excerpt from the new book
GENIUS: Guts, Grit, and Common Sense
Published by Laissez Faire Books
Common Genius: Guts, Grit, and Common Sense is the newest title published by Laissez Faire Books. To go to our full review, or to go to purchase the book, CLICK HERE. The excerpt, below, is the first chapter of the book. Enjoy!
GENIUS: Guts, Grit, and Common Sense
by Bill Greene
"The search for beginnings, no matter how far pressed, usually serves only to open more distant vistas of earlier developments."Interpreting the broad sweep of history is a venture many have written about, and, as Niccolo Machiavelli admitted 500 years ago, I may be "deemed presumptuous, since I depart from the methods of the scholars and academics who have tried before."
But a new approach is as necessary today as it was in the day of Machiavelli, for the current crop of academics are almost universally blinded by the current winds of political correctness. They have been seduced by intellectual conceits that we will reveal in this book to be based more on emotion than on reason, and this seduction has created a demand for economic interpretations that support only prevailing notions and preconceived conclusions. This book goes against the grain, rejects current agendas, and presents a new theory of history. As Machiavelli observed, "Since my intention is to write something of use for those who understand it, it seemed more suitable to go after the effectual truth of the matter than after an imagined one."1
There is an urgency to this search for the root causes and mechanics of historic advances: the answer will show how all nations can join the modern world of freedom and prosperity. Too many people have been excluded from today's economic progress for much too long. Over half of the 161 nations ranked in the Heritage Foundation's 2005 Index of Economic Freedom are measured as mostly "un-free or repressed."2 It is no coincidence that they are also the most impoverished nations in the world. And yet all they need is Economic Freedom to gain prosperity, for only open economies can unleash the creative efforts of a broad spectrum of a population.
During the past half-century, the scholars and academics, descendants of those disparaged by Machiavelli, have failed abysmally to advance the lot of the poverty-stricken people of the Third World. They have relied mostly on handing out charity, much as they might give crumbs to beggars. And, being scholars, they have held conferences, written monographs, and given talks, none of which has helped one whit. One of the most damning records in intellectual history is this sixty-year failure to remedy the ongoing human misery in much of the world. So we must forget for a moment the abstract theories and ideologies that have failed, and seek the effectual truth. If economic history is to serve some practical purpose it must identify the fundamental lesson that has lain hidden beneath the jumble of history and academic jargon. Most of the academics who study and write about history have never been able to accept the truth, although it has always been there before their unbelieving eyes.
A major theme of these pages is that all historical progress has bubbled up from the bottom—from the actions of common men and women. A secondary theme is that most of history's evils have flowed from the top—from the intelligentsia, organized groups, and soft-science experts who arise in mature societies and are the pied pipers of their decline. In the final chapters, we will examine how the decline of free societies has often resulted from the transfer of authority and leadership from those who built the society to a destructive intelligentsia who arrive after the heavy lifting is done. The arrival of the intellectuals also marks the time when knowledge and decision-making appears to enter a steep decline. The notion that intellectuals are wise and should be listened to is a persistent, recurring, and insidious error that has doomed most past civilizations.
I do not mean to demean all people of intellect—most of them are great assets to their communities. However, there is reason to beware those with little practical experience in any field, who parade their "expertise" before the public, and operate primarily as critics rather than participants. As Richard Posner writes, many of the major contributions by such intellectuals "Are negative in the sense of combating the fallacies and follies of other public intellectuals."3 Just read The Nation, then Commentary, and you will understand how these intellectuals disagree. With such differences, they engage in constant squabbling over their labored arguments and abstract ideas—how can any sane person guess which if any of them are right? Such are the intellects that do not produce anything concrete or useful, but merely broadcast abstract ideas and critiques that are rarely born out by subsequent events. Their dismal record throughout history illustrates the maxim that ideas don't have to be sound to be influential.
Any history of mankind and its successes must begin at the beginning; and in the beginning, there were no intellectuals. However, there were people struggling to exist and improve their lot in life, and mankind made magnificent strides, advancing from harsh and primitive tribal and nomadic life to complex and prosperous civilizations. The growing influence of intellectuals in the relatively recent past has served only to confuse, divert, and subvert that progress.
