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How did Europe become the richest part of the world? (aeon.co)
75 points by pepys on Feb 17, 2017 | hide | past | favorite | 110 comments

The article overlooks a very important factor, that only Europe had colonies in the Americas, and that brought massive wealth to the continent since the XVI century. Before that, the Middle-East, India and China were , in general, more technologically and scientifically advanced than Europe.

This overlooks why Europeans were able to achieve colonisation. Let's remember that e.g. the Inca empire, one of the biggest empires the world had ever seen at the time, was essentially colonised by 168 men (with one canon) [1]! And in a territory (Andes) that was inhospitable to the Spanish.

This is quite mind-boggling. There are many reasons for this, but clearly an important reason is that the conquered empires where themselves forged with violence (and did colonise neighbours), and internally divided, more so than the Europeans.


[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spanish_conquest_of_the_Inca_E...

> This overlooks why Europeans were able to achieve colonisation.

Columbus stumbled upon the New World while looking for a new sea route to Asia. There were no Chinese or Indian traders looking for sea routes to Europe.

Before industrialization, there weren't that many things Europe had to offer that weren't already available elsewhere (Asia already had firearms and ships, maybe not as good, but good enough for the era). Whereas India had pepper and spices and China had silk, both of which were highly valued in Europe and could not be produced domestically.

> Let's remember that e.g. the Inca empire, one of the biggest empires the world had ever seen at the time, was essentially colonised by 168 men (with one canon) [1] ... There are many reasons for this, but clearly an important reason is that the conquered empires where themselves forged with violence

There were other reasons too. Pizarro's men had steel armor and weapons whereas the Incas had stone or bronze weapons and padded armor. They had horses (mounted lances can do stunning amounts of damage to unprepared infantry) and the Incas had no experience in dealing with horse-mounted troops when you're on foot (spear walls, spiked pits etc). Pizarro held the Incan emperor hostage. Smallpox and other diseases took their toll later on. etc. etc.

While there is truth to everything you say, I question the importance of horses in the Andes. Horses are not really at all useful at the kinds of altitutes where the Incas dwelled.

The key to the Spanish conquest was that the Inca empire was full of internal conflict, the most important of which was the lethal enmity between the sons of Huayna Capac. The Spanish never really had trouble finding native allies, who were only too happy to get some rival tribe to be 'wacked' by association with the conquistadores.

You're right, native allies were important for the eventual conquest of the Incas. I was referencing the key Battle of Cajamarca where ~160 Spaniards slaughtered thousands of Incas (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Battle_of_Cajamarca) and took Atahualpa, the Inca emperor, hostage.

>There were no Chinese or Indian traders looking for sea routes to Europe.

That's possibly not true. The author of this book makes a compelling case the Chinese had actually been exploring earlier:



I'd never heard of this book (or theory before) but its Wikipedia page has lots of criticisms and claims that the book is basically nonsense (having said that, many of the references are to a site called 1421exposed.com so...¯\_(ツ)_/¯ ). The Wikipedia article about Zheng He's voyages (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Treasure_voyages#Seventh_voyag...) has substantially better references and makes no claims (even speculations) that he ever traveled to the New World.

Let's just admit that if such a voyage did in fact take place, it did not make anywhere near the impact as in Europe.

Europe became rich through brute military conquest/colonization of the Asia, Africa and South America. They capitalized on free labour, free flow of ideas and goods from their colonies.

Actually diseases from Europe swept through the population, decimating it; except right at the coast the natives met the devastating germs before they met the Europeans themselves. There was brute force, but little of it was needed. Europe got Syphilis in return, which also caused widespread death for a generation or two, before mutating into a less fatal form.

Europeans got the bubonic plague from Asia as far as we are aware.

As I said in another post: this begs the question: why did the Europeans manage to be so much better at brute military conquest/colonisation than anybody else? Rest assured that everbody else also tried ...

