ancient world. In the Islamic world Jews faced bureaucratic and commercial competition from groups such as Greeks and Armenians. Jews in the Islamic world were also discriminated against, yet they did not experience a similar rise in IQ. “Discrimination” alone was not sufficient to achieve this effect.
The scientific contribution of the Greeks 2500-1800 years ago vastly exceeded the relatively minor contributions made by Jews during the same time period, yet this picture has been almost exactly reversed from the nineteenth century on: We now have Jewish geniuses such as Einstein, but no longer any Greek geniuses comparable to Aristotle or Archimedes. We possess no convincing evidence that Jews in Antiquity had a very high a level of intelligence. Those claiming so would point to the disproportionate historical influence of Jewish religious texts, which date back to this era, but the absence of prominent Jewish scientists of that time and the fact that Middle Eastern Jews do not have unusually high IQs today indicate that the high IQ among Jews from the European diaspora was a product of post-Roman times.
The case of Ashkenazi Jews is interesting for a number of reasons. First of all for the sheer speed of it: The intelligence of an entire people was raised with perhaps 10 IQ points in roughly a thousand years, many times faster than the slower “climatic” evolution of high IQ during previous millennia. Second of all, this evolution was most likely caused by the social and cultural environment, not the natural environment as had been the case during the Stone Age. European Jews did not evolve a higher IQ because they lived in a colder climate than other Europeans; they evolved it as an unintended consequence of social pressures forcing them into a narrow range of occupations in which high IQ was absolutely necessary, and were able to pass on these traits because there was relatively little intermarriage between the Christian majority and the Jewish minority population. Finally, and most importantly, it proves beyond reasonable doubt that human evolution has continued well into historical times and can probably produce significant results even today.
As mentioned before, Jared Diamond in Guns, Germs, and Steel does not talk about the possibility of human evolution during the past fifty thousand years as he considers this to be “racist.” Yet his bestselling book was written by a high-IQ person. The irony is that Jared Diamond’s theories fail to explain the existence of Jared Diamond. Mr. Diamond is an Ashkenazi Jew, as is Michael H. Hart, which means that he comes from the one ethnic group on the planet with the highest average IQ. This also happens to be the one ethnic group with the highest number of Nobel Prizes per capita in the hard sciences, which strongly indicates that IQ does indeed measure something that is relevant to the discussion of intelligence.
Several objections can be raised against using IQ as a measurement. By far the most common one is that it is immoral because it implicitly suggests that not all human beings are equally intelligent. This is an entirely anti-scientific argument and should be dismissed as such.
The second objection is that because IQ-measurements were initially developed by Europeans they are by nature “Eurocentric” and therefore biased. This is a silly argument. Almost all modern measurements of everything from electric charge to air pressure were invented by Europeans. All temperature scales in use in the industrialized world were developed by men from Western Europe. As far as I know, Europeans were the only ones to create the barometer and to develop a method for measuring atmospheric pressure. In order to be logically consistent you would have to reject the meteorological terms “high pressure” and “low pressure” along with IQ since these concepts, too, were developed exclusively by Europeans. I wish those individuals good luck in creating a non-Eurocentric weather forecast.
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Another possible objection is that human intelligence is too complex to be ranked in a few simple tests or numbers. Intelligence is a complex entity consisting of different factors, not all of which can successfully be measured by IQ, but we have evidence that at least some aspects of intelligence can be indicated by such tests. Jews of European descent are the one ethnic group on the planet with the highest average IQ, but they have never had their own country. Israel is a predominantly Jewish state but with a large Arab Muslim minority, and Middle Eastern and Ethiopian Jews do not have similarly high IQs. Consequently, the country with the highest average IQ is probably Japan, a fact which corresponds well with Japan’s very high technological level. Northeast Asians — Koreans, Japanese and Chinese — all have high IQs. In Western universities where people from all over the world compete on equal terms, Jews, East Asians and Europeans generally perform the best, and they are all high-IQ groups.
When people mention an average IQ around 105 for “Asians,” they are referring to East Asians, or more specifically, Northeast Asians, primarily Japanese, Korean and Chinese people. I am willing to accept that number as roughly correct. The fact that people of European origins are willing to use IQ even if they do not necessarily come out on top of the rankings strengthens the credibility of IQ as a measurement. Even within Europe there are detectable differences in average national IQ, and not necessarily insignificant ones, but they are not nearly as great as those encountered within Asia. “Asia” is just a geographical term.