A century ago, some writers saw historical progress as primarily a function of climate and geography. That "answer" to the question of why some societies do better then others was later discredited by a number of historians. Unfortunately, and against all reason, geography-based theories of history have resurfaced as part of the multi-culturist zeal to treat all societies as equally praiseworthy. Thus, Jared Diamond offers the following one-sentence summary of his 450-plus-page book Guns, Germs, and Steel: "History followed different courses for different peoples because of differences among peoples' environments, not because of biological differences among peoples themselves."4 This is at heart just another variation of the "nature versus nurture" question that had already been thoroughly covered by Thomas Sowell in works like Race and Culture and Conquests and Cultures. Sowell presents convincing detail to show that for thousands of years, all races of people around the world have possessed roughly comparable levels of intelligence and that societal progress arose from other causes. And yet Diamond, who cites hundreds of other historians, makes no reference to Sowell's work.
Professor Diamond reports that "to me the strongest argument for writing this book [is that] until we have some convincing, detailed, agreed-upon explanation for the broad pattern of history, most people will continue to suspect that the racist biological explanation is correct after all."5 Thus he is conforming to the current politically correct need to attack racist or biological explanations even though they have been dead in the water for many years. It would have been more praiseworthy to seek the truth—the real explanation of historical progress—for its own sake, rather than merely reengage a heated but past battle.
The crux of the matter is that there are two answers: geography and climate for Paleolithic times, and another for the past three thousand years. The most primitive societies clearly were affected by environment. But once mankind advanced sufficiently in skills to overcome "nature," environmental conditions became less important. For example, the hunter-gatherers of the Paleolithic Era had to move around to accommodate such forces as the advancing and retreating glaciers of the Ice Ages. Fertile land and waterways were of great importance. But geography cannot explain how political and economic advances occurred for at least the past three thousand years; nor why, in fact, some of the most notable advances arose in some of the least hospitable locales.
Three thousand years ago, over ten major civilizations around the world possessed the geography, climate, governmental structures, and communication systems needed to progress to current levels of prosperity—but the major progression occurred in only one area, scattered first around the Mediterranean Sea, then moving gradually into isolated enclaves in North-Western Europe, and finally across the sea to the United States. Geography may have played a part in enabling those ten civilizations to emerge. But it had little to do with the course those civilizations took over the past three millennia.
Both Sowell and Diamond are correct that there was a lower chance for technical progress in regions with great physical disadvantages, especially if isolated from other societies and functioning only as thinly populated outposts. Thus the primitive people of sub-Saharan Africa, the Inuits of the Arctic regions, the Aborigines of Australia, the cannibals in interior New Guinea, and peoples in similarly remote areas of the South Pacific were all handicapped by geography. However, for the ten or more civilizations that reached relatively sophisticated levels around 3,000 years ago, and each of which enjoyed reasonably favorable environments, a new factor determined success and failure. The difference lay in how the large and growing populations of those societies were organized, controlled, and motivated.
When we look at the times and places where freedom and material comforts emerged most strongly we find that the main drivers of societal progress were the individuals making up the population. When free from oppressive forces, and armed with free will and initiative, these multitudes are the key in any search for historical causation.
This is the position taken by P. T. Bauer when he challenges the "prevailing notions" of established economists and academics and, instead, credits the "individual voluntary responses of millions of people."6 And Julian L. Simon documents how throughout history, sufficient natural resources have been made available by hard-working populations regardless of natural endowment. Simon contrasts "cornucopians," who believe that "natural resources are available in practically limitless abundance," with "doomsters" who declare that the end is near because we are running out of some vital resource—whether arrowheads, buggy whips, whale oil, firewood, or, now, oil. He rejects both approaches, pointing out that "human imagination and human enterprise" have always manipulated the elements to provide all the resources needed. "In short," he concludes, "our cornucopia is the human mind and heart...."7
Because the prevailing notions of the experts and intellectuals favored the doomsday scenario, Simon had to struggle for years to find a publisher for his book laying out these ideas. Academics are by nature very unlikely to give credit to the actual workers who make it happen, and prefer grandiose projections of future problems. And, of course, modern media invariably trumpet bad news and ignore good news. Simon writes of "the difficulties of espousing this unpopular point of view [and how] they were near the point of shutting me up and shutting me down."8 Such is the power of monolithic thinking in academic circles. When he published the first edition of The Ultimate Resource in 1981, Simon had the advantage that all the oil experts of 1974, who had calculated that the world would run out of oil in ten years, were being proven 100 percent wrong. (The geologists working in American oil companies hadn't been consulted—they were out finding new oil fields.) History is replete with similar examples of the best and brightest being proven wrong. Yet their influence continues and their warnings are still taken seriously.