Guns (Military weaponry) and the Bible (Idealogy, Culture). They used their bigger better guns to physical subjugate their subjects. They then used their religion or the idea that their culture was superior to mentally subjugate them. Once their subjects were physically and mentally subjugated they proceeding to build an economic empire on their backs.

    to mentally subjugate them.
This is a daring proposal. What you are essentially saying is that we could simply walk into another country, tell the population: "Hey we are better than you, do as I tell you" ... and voila, we rule them.

It really doesn't work this way. If you don't believe me, try your scheme on your neighbours. Report back.

Well, the key question is why did the Arab World and Asian civilizations fail to do the colonization that the Europeans did. Also, the parity between Europe and the rest of Eurasia was largely achieved around the 1400s, which is to say, prior to the first wave of colonization.

All of the Middle East, North Africa and parts of Spain were "colonized" by the Arab world during the conquests after Mohammed's death, much before the first wave of European colonization. It was not in a seafaring fashion but it was no less monumental and likely resulted in vital knowledge in math and the sciences being passed on during a time when Europe was one of the most backwards places on earth.

I think the key to this question is ocean going vessels. The big colonisers the English, French, Dutch, Spanish and Portuguese were all seafaring nations.

This was the platform from which the global colonisations of 1400 onwards sprung.

What were the peculiar conditions that caused these guys to take to sea in the first place and why didn't their Asian counterparts do likewise?

I think the Arab world can lay claim to some conquests - Spain for a while anyway ...

I think this is an important question, why did the European nations have more success in colonization? Was it something inherent in the nature of Arab/Asian cultures that made them less willing to travel oceans and capture new territories? They have coastlines and trade routes too. Can it be explained by history/climate/geography/religion?

This sort of question is itself poor history. We cannot cleanly use today's popular cultural boundaries like "europe" and "arab world" to describe people 600 years ago. The assumption that we can bake all european nations into one civilization that has coherent and universal cause-effect relationships is not really solid.

So what is your explanation as to why the West charged ahead, but the Middle East stagnated?

Its the wrong question, which is why you don't tend to find a lot of respected historians writing books that seek to answer this question. A lot of assumptions are baked into this question that historians do not think are valid.

The sort of "why the west won" pop history makes experts cringe in the same way that articles on AI hysteria might make experts here cringe.

I guess the answer is complicated, but clearly one factor is the Arab golden age of science ended when it was suppressed by islamic conservatives, but modern science was then adopted by the West.

The Islamic Golden Age is usually considered to end after the Mongol sack of Baghdad, back in 1258. The main rise of Islamic conservatism doesn't really start until after the Ottoman Empire starts to decline, about the loss of the Battle of Vienna in 1683. Even then, it should be noted that the Islamic fundamentalism doesn't really arise until the 20th century.

Right. I think one important factor is that western europe was spared from the mongol conquest and genocide- china and the Middle East were not.

>> why did the Arab World and Asian civilizations fail to do the colonization that the Europeans did

Perhaps because of the sheer size of Asia. Western Europe isn't exactly large.

Western Europe? Do you mean the landmass that extends all the way from the Atlantic ocean to the Pacific? You can walk all the way from the Bering strait to the Atlantic Ocean, and down to the tip of Africa.. thats a pretty large landmass and there was no gulf between Asia and Europe. (its pretty inhospitable in parts I agree, but the Mongol Empire reached the Mediterranean)

Also, perhaps, because the Arabs who were conquering were generally a land-based civilization, whereas the English, Dutch, French, Spanish, Portuguese, were all sea faring civilizations.

Certainly the Arabs had boats and knew how to use them, but I'm not sure sea voyages held the same cultural cachet in the ancient Arab world as it did in the ancient European coastal civilizations.

The Arabs conquered North Africa (which speaks Arab to this day), Persia, Spain (from the 700 to the 1400, a fairly big ammount of time) and they where able, by means of maritime commerce and the spead of Islam, to influence lands as far as Malaysia and the Philipines.