While IQ does explain a lot there are still quite a few things that rankings of average IQ do not explain. It is noteworthy that the Scientific and Industrial Revolutions took place among Europeans, not among East Asians, despite the fact that the latter have at least as high average IQs. This could indicate that IQ measures some relevant aspects of intelligence but not all of them; maybe Europeans have a higher score in verbal intelligence. It is also possible that whites, i.e. people of European stock, have a higher standard deviation than East Asians, which means that they have more low-IQ people and more people with extremely high IQ.
In The Lever of Riches: Technological Creativity and Economic Progress, the American economic historian Joel Mokyr talks about microinventions, which improve and adapt existing technologies, thereby making them cheaper and more efficient, and macroinventions, which introduce a new idea without clear precedent. Both types are needed for economic growth. While you need a large number of people with reasonably high intelligence to maintain a sophisticated society and add minor improvements, it could be argued that scientific and technological progress is disproportionately driven by geniuses. In order to establish the laws of universal gravity you needed one person as smart as Isaac Newton, not a thousand individuals with merely average intelligence. Or rather, you needed a small number of geniuses of which Newton was simply the greatest; not even he could have achieved what he did without the prior work of men such as Copernicus, Tycho Brahe, Kepler and Galileo.
Finally, in order to explain why the Scientific Revolution took place in Europe and not in East Asia, it is quite likely that once you have reached a certain minimum level of average intelligence, perhaps around 100 in IQ as many European peoples typically have, other forces and factors come into play as well, for instance law, religion, education and political system. I will explore some of these factors here, with a special emphasis on China vs. Western Europe.
Michael Hart does not attribute a genetic explanation to everything. For instance, why did the (Western) Roman Empire collapse? Many different interpretations have been suggested by historians and no real consensus has yet been reached. Loss of traditional religion, where the growth of Christianity was both an effect and a cause, was one factor. Loss of patriotic and nationalist feelings could be another one. Roman expansion began from the city of Rome and surrounding regions, but when Roman citizens were no longer just Romans or even Italians but, from the third century AD, all free subjects of the Empire, there was no longer any strong ethnic loyalty to the Empire. This decline of feelings of traditional religion and loyalty indirectly followed increased public corruption. Hart’s conclusion is that the cause of the collapse of Rome is still an undecided question, but he favors some combination of the social decay hypotheses and perhaps climate changes, not primarily a genetic explanation.
Large industrial undertakings with hundreds of employees — shipyards and mines, for example — were not entirely unknown before the Industrial Revolution. The IR did not “invent” the factory system, but it spread it and brought about factories were none had existed before. The Englishman Sir Richard Arkwright’s (1733-1792) water frame spinning machine was one of the important innovations in this process. British cotton mills soon employed steam power and grew rapidly in size. In textiles other than cotton, the factories marched on as well.
Why did the Industrial Revolution begin in Britain? According to Hart, it could only have begun in a country where the average intelligence of the inhabitants was very high, but it was unlikely to originate in a region where the average IQ was high but the total population was low, for instance in Scandinavia. It was more likely to arise in a region where slavery was rare or absent, as an abundance of cheap labor decreases the need for labor-saving machinery and technology. This was one of the factors that held back the Romans in ancient times.
The Industrial Revolution was more likely to originate in a region where there was considerable intellectual ferment; the Inquisition made the expression of heterodox opinions difficult in Spain and Portugal, and Russia was politically repressive. In some areas of Western Europe, the effects of overseas explorations added to the intellectual ferment of the post-Renaissance era. This was to the comparative disadvantage of countries like Germany and Poland. The IR was less likely to originate in a region which was politically fragmented, such as Italy or Germany, as the free trade zone was less and the internal market smaller.
It was a great advantage to have abundant local iron ore and coal deposits, as those resources were especially important during the IR. Finally, the Industrial Revolution was more likely to arise in a politically stable country where property rights were secure. Although a number of these factors were present in several countries, the only place where all of them were present by the late eighteenth century was Britain. This does not prove that the Industrial Revolution was predestined to start in Britain, but it was more likely to start there than anywhere else.