Professors in today's colleges rarely assign Simon's books—they prefer more politically correct (i.e., Pulitzer-Prize-winning) tomes that belittle Western civilization and the role of individuals. But the "environmental" theories can't explain the fate of a single major civilization of the past 3,000 years. Equally fallacious is the approach taken by those historians who, recognizing the inadequacy of the environmental theories, merely argue that all societies are equally good—that there have been no winners or losers. George Will has pointed out the ridiculous extent to which this "nonjudgmental" fad has gone: "In 1991 Florida, in a fit of modern 'nonjudgmentalism' and 'multiculturalism' and all that, enacted a statute requiring public schools to teach that no culture 'is intrinsically superior or inferior to another.'... [T]his told Florida's immigrant communities something they knew to be preposterous—that they might as well have stayed in Cuba or Haiti or wherever."9
Such efforts to avoid moral or even rational comparisons have debased instruction at America's schools and colleges, many of which are guilty not only of bad teaching but also of purveying patently nonsensical rewrites of history. The revisionism is not about legitimate areas of scholarly debate; it seems to be designed simply to discredit America, its institutions, and Western culture in general. Too many students accept this anti-Western teaching and lose any desire to participate constructively in current affairs. Of course, the wiser ones will quickly see the illogic of their teachers and the bias of the textbooks. There is no denying the obvious and gargantuan technological, military, and economic supremacy of the West and especially the United States—not to mention the freedom and safety that is the envy of all peoples. When a constant stream of people from all over the world flows to a single destination and continues unabated for 400 years, even the dullest student should be able to connect the dots. People seek to become a part of the American civilization because of the advantages it has to offer; they're better off here than they would be elsewhere.
For those who seek to get around the obvious and incontrovertible fact that the West "won," another pathetic but politically correct answer has been to admit the "win," but argue that the West's victory was simply the result of chance—of good luck, the fates, Karma. This is the message conveyed in Kenneth Pomeranz's The Great Divergence,10 which attempts to establish that the British and Chinese were equals in 1850 when the former somehow pulled ahead by the chance discovery of coal! Lucky it was lying around. Yes, and a good thing for Muhammed Ali that his gloves kept connecting, somehow, with his opponents' chins....
Professor Pomerantz's simplistic "explanation" has been decimated by Professor Ricardo Duchesne in a technical analysis.11 But for this author, the simple exploits of one English adventurer in that same decade, Charles Gordon, provide clear enough evidence of English absolute supremacy over the Chinese. In September, 1860, the twenty-seven-year-old officer, fresh from military adventures in the Crimea, arrived in China to convince the Sun God emperor of the advantages of free trade. In the two Opium Wars of the mid-nineteenth century, the English had seized the island of Hong Kong, gained immunity for all foreigners on Chinese territory, demanded freedom to propagate the Gospel throughout the Empire, gained navigation rights on the Yangtse, and won the right to settle, trade, and maintain military forces in seventeen Treaty Ports including Shanghai.12 These "negotiated settlements" give an indication of which society was the strongest at the time.
Part of Gordon's mission was to retrieve a few British envoys who had been seized even though carrying a flag of truce. When it was discovered that some had been tortured and beheaded by the Sun God's deputies, the British troops, marching unmolested before the Grand Palace, decided to pillage and destroy the Emperor's Summer Palace. British and French gun-ships controlled the rivers of China. Meanwhile, the Chinese peasants were revolting against the Sun God, who ruled the land with a totalitarian grip. The Empress had to pay the British to defend her remaining palace from the rebels. The British and French soldiers did so and sent barrels of souvenirs home to their families. Such was the unequal status of China and the West at that time. It is unlikely that the Sun God's peasants, if they had somehow discovered some coal and learned how to use it, could have inaugurated the Industrial Revolution, founded colleges, built ocean-going vessels, colonized the globe, and outpaced the West. They were already 700 years late on universities and 400 years late on ships and colonies. And as Professor Duchesne points out, coal wasn't all that critical anyway: French mechanics and engineers, lacking coal, had simply developed water power sufficient to keep up with English industrialization. Societal cornucopias obviously lay not in natural resources as such but in the freedom, initiative and enterprise of lowly individuals.
