Why England Succeeded In Possessing An Enlightened Economic Model Over Other Western Monarchies

Imprimus.  Latin for ‘ideas have consequences.’

For anyone who studied at University after circa 1985, you missed the greatest education curriculum ever produced since antiquity, namely the trivium and quatrivium.  Within either the trivium or quatrivium, if you studied any one topic in depth you were automatically capable of understanding the others.  Trivium (3) was grammar, rhetoric and logic.  Quadrivium (4) was music, philosophy, geometry, theology.  Only after completion of such were you permitted to pursue your own major.  The superiority of this curriculum simply cannot be understated.  It took ideas seriously and understood both the need for clear thinking, persuasion, and most of all clear perception in understanding the ideals that permeated the intelligibility of seven combined disciplines.  We are seeing a return to such a curriculum in many small liberal arts Colleges in the United States, Hillsdale College in Michigan is an example.  Before the rise of non-euclidian geometry, specialization was not the goal of a University education.  The rise of such mathematics created fields of specialization that abstracted the ‘field of intelligibility’ from sense perception.  This meant that abstract theoretical models became the standard practice by which to encode and understand ‘data’.  We lent ourselves the belief that such abstraction could divine more accurately than a historically informed person.  Our current economic malaise has its origin in the absolute belief in both the authority of specialization and its attendant ‘churning’ of correct data.  Computers are a means not an end.  We failed to examine the ideas/ideals grounding how we ‘think’.  We believed the ‘churning’ done in quantitative risk finance.  In doing so we simply betrayed ourselves.

For anyone with a decent liberal arts degree grounded in the trivium and quatrivium understands the power of ideas, especially how they drive entire cultures.  One simply cannot understand nor anticipate the social impact new technology has unless one possess an historical perspective.  Only through the lens of history can one anticipate the immediate impact of technology or new policy upon ‘data’.  Economics is now turning as a discipline to examining the ideals that became of the Enlightenment to examine the field of intelligibility that led to the rise of the British Empire during the 17th century when other equally successful established Monarchies ruled with consistent efficiency.  Why did England succeed where the others failed.  The answer is not found in data!  The answer is found in the realm of ideas.

Just why did Britain have an industrial revolution first?  Why not France or the Netherlands given their economic power?  What was the social impact of free markets and the ideas that spawned them throughout Paris, Amsterdam, Edinburgh?  Why did London succeed while the others failed?  You should not be surprised to learn that the answer is found in geology.

Most historians of economics speak of the British coal regions that dominate Wales and most of Great Britain.  I am NOT speaking of their significance.  How to explain the relevance and dominance of a mineral that always existed in Britain.  We have similar analogies throughout Arabia regarding oil!

What ideas fermented the minds of men to pursue what was self evident?  I hope you understand my line of questioning in eliminating the value of coal driving the Industrial Revolution; such rigid historicism cannot in the final analysis account for the rise of the industrial revolution in Great Britain.  We must quarry the meaning of that object within the rigid historicism that became of coal.  We deem to examine a new “relation” of man to himself, his view of time, opportunity, even God; all found from within the availability of a self evident resource.

We must examine how British ideas interacted vigorously with both business and Crown in a positive relation that created the greatest sea change in economic history since the advent of culture itself during the Neolithic period.  What accounted for this?

Let me be blunt.  Liberty and natural philosophy begot prosperity!

The ideals dominating the Reformation gave birth to the Enlightenment.  When you examine the anthropology of both events you perceive the stimulant that borne a new relation between God, Man, Time and Eternity.  Only here do we discover why men fled to coal!

The irony is examining how England permitted the rise of Marxian Historical Materialism from within this ‘Industrial Enlightenment’.  But that’s another essay for another day.

This industrial enlightenment animated deeply held theological beliefs that material progress and economic growth could be achieved through increasing human knowledge of natural phenomena and making use of such knowledge in production.

These ideals affirmed the life and writings of Machiavelli.  The industrial enlightenment’s goal was happiness.  The constellation of intellectual goods that came to dethrone salvation as the reason for life itself.  Nature came to be seen as something exploited, controlled through inductive reasoning, leading to experimental methodology.  But what specifically accounted for the rise of Britain?  She had rivals.

The reason for Britain’s exceptionalism as industrial enlightenment lies in examining the increasing HOSTILITY to ‘rent-seeking’, the use of political power to redistribute rather than create wealth.  The liberal ideals emanating 18th century western Europe took hold fast and hard in the rejection of mercantilism’s closed markets, the weakening of trade guilds and the expansion of internal trade coinciding with robust physical and intellectual property rights; all put Britain far ahead of her rivals in Paris, Edinburgh, Amsterdam.

An account of the significance of geology alone misses the point grounding Great Britain’s Industrial Enlightenment.  For the impact of geography is perhaps the single most significant insight in discovering the field of intelligibility within Britain’s industrial enlightenment.  Let me explain:  England being smaller than Continental feudal kingdoms throughout Europe possessed better defined frontiers, this was achieved far earlier than any of her neighbors.  This has significant political and social impact on her feudal existence.  No other nation in Europe experienced such authoritative and disciplinary control as was exercised by William the Conquerer, both Henry I and II, along with the first and third Edwards.  England had ruthless rulers that forged her strong national identity into a unity unbecoming either Spain or France.  By the 17th century London alone was the largest capital of all Western Transalpine Kingdoms.  England achieved such strong national identity and parochial unity through her small size, firm frontiers, strong kings from the simple compactness and self consciousness of a city-state writ large.

For those interested in reading how geography shapes both nation state and personality development, try ‘The Enlightened Economy’ by Joel Mokyr or the great Islamic Medievalist Ibn Khaldun’s ‘Muqaddimah’ (pronounced Moo-qua-dee-mah) which explores the causality between geography and temperament.


About William Holland

Systematic Theologian/International Relations
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