I disagree with Hart on a few issues. Understanding Human History is thought-provoking and well worth reading, but it sometimes relies a little bit too much on IQ as an all-purpose explanation. As Hart himself points out, for most of the past 2500 years the West has been superior to East Asia in mathematics, sometimes by a very wide margin. That difference could be in the process of leveling out now and may not remain so pronounced in the future, but in the past it was pronounced. Despite the fact that China clearly has a substantially higher average IQ than does India, one could claim that the highest peaks of Indian mathematicians have been just as high as those of Chinese ones. It is hard to name a single Chinese mathematician who should be ranked as superior in ability and importance to Brahmagupta.
It is quite possible to claim that the reason why Japan was the first non-Western country to successfully industrialize was due to their high native intelligence. The IQ hypothesis does not explain, however, why high-IQ Japan performed better during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries than high-IQ China did. My personal opinion is that this was caused by cultural flexibility: Because the Japanese lived next door to China, they already had a long history of creative technological borrowing. It was more difficult to learn from the West for countries with a strong cultural superiority complex, like the Chinese often had.
I could add that the Chinese are behaving very differently in the early twenty-first century; the deliberate, large-scale technological borrowing from other nations, as Chinese students and companies are currently doing in the West, has no precedent in Chinese history, which is precisely why it appears to be working. China benefits greatly from attracting investments by Western and other foreign capitalists and has become “the workshop of the world.”
It is interesting to ponder what cannot be explained by IQ, and in this case Hart’s book does have a few weaknesses. The present economic backwardness of the Ukraine cannot be explained entirely by IQ. It is after all the most likely candidate as the cradle of the entire Indo-European family, the largest and most influential language family in recorded human history, which has been spreading in waves for more than five thousand years and continues to do so with the rise of English as a global lingua franca. The Ukraine’s current weakness is caused by corruption and a long history of political repression and lack of economic freedom.
The Middle Ages witnessed the rise of the specifically European, above all Western European, phenomenon of the semi-autonomous city, organized and known as commune. Stadtluft macht frei ran the medieval European dictum — city air makes one free. When the count of Flanders tried to reclaim a runaway serf whom he ran across in the market of Bruges, the bourgeois drove him out of the city. Cities consequently became poles of attraction and places of refuge. Migration to urban areas improved the income and status of the migrants and their families, but not their health. Cities were dirty and vulnerable to crowd diseases, European ones at least as much as some Asian cities. It was only in-migration that sustained the numbers of urban dwellers. Serf emancipation in Western Europe was directly linked to franchised villages and urban communes and to the density and proximity of these gateways.
Where cities and towns were few and less free, as was the case in much of Eastern Europe, serfdom persisted and worsened. Between 1500 and 1650, the social and legal conditions of peasants in the eastern half of Europe declined, as many free farmers lost their freedom. Russian, Polish and other lords seized more land for their own estates and demanded ever more unpaid serf labor. The everyday life of peasants was hard everywhere, but the visibly harsher social conditions in the East were commented upon by Western European travelers.
The political power of peasants in Eastern Europe was weaker than in the West and declined steadily after 1400. Many serfs were bound to their lords in hereditary service and had to do much forced labor without pay. Russian serf families were regularly sold with or without land, and serfdom was abolished in Russia as late as in 1861. The Slavic Christian East was not too different from Western Europe by the twelfth century, but this changed considerably after the Mongol conquests. According to A History of Western Society, Seventh Edition:
“Brutally conquered and subjugated by a foreign invader, Russia created a system of rule that was virtually unknown in the West. Thus the differences between Russia and the West became striking and profound in the long period from about 1250 until 1700. And when absolute monarchy triumphed under the rough guidance of Peter the Great in the early eighteenth century, it was a quite different type of absolute monarchy from that of France or even Prussia. Like the Germans and the Italians, the eastern Slavs might have emerged from the Middle Ages weak and politically divided had it not been for the Mongol conquest of the Kievan principality.”