The Turks conquered Constantinople, the capital of one of the most advanced civilizations in Europe, and they employed the new cannon technology to successfully besiege the city in 1453. The Mughal empire pretty much colonized India in the 1500s, and did it basically with gunpwder. [1]

Xinjiang, Tibet, and Vietnam were occupied by different Chinese dynasties several times. While it began in the XVII century, China pretty much colonized Taiwan, despite previous Spanish/Dutch. China had a significant commercial presence in the Indic Ocean and Southeast Asia by the 1400's, and substantion immigration to SE Asia - specially to Malaysia. Ming China had substantial naval technology, and they have repeatedly won naval battles against the Portuguese, one of the great naval powers of the time [2]. They invented fire-arrows, basically incendiary rockets, frequently used agrains ships. [3]

The Arabs, Turks and Chinese of the 1400-1600 were colonising/conquering other lands, making maritime commerce and exploration, and had gunpowder technology good enough to beat European powers at the time. The Arabs specially had a strong presence in Africa and did as much slaving as the Portuguese.

So in terms of technology, the civilizations in Asia where more or less equivalent to Europe. They did not fail at colonisation, they just had much less to colonise, and less interest to explore. The reasons are:

1- Of the advanced civilizations of the time, Europe was the closer to Americas, a large, a rich continent whose inhabitants did not use metals nor gunpowder as in the rest of Eurasia. Native Americans had no immunity to Old World diseases too. The Turkish or Chinese could very easily defeat the Incas and colonise portions of the Americas, had it been closer and they knew about it in time to do so. But Europe was closer, they discovered it first, and the countries of Europe stated competing to colonise it. By the time Asians realized the existence of America, it was probably totally colonized.

2- Europe was very interested in commerce with India, specially access to spices, and America was pretty much discovered by accident in an attempt to find a new route to it [4]. The Chinese and Arabs already had easy access to the Indic Ocean Commecial zone, so they had little incentive to expeditions. The Chinese, in particular, could simply grow their own spices, produced their own silk and porcelain and had little interest in foreign products, and even less interest in expading their religions (the Muslims did spread Islam as far as the Philipines and even to China) The Europeans sufferd from Turkish commercial blockades, and had to contour Africa to have access to Indian Continent, which was a long and dangerous route. So they eventually tried a new route.

tl;dr: Europe discovered and colonized the Americas because it was nearer and because of the lucrative spice trade. Asia did not because it is more distant and because they could grow their own spices.

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mughal_Empire [2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Battle_of_Tunmen [3] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fire_arrow [4] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Voyages_of_Christopher_Columbu...

>The article overlooks a very important factor, that only Europe had colonies in the Americas, and that brought massive wealth to the continent since the XVI century. Before that, the Middle-East, India and China were , in general, more technologically and scientifically advanced than Europe.

That's an important point. However, what was important over the long-term is what the West did with that new wealth, namely feed a significant portion of it into helping the self-propelling dynamics the article describes.

The other civilizations, in contrast, had self-perpetuating dynamics that prevented growth and technological progress beyond a certain level, as least for the most part.

That's the central point of the article. But I still feel it should have mentioned America's colonisation and the wealth it brought to Europe. Italy did not had access to American colonies, but was very important for the Renaisance. Yet some historians say it beneffited from absorbing Greek scholars the fled the fall of Constantinople.

There are other factors that may encourage artistic and scientific advancement. The peace of Edo era in Japan (1603-1868), and a Samurai class that had no wars to fight anymore brough many artistic, cultural and scientific inovations.

The Japanese of the era had relativelly high literacy rates, developed mathematics and astronomy (sometimes discovering principles slightly before Europe [1]). The Japenese were also fond of Dutch science books on mechanics and medicine, and were more adept in using firearms [2] than it is usually assumed.