Professor Pomerantz's theory based on coal and chance also fails to recognize that in 1850 the relevant comparison was not England versus China, but the United States versus China. The fundamental and irresistible strength of the West has been its multifaceted independent nations, so unlike the Orient. In the West, if one region failed to keep up, another led the way. The situation around 1850, and the alleged importance of coal, is well illustrated by the Carnegie family. In 1848, they left Scotland and brought their children, including twelve-year-old Andrew, to America and "settled in the former Fort Pitt at the confluence of the Allegheny and Monongahela Rivers, which had been renamed Pittsburgh."13 For reasons that will become clear in later chapters, the Carnegies did not choose to emigrate to China, nor Africa, nor South America, nor to the Islamic states of the Middle East. They were shrewd Scots and wanted to better themselves. Starting as a messenger boy, young Andrew did just that, quickly availing himself of the opportunities enjoyed by all in America. In 1873 Andrew Carnegie met Henry Bessemer during a trip to England and adapted his ideas for making better steel. In less than twenty years, by 1892, the Carnegie Steel Company, in America, was producing steel equal to half the entire production of Great Britain."14 In 1901, Carnegie sold his steel enterprises to J. P. Morgan for $480 million. Clearly, the vital factor was the common man himself, free to "vote with his feet" and, in the right environment, to exercise his genius. He didn't need a land of soft gentle breezes—he merely needed freedom from oppression, an open door to opportunity, and equal protection under the law. This was the unique empowering environment created by Western civilization alone. It is the only kind of "environment," at least since the last Ice Age that could determine where human potential flourished rather than languished.
While lady luck has played a role in history, it has never created a consistent pattern. Most men have attempted to control their destiny and "make their own luck." Historical theories based on chance are agenda-driven. As Edward Hallett Carr writes, "In a group or a nation which is riding in the trough, not on the crest, of historical events, theories that stress the role of chance or accident in history will be found to prevail."15 Carr recalls Gibbon's observation that the Greeks, "'after their country had been reduced to a province, imputed the triumphs of Rome not to merit, but to the fortune of the republic.' Tacitus, also a historian of the decay of his country, was another ancient historian to indulge in extensive reflexions on chance."16 Ironically, in our own day those who seek to deny the merits of Western civilization, but undeniably finding themselves riding on the crest of its success, are driven to attribute that success to mere chance. This is an intellectual's game to be avoided, for we can only help the poorest nations to succeed if we identify the causes of economic success. Intelligentsias more concerned with abstract ideas than with reality—who deny or recast the real causes of history just to promote pet ideologies—do harm by denying progress to millions of suffering people.
Financial Times columnist Tim Harford suggests that we still lack a good word "to describe what is missing in poor countries across the world. But we are starting to understand what it is. Some people call it 'social capital,' or maybe 'trust.' Others call it 'the rule of law,' or 'institutions.' But these are just labels."17 He talks about motivations and incentives, and comes close to the answer: What is missing in backward economies is what is present in successful societies—the common genius of ordinary people. It's not that the people in those countries aren't able to do everything the people in Western nations have done—the genius is there. It's there, but it must be unleashed to operate effectively. It can only work its magic as a self-motivated force when secure and free of excessive restraint. Such empowered common genius is the essential "social capital," the "ultimate resource" of prosperous nations.
The explanation of why the West won lies almost exclusively in how and why that empowerment of each individual came to blossom so fruitfully in only a few places. We will study its origins and growth from King Solomon, Homer, the farmers in Iceland, and the merchants of Phoenicia to the more recent miracles of Florence, Amsterdam, London, Paris, and New York, and, still more recently, Eastern Europe and some of the Less Developed Nations where entrepreneurs are at last building free lives and material well-being. We will survey a steady progression that culminates in America's pinnacle of wealth, freedom, and leisure, spread more richly and widely among its citizens than ever seen before in history.