The Mongols never reached Western Europe. They invaded and pillaged, but did not stay in the countries of east-central Europe except Russia, the Ukraine and the easternmost regions of the Continent. Having devastated and conquered, the Mongols ruled the eastern Slavs for more than two centuries, the so-called Mongol Yoke. After the fall of Constantinople, the Second Rome, to the Turks, Russians identified Moscow as the “Third Rome,” the legitimate heir to Orthodox Christianity. The prince of Moscow was the absolute ruler, Tsar — the Slavic contraction for “Caesar.” The Tsars saw themselves as khans, exercising unrestrained power:
“Ivan the Terrible’s system of autocracy and compulsory service struck foreign observers forcibly. Sigismund Herberstein, a German traveler to Russia, wrote in 1571: ‘All the people consider themselves to be kholops, that is, slaves of their Prince.’ At the same time, Jean Bodin, the French thinker who did so much to develop the modern concept of sovereignty, concluded that Russia’s political system was fundamentally different from those of all other European monarchies and comparable only to that of the Ottoman Empire. In both the Ottoman Empire and Russia, ‘the prince is become lord of the goods and persons of his subjects…governing them as a master of a family does his slaves.’ The Mongol inheritance weighed heavily on Russia.”
The French lawyer and political philosopher Jean Bodin (1530-1596) is known for his theory of sovereignty, but he was a pioneering economist who analyzed the flood of silver arriving in Spain from Latin America and the inflation it caused in the late sixteenth century. Unfortunately, he was also an advocate of the use of torture in cases of suspected witchcraft.
Why did Western European rulers grant rights to townsmen, in effect transferring some of their powers to others? For one thing, trade and markets brought more revenue and thus power to them. Free farmers and townsmen were the natural enemies of the landed aristocracy and would often support the crown in its struggles with local seigneurs. David S. Landes explains in The Wealth and Poverty of Nations: Why Some Are So Rich and Some So Poor:
“European rulers and enterprising lords who sought to grow revenues in this manner had to attract participants by the grant of franchises, freedoms, and privileges — in short, by making deals. They had to persuade them to come. (That was not the way in China, where rulers moved thousands and tens of thousands of human cattle and planted them on the soil, the better to grow things.) These exemptions from material burdens and grants of economic privilege, moreover, often led to political concessions and self-government. Here the initiative came from below, and this too was an essentially European pattern. Implicit in it was a sense of rights and contract — the right to negotiate as well as petition — with gains to the freedom and security of economic activity.”
In The Cambridge Illustrated History of China, Patricia Buckley Ebrey states that even during the dynamic Song period, “The rapid development of commerce and appearance of commercial cities did not play the same political or intellectual role in China as it did in Europe slightly later. Chinese cities did not become places identified with personal freedom.”
The prominence of a scholar-official elite selected mainly for their literary abilities through an examination process was unique to Chinese civilization, for good or bad. China was comparatively advanced in the field of meritocracy, the rule by merit. If you were a man of humble origins but high intelligence, you would usually have enjoyed greater social mobility in China than in India. The Indian caste system is a deeply rigidified institution in which personal achievement “is excluded in principle.” In India there was no organization for the propagation or dissemination of knowledge, and an unbridgeable social barrier existed between theorists and craftsmen. Europe had an edge over all other Eurasian civilizations when it came to developing self-ruled organizations. Author Toby E. Huff elaborates:
“I argued that the twelfth and thirteenth centuries witnessed a social, intellectual and legal revolution that laid the intellectual and institutional foundations upon which modern science was later constructed. At the heart of this development was the jurisprudential idea of a corporation, a collection of individuals who were recognized as a singular ‘whole body’ and granted legitimate legal autonomy. Such entities were given the right to sue and be sued, to buy and sell property, to make rules and laws regulating their activities, to adjudicate those laws and to operate according to the principle of election by consent as well as the Roman legal aphorism, what affects everyone should be considered and approved by everyone. Among the entities granted status as legitimate corporations were cities and towns, charitable organizations, professional guilds (especially of physicians) and, of course, universities. Nothing comparable to this kind of legal autonomy emerged in China or under Islam.”
As Joseph Schacht states in An Introduction to Islamic Law, “The concept of corporation does not exist in Islamic law.” Moreover, “There is also no freedom of association.” This legal defect had major implications for Islamic civilization, not least in the sphere of economic development, as Timor Kuran has made clear.