When Europe and the US, now with industrial revolution technology levels, began to harass Asia, Japan was able to modernize quickly and even defeat Russia. But this was only possible because Japan had their own "mini Renaisance" of sorts in the Edo era.

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Determinant#History In Japan, Seki Takakazu (関 孝和) is credited with the discovery of the resultant and the determinant (at first in 1683, the complete version no later than 1710).

[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bo-hiya https://s-media-cache-ak0.pinimg.com/originals/cc/43/61/cc43... https://s-media-cache-ak0.pinimg.com/originals/0c/39/79/0c39...

That's why Germany, Switzerland, Italy and all the other countries that didn't have any significant share in colonization did just as well anyway. And Portugal is almost a failed state while they did have huge colonies.

> Portugal is almost a failed state


Portugal might be struggling economically (as most of Southern Europe is), but it is by no stretch of the imagination a failed state:


The average income in Portugal is almost half of what people earn in neighboring Spain and still there's a ton of people without a job. It's not a failed state but it's more like Greece than Spain for sure.

You can't just take one statistic amongst many and make overarching statements like this. Average brute salary is lower in Portugal (but not half, and then the tax systems are different). Portugal is a smaller market and the cost of living is also lower. Unemployment is much higher in Spain.

The reality on the ground is that both societies are quite similar. I don't know much about Greece -- except that it's the cradle of western civilisation. When did we start being so nasty to each other?

I'd venture a different theory: Germany and Italy were not unified and pacified states at the time (and Switzerland is tiny and doesn't have a coast). In contrast, the European empire builders, Portugal, Spain, Netherlands, and the UK were unified, pacified, reasonably large/wealthy and sea-faring.

The Netherlands are tiny and a very young country at that time surrounded by much stronger neighbors. With a good fleet defensible though since a lot of parts can be flooded to prevent invasion.

reasonably large/wealthy

Portugal is small and was quite poor until the colonization started. It did have quite a large maritime coast and tradition, though.

> The costs of European political division into multiple competing states were substantial: they included almost incessant warfare, protectionism, and other coordination failures. Many scholars now believe, however, that in the long run the benefits of competing states might have been larger than the costs. In particular, the existence of multiple competing states encouraged scientific and technological innovation.

I wonder if this is still true today and if globalism will ultimately make us worse off?

That quote doesn't say that "political competition" was the best approach to innovation, nor that globalism would be worse. Merely that the proverbial ROI of competing states wasn't negative.

More importantly, it seems that the fragmentation in Europe allowed "peer pressure" to avoid descents into authoritarianism that would have limited intellectual innovation.

And that fragmentation did not fragment "the market". ("Political fragmentation existed alongside a remarkable intellectual and cultural unity.")

So: as long as globalization doesn't limit individual intellectual innovation, it might be a good think because of global unification. Competition helps drive innovation, but it doesn't have to be state competition and political division.

I wouldn't say globalism means uniformal activity and communication without competition as you would suggest, quite the contrary. Competition is far more bigger today but with much less violence.

Globalism means more and more kinds of competition are removed as regulation is removed. For example, look at the coordination between the major central banks across the world. Also, monopolies prevail.

Yes on that scale, but as regulations are removed, competition on a more micro level is booming.

Although we see today somewhat institutional monopolies I wouldn't like to predict how long those will last and how long they will be stable especially since it's a complex system. We are, after all, only beginning globalisation (in the sense of collective global system coordination) and will probably (re)discover new mechanisms along the way.

> but as regulations are removed, competition on a more micro level is booming.

If the internet is an example, that doesn't happen.

So, should we give up on relative peace for the sake of scientific and technological innovation?

Not an attack, but an actual question.

About utopian world, this may interest you: http://io9.gizmodo.com/how-rats-turned-their-private-paradis...

While I only just got started, there's a Cousera course named "The Modern World"[1] that, based on the introduction, explores this topic (among others).