There are many statistics to prove America's success, but more convincing than data is the fact that so few are leaving. Scholars would do well to chart the movement of people—common people—for it is obvious that the overwhelming wisdom of a multitude of enterprising individuals will choose the best social environment. And they come to America, freely and deliberately choosing the best destination available. If multiculturists were right, historical emigration trends would have shown equally large numbers of people fleeing to Samoa, Tanzania, Peru, Bulgaria, Mongolia, even the Artic lands of the Inuits and Laplanders. But the vast majority chose Western nations, and especially the United States of America.
In a brilliant exposition of the road that lies ahead for the American experiment, Thomas B. Carson describes the American Dream as "a term used to describe commonly-held beliefs, assumptions and expectations of political freedom, economic opportunity, and material progress in the U.S."18 These are the three blessings that all immigrants sought. They frequently arrived in America ragged and poor in a financial sense, but with a wealth of initiative and imagination. Once ashore, they ceased being "huddled" masses and became Americans—individuals—their new land's "ultimate resource." Carson's simple definition of the American dream neatly summarizes the goals of these immigrants, as well as the goals that most of mankind have been seeking for several thousand years.
Political and religious freedom and economic opportunity have been exceedingly rare during these millennia. Since the first stirrings of civilized society in the Tigris-Euphrates Valley and the days of King Solomon, freedom and opportunity were only a dream, out of reach of the common man. Instead, his lot was to labor under tyranny and oppression that were ever present and that in much of the world still linger malevolently. This dream of freedom, the dream that became reality in America and has endured to this day, is borne of the uniquely human characteristics of man—his ability to reason, his natural curiosity, his instinct to innovate, his independence of spirit. These qualities, sometimes summed up as "free will," distinguish man from the beasts, and they set his destiny. Only one thing has stood in his way: the lust of other men to rule and appropriate for themselves all the good things in life.
Throughout history, such leaders have made life as difficult as possible for the bulk of humanity. The expression of man's genius had to be fought for, and opportunities for its release have been restricted to a few brief moments and places in time. Such moments were the "accidents" of history, but there was nothing accidental about what subsequently happened. The achievements were never pre-ordained but arose from a long-term struggle by ordinary people to advance, one step at a time, over thousands of years. But wherever individual men and women got even a little such opportunity, freedom and prosperity followed. They built it piece by piece, not by trying to apply utopian theories, but by solving one problem at a time and moving ever forward.
It is a mistake to glorify these achievements as issuing from some kind of brilliant philosophy. They are more like the parts in a "mechanical system," and are the simple products of common workers solving problems. Thus, one can compare such empowering systems to the parts of an internal combustion engine. Just as an engine requires a fuel pump, a water coolant, an igniter, and a drive shaft, so a free governmental system requires courts, deeds to property, coinage, patents, corporate entities, juries, and representative assemblies. The availability and quality of such "parts" represent a vital aspect of economic history. They are what have allowed freedom and business activity to flourish. Many intellectuals, like Plato, have no affection for the ordinary people who developed these things; indeed they frequently oppose democratic forms of government. Needless to say, Plato and other "soft-science" intellectuals never invented a fuel pump or a spark plug; nor did they develop any essential parts of a free governmental structure; or, for that matter, anything of use in the real world. It can be argued that many of the huge advances in man's economic and social well-being over the past few thousand years were achieved more in spite of the intellectuals' ideas than because of them.
Now, this is a revolutionary idea and perhaps in a perverse way, will delight most of the average Joes out there who are pestered by those "beautiful people" who want to tell them what to do and how to do it. I know this discovery has emboldened me to set forth this hypothesis; a hypothesis passed on to me by my wife's uncle, a simple Polish immigrant named Harry Radzewicz. I suspect many of the best and brightest will scoff at my message, saying that I simplify too much, that things are much more complex than I can comprehend. But that is okay with me, for as observed earlier, it is better to seek the "effectual truth" than to build vast conceptual edifices or perpetuate grandiose theories that don't work.
An advantage of the Radzewicz Formula is its ability to simplify a complex question so that it is easily understood. It was explained to me as follows: "History's progress," I was told, "can actually be reduced to a simple equation. It's easy, like simple algebra, or Polish notation." He put it on paper: CM + S - O = EF
"CM, the common man, with Security, minus Oppression, equals Economic Freedom, and that leads to Prosperity. It also subsequently leads to Political Freedom."