The Late Middle Ages was noted for the growth of early capitalism, but Huff rejects any simplistic connection between money and science. Christian Europe exhibited an intellectual curiosity that cannot be reduced simply to a matter of economic interests, he argues:
“There was indeed a ‘commercial revolution’ sweeping Europe from about the twelfth century, but that hardly explains the great interest in Aristotle in the universities of that period or the decision by medical practitioners to undertake dissections and to incorporate medical education into the university curriculum. Similarly, there was another rise in commercial activities in the sixteenth century, but this hardly explains either the motivation of the clerical Copernicus, or of Galileo, Kepler, or Tycho Brahe in developing a new astronomy against the interests of the Church.”
It is true that there is no automatic correlation between wealth and science; China was the world’s largest economy for centuries, yet it never produced anything resembling the European Scientific Revolution. One of the most extreme cases would be twentieth century Saudi Arabia, which has earned countless billions from its oil reserves yet has contributed virtually nothing of value to the arts or sciences. This does not necessarily mean that there is no connection at all between wealth and achievement. It is likely that there is one. The Medici banking family in Florence, who rose to prominence after the thirteenth century, for generations sponsored great achievements in Tuscany, from artists such as Donatello to the astronomer and physicist Galileo. As Gardner’s Art Through the Ages, Tenth Edition states:
“Especially significant for art were the increasing professionalization of the artist and the passing of patronage from the Church to the great princes and princely families, in alliance with or independent of wealthy cities. We have seen this happening in the city-states of Italy. What made it happen was the acquisition and accumulation of capital. Despite the calamities of the age, an economic system was evolving — the early stage of European capitalism.”
The Florentines “developed a culture that was stimulated and supported by a vast accumulation of wealth, a situation much like that in Periclean Athens, except that in Athens it was the city-state, not private individuals, that commissioned the major buildings, paintings, and statues of the Classical age. In Florence a few illustrious Florentine families controlled the wealth and became the leading patrons of the Italian Renaissance.” The House of Medici were bankers to all of Europe, and “one of the most prominent patrons of the Roman Renaissance, Pope Leo X, benefactor of Raphael and Michelangelo, was himself a Medici, the son of Lorenzo the Magnificent. Never in history was a family so intimately associated with a great cultural revolution. We may safely say that the Medici subsidized and endowed the Renaissance.”
The book The Ancient Economy: Evidence and Models, edited by J.G. Manning and Ian Morris, is a collaborative effort of various scholars regarding the economy in ancient Egypt, the Near East and the Greco-Roman world. There is a consensus among scholars that the ancient world was not “capitalist” in the modern sense. Any economic growth cannot be compared to the examples of sustained economic growth we know from Western nations in modern times. However, there is much debate as to whether or not there was any growth at all. Archaeological evidence suggests that there was an improvement in the standard of living in Greece from 800 to 300 BC at the same time as there was a major increase in population.
Slavery in Greek and especially Roman society definitely lessened incentives to develop labor-saving technology, although slave labor wasn’t always plentiful and cheap. The ancient Greeks and Romans lacked a tradition of carrying on sustained effort to produce a technological solution to a felt need, and they often suffered from a prejudice against work of the hands. In the Greco-Roman world, wealth should preferably come from the land. Commerce was barely socially acceptable whereas industry was looked down upon. Watermills diffused slowly throughout the Empire and were not used to their fullest capacity. Sustained growth per capita requires sustained technological improvement. Roman economic growth was slow because technological progress was slow — not nonexistent, but slow.
The Scottish philosopher Adam Smith, professor at the University of Glasgow, published his famous The Wealth of Nations in 1776 where he argued in favor of freedom of enterprise. Government should interfere with commerce as little as possible and limit itself to three primary duties: Provide defense against foreign invasion, maintain civil order with courts and police protection, and sponsor certain indispensible public works and institutions that could not make adequate profit for private investors. Smith made the pursuit of self-interest in a competitive market the source of a natural harmony and equilibrium. The “invisible hand” of free competition would gradually lead to increased wealth for all.