[1]: https://www.coursera.org/learn/modern-world

There is an interesting documentary series by Naill Ferguson on this subject. In his series he discuses the "6 killer applications" that made the West dominate the rest:


I remember coming up a book one time(maybe reviewed by Razib Khan) that made this exact point that much of Europe's progress came from it's internal conflict but I have not been able to find it again... does anyone have a clue what I may be thinking of?

You might be thinking of "Guns, Germs, and Steel"

That would be it (by Jared Diamond).

An interesting followup from another angle is "Why nations fail" by Acemoglu and Robinson.

Note that GGS is not actually held in high regard by academic historians. Its pop history.

That's really not true.

Do you have any specific arguments against it? Is it your view, for instance, that non-euasian continents could have achieved the power of eurasia, in spite of their lack of suitable plants and animals, and if so, what accounts for what actually happened?

This just comes with close personal association with a whole bunch of history PhDs. I myself am not an expert on the topic, but they talk about this book the way that psychologists talk about Gladwell. If you want an example of respected history that follows this sort of geographic history model you should read Braudel.

Europe was great before she had any colonies. Living in Africa my entire life I can see that Europe and the countries where her children settled(USA, Canada, Aus, Nz) are the light of the world.

Simple, because they stole from the rest of the world.

The amount of wealth they ended up with was far, far in excess of the total wealth that existed in the world when they started. You can't steal what doesn't exist.

Like everyone else. Difference: Success.

Not that simple, I'm afraid.


The article does not even mention geography, which is extraordinarily important for generating wealth. You need to feed people and ship goods in order to make stuff, and it's way cheaper and easier to use navigable rivers through arable farmland than any alternatives. This represents a huge chunk of free capital, and the network in Northern Europe is one of the largest ones (iirc, second to the Mississippi River).

The author mentions that there were a great many lucky accidents involved in the rise of the West. That is a factor that I think helps explain the Fermi Paradox. It is not enough to have an intelligent species, what they produce over the long term would seem to be civilizations that lack the sort of self-perpetuating technology dynamics that we have had in the West.

Interestingly, they completely ignored the Hanseatic League, one of the most powerful economic and political entities for centuries: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hanseatic_League

Perhaps it was one of the most important contributing factors to Europe's success.

Simply, the quest to kill your enemies or paranoia of getting killed by them. Internet, GPS, Drugs etc to have an advantage in warfare

I have a feeling you didn't read the article.

No. War is not progress. War has cost a lot to European countries, being WWII one of the major loses in history in human lives and resources.

I have hear other, more plausible, explanations. Weather is one. The fact that Eurasia is wide means that it has similar conditions in large portions of land, so you can reuse technology for agriculture across all of it.

In Australia and Africa weather is not so good for agriculture. America is rich, but being narrow you need to create new agriculture techniques as you move south or north, as the landscape, weather and other factors are changing.

War is present in all cultures. So some more unique qualities should be looked for. And luck can't be discarded.

The article didn't specifically say war, just multiple competing states. This drove up trade, but also division.

European history has had more conflict that any other region.

Also, War has undeniably driven technological advances throughout history.

Conflict does not create riches, you are correct. Competition does create riches ( and sometimes conflict)

I agree with you on all sentences but one.

> Also, War has undeniably driven technological advances throughout history.

The opportunity cost of a war is huge. It can easily be argued that it is larger than the perceived gain of a war. Objectively measuring those two costs is another matter, but there is nothing undeniable about it.

Let's pick WWII as an example. Rockets came out of it and put people on the moon. What if we had peace instead what would those rocket scientist have done instead? Likely they still would rockets and other vehicles, but their would have been input from more scientists and it would have taken a few extra years while those scientists made other things. The moon would have happened anyway, but probably in a more sustainable way than a postwar "space race". What about Nuclear power? Maybe delaying that a few years might equal the economic output of the two cities it obliterated. Another view, without the specter of nuclear war we could have built more of the cleanest and safest power source we ever devised and redirected all the labor on coal and oil to other areas that nearly limitless energy might provide.

