“Shocked as we may be today by drastic contrasts between the standards of living in modern industrial nations and the standards of living in Third World countries, such disparities have been common for thousands of years of recorded history. These disparities have extended beyond wealth to the things that create wealth— including the knowledge, skills, habits and discipline that have developed unequally in different geographic, cultural and political settings.”
The ancient Greeks had geometry, philosophy, architecture and literature at a time when Britain was a land of illiterate tribal peoples, living at a primitive level. Athens had the Acropolis— whose ruins are still impressive today, thousands of years later— at a time when there was not a single building in all of Britain. The ancient Greeks had Plato, Aristotle, Euclid and other landmark figures who helped lay the intellectual foundations of Western civilization, at a time when there was not a single Briton whose name had entered the pages of history.
Scholars have estimated that there were parts of Europe in ancient times that were living at a level that Greece had transcended thousands of years earlier. There were other complex civilizations in the ancient world— not just in Greece but also in Egypt and China, for example— at a time when peoples in various parts of Europe and elsewhere were just beginning to learn the rudiments of agriculture.
Vast disparities in wealth, and in wealth-creating capacity, have been common for millennia. But while large economic inequalities have persisted throughout the recorded history of the human race, the particular pattern of those inequalities has changed drastically over the centuries. While Greeks were far more advanced than Britons in ancient times, Britons were far more advanced than Greeks in the nineteenth century, when Britain led the world into the industrial age.
The Chinese were for centuries more advanced than any of the Europeans, including among their discoveries and inventions the compass, printing, paper, rudders and the porcelain plates that the West called “chinaware” or simply “china.” Cast iron was produced in China a thousand years before it was produced in Europe. A Chinese admiral made a voyage of discovery longer than Columbus’ voyage, generations before Columbus’ voyage, and in ships larger and more advanced than Columbus’ ships. But the relative positions of China and Europe also reversed over the centuries. Various other peoples, living in various other parts of the world, have had their own eras of leadership in particular fields or in advances across many specialties.
Agriculture, perhaps the most life-changing advance in the evolution of human societies, came to Europe from the Middle East in ancient times. Agriculture made cities possible, while hunter- gatherers required far too much land to provide themselves with food for them to settle permanently in such compact and densely populated communities. Moreover, for centuries cities around the world have produced a wholly disproportionate share of all the advances in the arts, sciences and technology, compared to the achievements of a similar number of people scattered in the hinterlands.
Because Greeks were located nearer to the Middle East than the peoples of Northern Europe or Western Europe, agriculture spread to the Greeks earlier and they could become urbanized earlier— by centuries— and advanced in many ways far beyond peoples elsewhere who had not yet received the many benefits made possible by urban living. The accident of geographic location could not create genius, but it made possible a setting in which many people could develop their own mental potential far beyond what was possible among bands of hunter-gatherers roaming over vast territory, preoccupied with the pressing need to search for food.
Geography is just one of the influences behind vast economic differences among peoples and places. Moreover, these differences are not simply differences in standards of living, important as such differences are. Different geographic settings also expand or restrict the development of people’s own mental potential into what economists call their human capital by presenting different peoples with access to a wider or narrower cultural universe. These geographic settings differ not only horizontally— as between Europe, Asia and Africa, for example— but also vertically, as between peoples of the plains versus peoples living up in the mountains. As one geographic study put it:
Mountain regions discourage the budding of genius because they are areas of isolation, confinement, remote from the great currents of men and ideas that move along the river valleys among peoples and places. Moreover, these differences are not simply differences in standards of living, important as such differences are. Different geographic settings also expand or restrict the development of people’s own mental potential into what economists call their human capital by presenting different peoples with access to a wider or narrower cultural universe.
Wealth, Poverty, and Politics: an international perspective (2015). Thomas Sowell
On Geography and Wealth by Manuel Fraga is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.