According to scholar Richard Saller, there are several basic causes for growth: Trade, as emphasized by Adam Smith, which in turn allows for specialization; the intensification of capital investment and the investment in human capital and education and a better institutional framework for conducting economic activities. While trade certainly existed in Antiquity, there are few indications of what we might understand as a modern capitalist concept of calculated investments in better technology in order to improve future productivity:
“The elder Pliny (Natural History, 14.49-51) reports the exceptional example of Remmius Palaemon, who in the mid-first century AD bought a run-down vineyard outside Rome, invested in it heavily with traditional technology, and increased annual production so much that he sold one year’s crop for two-thirds the original cost of the land just a few years after purchase. One could stop at that point and take the story as an instance of a capitalist investment, but the end of the story also bears emphasis. Pliny does not say that Palaemon’s example inspired similar capital investment by other Romans, but rather that Seneca moved in to buy the vineyard at four times its original price because he was captivated by a desire (amore) to possess this model estate, not to make his own profit by similar investments elsewhere.”
Northern Italian merchants in the fourteenth century were “new capitalists” who created a commercial revolution. Italians during the Roman period showed no interest in capitalism or in theoretical science. Italians during the Renaissance period pioneered both. It is highly unlikely that changes in genes or IQ can explain this. It was caused by changes in attitudes.
There are those who see a link between the “mini-Industrial Revolution” of medieval Europe in applying windmills, watermills and other machines to do work instead of human or animal muscle power, and that which took place centuries later. It is true that medieval Europe had a leading role in developing labor-saving machinery. In this case we can see a continuation with later events, but the use of fossil fuels such as coal and oil to run machines and engines for cars, ships and airplanes after the nineteenth century changed the entire world. As Joel Mokyr says, “the Industrial Revolution represented a sea change unprecedented in human history.”
According to Avner Greif in The Ancient Economy, modern economic growth has roots in the Middle Ages and reflects an economic, social, legal and political process through which Western European nations created the first modern economies. Waterwheels were not used as extensively by the Romans as they were in medieval Europe, but the waterwheel nevertheless represented a major conceptual breakthrough as “the first machine to capture nonanimated energy for on-land productive use.” In addition to this, the Romans left Europeans with a unifying learned language across political borders, Latin, and with Roman law:
“Finally, the Roman heritage in the West includes the Roman legal tradition. Many economists would agree that in order to bring about and support modern economic growth it is necessary to have a particular legal tradition — a legal tradition in which rules can be changed to fit the evolving needs of the economy and that ensures that individuals have property rights and freedom. Such a tradition exists in the Western world, and it is a legacy of the Roman period. It was then that the European legal tradition was formulated, and despite various challenges, it has survived the test of time. One can only wonder if modern economic growth could have occurred in Europe if it had possessed one of the alternative legal traditions that emerged elsewhere, such as the divine law that dominates the Muslim world.”
Greif, who is an economics professor at Stanford University in the United States, elaborates his views in Institutions and the Path to the Modern Economy: Lessons from Medieval Trade:
“The sources of modern European economic growth differ from those of its medieval predecessor. Medieval economic expansion relied on Smithian growth, which takes advantage of specialization and trade. Growth in the modern era relies on science and technology to alter production functions and transform useless resources into endowments. Changes in cultural beliefs about the nature, role, and possibilities of useful knowledge — science and technology — in the hundred years before 1750 directly contributed to this transition (Mokyr 2002). Interestingly, however, individualistic pursuit and self-governed, non-kin-based corporations (similar to the medieval universities, such as the Lunar and the Royal Societies) were central to propagating these beliefs, mobilizing the resources to act on them, and rendering them effective in influencing outcomes. The objectives of these corporations were different from most of their medieval predecessors, but the institutional means were surprisingly similar.”
The scientific societies of the seventeenth century differed from medieval universities in their more practical emphasis on experimental science rather than Aristotelian philosophy. This was the true beginning of modern, organized science, but it built upon the foundation of the network of European universities. In the eyes of Avner Greif, the organization of society in the West was centered on intentionally created institutions and self-governed, non-kin-based organizations such as guilds and universities, not tribes or clans as in the Middle East:
“These organizations — mainly in the form of corporations — were vital to Europe’s political and economic institutions during the late medieval growth period as well as the modern growth period….Interest-based, self-governed, non-kin-based economic and political corporations were therefore established. Since then, this particular societal organization — centered on self-governed, non-kin-based organizations and individualism — has been behind the behavior and outcomes that led to European-specific economic and political developments. This societal organization is the common denominator behind such seemingly distinct historical phenomena as the late medieval economic expansion, the rise of European science and technology (Mokyr 2002), and the creation of the modern European state, the ultimate manifestation of a self-governed, non-kin-based corporation composed of individuals rather than larger social units (Greif 2004b). If institutions are central to economic, social, and political outcomes, and institutional development is a historical process, the roots of the eventual success of the West may very well lie in its past political and economic institutions.”