But this assumes that even without war and the attention it brings, rocket scientists could get access to the materials and manpower needed to further their work. The space-race arguably leveraged national-pride and used it to create demand for rockets. Without it, they probably could never went past small-scale rockets and scaled up to where they are today.

Even if they did, you already admitted there'd be a delay to things without the "war-boost". If it's OK to delay things like this, why are we in such a rush to counter the effects of global warming? Sometimes, the short-term does matter - whether it means obliterating 2 cities or obliterating the fossil fuel industry.

Your argument about short term and long term cuts both ways.

It is quite likely that "Rocket Scientists" wouldn't still be "Rocket Scientists", but they certainly still would have been scientists. They would have worked on something. The Moon only a time sensitive goal because of the cold war, but global warming/climate change is time sensitive, because nature and basic human survival say so. If some of those scientists had been working in meteorology and climatology the state of climate science could easily be 10 years ahead of where it is now.

What about all the scientists that could have been, but were instead blown up by dropped bombs or doomed to mediocrity as they had to work to reconstruct after a war? What about all the people who didn't get education because the war disrupt their city's basic infrastructure?

Can any amount of a soft resource like "leveraged national-pride" measure up to an absolute increase in resources like "More living and productive people"?

> What if we had peace instead what would those rocket scientist have done instead?

Not gotten funding to build rockets in the first place, in large part.

OTOH, there is at least an argument that the labor involved would have been directed in a manner that would produce more benefit in the civilian economy had it not been centrally allocated to military priorities.

Your response describes the likeliest outcome, IMO. The resources von Braun got were plausible in the 40's only under a dictatorial nationstate waging a war.

You act though smart people like von Braun wouldn't have done something else productive. A no on a funding application is not a death sentence. Look at scientists like Norman Borlaug[1], he revolutionized food production and turned several countries from food importing to food exporting, without a war.

Surely von Braun and other rocket scientists are at least as smart as some kid from Iowa.

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Norman_Borlaug

I was not assigning intrinsic value to alternative historical scenarios but estimating the resource cost of a rocket program in the 40's being out of reach in any other situation. US and USSR bootstrapped their programs based on V2 technology and then perfected their engines driven by the need to rain orbital nuclear death on top of each others without the chance of interception.

Functional space propulsion became as a side product of these murderous efforts.

Sure, we all would be probably happier if none of that had ever happened. The original topic was - would we have had rocket engines without ww2. Perhaps, but not as soon.

Yes. I don't think it's a coincidence that the two periods in history that provided much of the foundations of Western civilization (Ancient Greece and the Renaissance) took place amongst intensely competing city-states.

"The state makes war and war makes the state." - Charles Tilly

I'd agree that war is not progress, but war (at least a very specific type of war found in Pre-Westphalian Europe) created the conditions for progress. Tilly's predatory or bellicose theory of state building[1] asserts that war was crucial in spurring the development of modern nation-states. A stronger centralized state expanded the rule of law and reduced violence, providing a foundation for positive sum economic activity. Furthermore, this type of proto-state can, more or less, be viewed as a protection racket. The state could extract resources from those under its protection. This encouraged the state to incentive economic activity and innovation as the state captured some of the benefit through taxation.

Violence is present in all cultures. But the type of war that Tilly describes is somewhat unique to Europe. A confluence of geographic factors - arable land enabling higher population densities and a network of rivers that allowed for the projection of force - created the conditions for territorial war. If you look at South America or Africa there is much of a history of territorial wars because the area of these continents is so large that territory wasn't a limiting factor.

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/State-building#Application_of_...

'In Italy for 30 years under the Borgias they had warfare, terror, murder, and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and the Renaissance. In Switzerland they had brotherly love - they had 500 years of democracy and peace, and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.'