And there it was—neat and simple. A fundamental principle missed by all the intellectuals. Deliberately missed, perhaps, because there is no "I" in the formula—intellectuals have never had anything to do with progress.
In the early chapters of this book we will consider the degree of security men have enjoyed and the degree of regulatory oppression they have suffered, for these have been key determinants of historical economic progress. There is a rather fine balance required of each factor if individual opportunity is to be maximized—too much of either can be detrimental. The burden of oppression, whether in the form of an autocrat's tyranny or the weight of regulations and legal threats, has been given too little attention by classical economists.
In Conquests and Cultures, Thomas Sowell points out that "modern Western industry and commerce developed at a time when the intelligentsia were a small and relatively un-influential group."19 Fortunately, most Americans are viscerally aware of the failings of the so-called best and brightest. Raymond Aron has extolled America and "the simple, modest ideas which it continues to cultivate," and the fact that "it is still basically hostile to authority, to the pretensions of the few to know all the answers better than the common man."20
Aron's praise for these "simple modest ideas" was penned half a century ago. We can only hope that the basic good sense of the average American has remained hostile to the bad ideas of the intellectual experts. This defensive hostility is crucial, because the intelligentsia are putting out more bad ideas than ever. As George Orwell once noted, many of their notions are "so absurd that only an intellectual could believe them." But inasmuch as the intellectuals have come to dominate the major foundations, colleges and media, it is their bad ideas that get drummed into everyone's brains.
is why it is so important to get to the truth of economic history. The
evidence will show that it is these bad ideas that have brought on the
decline of hitherto successful nations.
Footnotes for Chapter 1:
1 Niccolo Machiavelli, The Prince and Other Writings (New York: Barnes & Noble Classics, 2003), 66.
2 Marc A. Miles, Index of Economic Freedom, 2005 Edition (Washington DC: Heritage Books, 2005).
3 Richard A. Posner, Public Intellectuals (Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press, 2003), 6
4 Jared Diamond, Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies (New York: W. W. Norton, 1999), 25.
6 P.T. Bauer, Reality and Rhetoric: Studies in the Economics of Development (Boston: Harvard University Press, 1986).
7 Julian L. Simon, The Ultimate Resource (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1996), 206. "I do not suggest that nature is limitlessly bountiful. Rather, the possibilities in the world are sufficiently great so that with the present state of knowledge—even without the additional knowledge that human imagination and human enterprise will surely develop in the future—we and our descendents can manipulate the elements in such a fashion that we can have all the raw materials that we desire at prices ever smaller relative to other goods and to our total incomes. In short, our cornucopia is the human mind and heart, not a Santa Claus natural environment."
8 Ibid, 11.
9 George F. Will, With a Happy Eye, But... (New York: The Free Press, 2002), 20.
10 Kenneth Pomeranz, The Great Divergence (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2001).
11 Ricardo Duchesne, "On The Rise of The West: Researching Kenneth Pomerantz’s Great Divergence," Review of Radical Political Economics, Winter 2004, 52-81.
12 Charles Chenevix Trench, The Road to Khartoum: A Life of General Charles Gordon (New York: Carroll & Graf Publishers, Inc., 1978), 24.
13 Arthur Herman, How The Scots Invented the Modern World (New York: Three Rivers Press, 2001), 403.
14 Ibid, 404.
15 Edward Hallett Carr, What Is History (New York: Vintage Books, 1961), 132.
16 Ibid, 130.
17 Tim Harford, "Why Poor Countries Are Poor," Reason, March 2006, 39.
18 Thomas B. Carson, Beyond the American Dream: Work and Wealth in the 21st Century (Bloomington: First Books Library, 1998), 10.
19 Thomas Sowell, Conquests and Cultures (New York: Basic Books, 1999), 349.
Raymond Aron, The Opium of the Intellectuals (New Brunswick: Transaction
Publishers, 2002), 227.
To go to our full review, or to go to purchase the book, CLICK HERE.
From Common Genius: Guts, Grit, and Common Sense by Bill Greene. Copyright © 2007 by William C. Greene.