While he praises European individualism, he speculates whether excessive individualism and materialism has contributed to decline of the West in more recent generations.
In the post-Roman era, centuries of fragmentation had weakened European states. This provided an opportunity for economic agents to self-organize, but they could have chosen an alternative tribal society or a theocratic state, as was the case in Islamic societies. The Church had weakened kin-based social structures and contributed to cultural beliefs associated with individualism, but it was not by itself strong enough to establish political dominance over the European continent. Europeans also built on the beliefs and norms inherited from the Roman and Germanic legal traditions; the idea of corporations dates back to the Roman time.
The feudal view that political authority was contractual and nonterritorial further facilitated the creation of self-governed corporations. “The cultural beliefs and norms associated with individualism, corporatism, and the implied legitimacy of man-made law in which those who are governed by them have an influential voice became central to European societal organization.” Is there a direct link between what happened in the Late Middle Ages and in modern Europe? There was a decline in medieval self-ruled political entities in many countries during the Age of Absolutism, but Greif wonders whether this should be considered an exception in the long run of European history. Medieval innovations are manifested in current practices such as trading in shares, limited liability, auditing, apprenticeships and double-entry bookkeeping. As stated in Institutions and the Path to the Modern Economy:
“European commercial law, insurance markets, patent systems, public debt, business associations, and central banks were developed in the context of medieval institutions. In the political sphere, the medieval rise of the corporative form of societal organization contributed to the development that led to the modern European states. Corporations contributed to diminishing the challenge that large-scale, kin-based social structures present to the state and to development central to the institutional foundations of the modern, effective European state, which is, after all, a corporation. Among these are the concept of corporations as legal personalities, the separation between personal and corporate property, the belief that corporations are to serve the interests of their members, and processes of collective decision making….Furthermore, states in Europe were established during the premodern period through a process of bottom-up, organic formation.”
In Understanding Early Civilizations, Bruce G. Trigger offers a comparative study of early civilizations from ancient Mesopotamia to Mesoamerica. In Shang and Zhou China of the pre-Imperial era, individuals were usually subject to the judgment and sentencing of their immediate superiors, with little effective right of appeal. In cases involving men of unequal status, the more powerful was invariably deemed to be in the right; therefore litigation could only occur between equals. There was no enforceable penalty for failure to carry out bargains:
“In most early civilizations law was described as a powerful force maintaining order in an equitable, if unequal, fashion in the social realm. Yet, because at all but the lowest levels of the legal system laws were made, cases were decided, and punishments were determined by the upper classes, the legal system was a potent instrument for intimidating individuals of lower status. Chinese law appears to have differed from that of other early civilizations only in that, in theory as well as in practice, litigation was possible only between equals. No efforts were made to idealize the legal system as a means by which justice was provided for all. Early Chinese realism with respect to law appears to have had long-term consequences for the development of Chinese civilization, which never evolved a strong sense of either private property or individual legal rights.”
There was a school of thought in ancient China which has been called Legalism, but this was, ironically, one of the most totalitarian ideologies ever produced there and did not lead to the rule of law in the Western sense. Although inspired by older ideas, a coherent theory of Legalism began to emerge from the fourth century BC with the Book of Lord Shang, which heaped scorn on respect for tradition. “Useless” activities which divert men from the primary tasks of agriculture and war, for instance commerce and the cultivation of learning which encourages people to rely on their private intellectual convictions, should be eliminated.