-Harry Lime, 'the third man'

"In Switzerland they had brotherly love - they had 500 years of democracy and peace, and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock."

Well, they also produced switzerland.

Have you been there ?

It's the best place in the world - and not just the scenery.

Best for those who are there. Others with wrong-{skin color, religion, continent etc} must stay away.

If you had the best house in the neighborhood and everyone tried to move from theirs and start living in yours instead of improving their own, wouldn't you be annoyed?

I'm not defending racism and hate. Those are unacceptable. It is however understandable that they might grow annoyed of people profiting of their country without bringing anything good. From what I have heard it's not an issue of {skin color, religion, continent etc} but simply an issue of being foreign.

That's not true at all.

I suspect that, unlike my own country, they enforce and respect the immigration laws on the books - truly a shock.

However, even outside city centers you run into people of all types. On my last trip I found myself in Gruyere and there were muslim families and east asians touring at the rest stop.

Inside Zurich there's a roughly Minneapolis-level background of racial diversity.

"Minneapolis-level background of racial diversity" Here is what the Minneapolis Fed bank president has to say about that,


He's talking about national statistics. He just happened to be working in MPLS at the time:

"Minneapolis Fed President Neel Kashkari said Wednesday he was “shocked” that the persistently higher national black unemployment rate relative to the rate for whites was not better understood."

People who live in MPLS know that it has a huge immigrant population of somali and other east africans as well as (I think) the largest Hmong/Cambodian population in the United States. That is, in addition to the inner-city diversity of american blacks. Also, unlike many other cities, there are native americans.

So it's not NYC or LA, but it's not Denver either. In fact, I think my original comparison may be off - MPLS is probably more diverse than Zurich.

(I have lived in MPLS on two different occasions - 6 and 5 years each. I own a business in Zurich.)

I am saying having racial diversity without equity is not a desirable outcome.

You just deviated from the point we are discussing and went to something else completely (racism). It has its merits but the point is: Did Switzerland peace produce more wealth than Italy's war.

True, Switzerland is a great (and beautiful) place to live. But I think the OP was talking about civilization advances and of those Switzerland has much less than Italy.

In fact the same goes for WWII. True, it was a bloody, devastating and awful conflict that brought out the worst in mankind... but at the same time created the tools that put the 1st humans in the Moon and gave us atomic power.

The unfortunate truth is that many of the major technological advances of mankind are closely connected to war.

Yes, but it was a backwater (losing a lot to emigration) until ~1850, right?

But to say Switzerland didn't invest in war would be horribly wrong. They are armed to the teeth with fortifications and a large militia force - ever check out the guns per capita in Switzerland?

> But to say Switzerland didn't invest in war would be horribly wrong

What war? They invested in peace, successfully so far. Attacking Switzerland would be a bad idea for most countries.

Switzerland developed the massed pike infantry formation tactics that dominated early-modern Europe before the advent of reliable firearms, crushed a major regional power (Burgundy), and exported mercenaries that formed the backbone of many other European states' standing armies.

That argument is worthless and is made just to move emotions. Italy produced a lot under war doesn't mean that Italy doesn't produce under war.

Switzerland far outpaces Italy when compared per capita.

And I'm guessing people will prefer peace and prosperity to da Vinci and poverty.

And even the cuckoo clock is from the Black Forrest, Germany, rather than Switzerland.

But seriously, the Swiss have lots to be proud of.

Given that Swiss mercenary pikemen were considered troops of excellent quality in their day I'm not sure if this picture of harmony and tranquility is exactly correct.

They also for a long time produced the most hard core mercenarys

>> I have hear other, more plausible, explanations. Weather is one.

LOL, this is exactly what corrupted officials in a Country-I-Woudn't-Call say when they're asked about billions being spent on building of roads that cannot survive a single season (so they have to be rebuilt every year). "That's because of our weather", - they say.