The Qin state adopted a Legalist program and organized families into mutual responsibility groups, making each person liable for any crime committed by any other member of their group. For its implementation, Legalism depended on an enlightened ruler, who, just like Mencius’ truly virtuous ruler, was believed to be rare. The forceful Qin Shi Huang, who united the states of the Warring States Period and became the First Emperor of all of China in 221 BC, must have approximated this image of a Legalist enlightened ruler. Consequently, the many recorded brutalities of his regime “do not reflect the random acts of a capricious despot, but are very much related to Legalist ideas concerning the inflexibility of the penal law and the need to purge society of ‘dysfunctional’ attitudes and modes of behavior.”
Some Western observers have likened Legalism to the theories of the Italian Renaissance writer Niccolò Machiavelli. While Machiavelli’s ideas have been controversial ever since they were first published, it is a misunderstanding based on an excessively hostile reading of his works to believe that he specifically wanted to create a totalitarian system; Machiavelli matter-of-factly described the various sometimes brutal methods rulers use to gain and remain in power. As Benjamin I. Schwartz writes in The World of Thought in Ancient China:
“Legalism has often been compared to Machiavellianism, and it is true that both tend to separate the question of power from all considerations of personal morality. Yet a perusal of The Prince and The Discourses indicates that Machiavelli concerns himself not with universal abstract models and systems for controlling human behavior but with strategies of power applied to the infinitely varied circumstances of political history. As an heir of Aristotle, he is in fact prepared to accept the possibility of a variety of sociopolitical organizations and his ideal power-holder will use a variety of strategies which fully take into account differences of ‘political constitutions.’“
It is sad that people from other cultures have sometimes copied bad Western ideas such as Communism more readily than our good ones, of which we do have many. This does not mean that Europeans alone “invented” totalitarianism. The Incas practiced something resembling Communism in South America. Confucianism does have its potentially problematic aspects, but it cannot properly be called totalitarian. Totalitarianism in the true sense of the word has a native Chinese precedent in the ideology of Legalism. There is a reason why the Communist dictator Mao Zedong (1893-1976) personally identified with the First Emperor, not with Confucius. The author Zhengyuan Fu in Autocratic Tradition and Chinese Politics draws lines from the First Emperor to Mao and argues that the most enduring feature of the Chinese political tradition over the past two thousand years has been autocracy.
The Han Dynasty which took over after the brief, but brutal Qin Dynasty promoted Confucianism as their ruling ideology, something which all Chinese dynasties have done since. The Han rulers adopted but modified the centralized bureaucratic monarchy created by the First Emperor. Yet Confucianism did not do much to promote law as a major factor in society, either. Patricia Buckley Ebrey writes in The Cambridge Illustrated History of China:
“It is the universal king who embodies political order and possesses the power to transform the society below him for good or ill. Law, by contrast, was not granted comparable power by any Chinese thinker. Whether from a Confucian, a Legalist, or even a Daoist perspective, law was viewed as an expedient, not as something noble or inviolable, or something that exists above and beyond the ruler.”
Chinese officials were Confucians concerned with the rule of virtue, not the rule of law. Confucius had not reasoned from systematic principles, still less from any ideas about the rights of individuals. Confucian ethic stressed the need to maintain outward obedience and respect for all authorities. Challenging the word of authority figures was seen as an unforgivable sign of disrespect. Offences against the authorities and the social order attracted special severity. A child’s disobedience to the father was a dreadful crime whereas there was a light sentence for a father killing a son for disobedience. Author Harry G. Gelber elaborates:
“In China, justice rested not on codes of law but on social norms and universal principles of Confucian morality. These would be applied by a court to any particular case in a process which also invariably leaned towards state interests. The imperial code was strongly weighted towards social order, and law was — and in modern China largely remains — a tool of administration, without reference to any ‘higher’ notion of natural law or even any system akin either to Roman or to Anglo-Saxon common law. That naturally created much uncertainty not just for the accused, but for the judge himself. There was no commercial law in a modern Western sense, although written contracts, and even some oral agreements, could be enforced by magistrates….Nor…was there any sense of firms as legal individuals. There was no Chinese equivalent to Western notions of sanctity of a written and signed contract….Moreover, given China’s system of collective responsibility, someone who might be personally innocent could be executed simply as the representative of a group, or a scapegoat. Family solidarity being such a powerful element of Chinese society, guilt by association was often assumed and punishment of relatives was a regular practice.”