While war itself is destructive and did exact a great cost to Europe (it arguably ended European colonialism as it made Europe unable to maintain presence in their colonies), preparation in the case of war is arguably constructive and lead to innovations.

The Internet for one started as a DARPA project (ARPANET). The Interstate Highway was made for troop transport. Military contracts kept some aerospace companies afloat (basically subsidizing them) and enabled innovation that otherwise wouldn't be possible.

The word war doesn't appear once in the article, what are you talking about ?

Vast areas of Africa are perfect for agriculture... it's a big place.

> The Indian subcontinent and the Middle East were fragmented for much of their history, and Africa even more so, yet they did not experience a Great Enrichment.

eh what? The Indian subcontinent was one of the most productive regions of the world, accounting for almost 25% of the world GDP right before being colonized and having its creative/artisan class decimated. If no deliberate effort had been expounded to destroy its artisan/merchant class, Enlightenment ideas might have spread faster and created a much more dynamic economy.

This sounds like little more than pure speculation.

Based on the exact same factors the article very selectively chooses to highlight, you could just as well claim that it wasn't competition but a very high degree of integration that has made Europe so successful and that all the competition and war between states has just obscured this fact.

You could then go on and invoke the example of the United States to show that even deeper integration without too much internal warfare resulted in an even better outcome in terms of wealth.

This is nothing but fluff. You could pick and choose your variables to prove anything and its exact opposite based on that sort of reasoning.

What's the empirical basis for any of this? Why should we believe this theory and not some other theory? I don't see it.

History is like that sometimes. The root causes are tangled and we have to do the best with what we have. That said, I don't think this article is framing the question well.

If you focus just on one part of the wealth, namely industrialization, it's clear that different countries have done this in different ways. For example if you compare England (first mover) vs. Japan (catch up driven in large part by defense) the outcome was still quite similar in that both countries successfully mastered mass production with corresponding economic benefits to the country as a whole. Yet the details of the societies at the start could hardly be more different.

It's hard to escape the conclusion that many regions would sooner or later would have met the conditions for rapid economic growth. The question of why it happened in Europe is not necessarily the most interesting one.

By defining "rich" in such a way as to put themselves at the top.

Welcome to the social sciences

Please don't post snarky dismissals to HN. The comment you replied to was fairly substantive, so your reply takes the thread in the opposite of the desired direction.

We detached this comment from https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=13670932 and marked it off-topic.

Go to any major European city. Look at all the loot in the museums. Figure it out.

Mea culpa - too snarky. But there is a lot of research in this field and way too much self congratulatory material. A look at the Opium Wars should be enough to convince that more guns goes a long way to an explanation. Also Graeber's "Debt" gives some sense of how Europe managed to construct an economy that produced a desperation for loot that was quite remarkable.

This begs the question: why didn't nobody else succeed in looting the Europeans.

It's not like the other Empires around the world were Gandhian paradises of peaceful coexistence. They were waging war on each other, looting, and going on slavery raids just like Europeans. Go and look at Aztect ruins in Mesoamerica sometimes and marvel the the monuments where the prists were sacrificing humans.

Yet, despite the experience with war and violence, they (almost) never managed to beat Europeans, and certainly never colonised Europe (after the Muslims were thrown out of Europe ... Well ... depending whom you ask, the (descendants of the) Ottoman Empire are still colonising parts of Europe today ... Just ponder why Constantinople is no longer called Constantinople).

Why? What did Europe have they didn't?

Does the question make sense? The idea of a unified Europe is modern. Rome conquered Gaul, Serbia was in the Ottoman Empire, the Mongols traveled quite far west. The idea that Holland invading and capturing Britain meant different things then than it does now. Now they're both European nations. Then they were just two different nations.

At least two books that provide hypotheses with some supporting evidence are: Guns, Germs, and Steel; and A Splendid Exchange.

One thing that I found incredibly interesting in common was superior technology and the positive feedback loop with that. By this, I mean financial technology (loans, trade, financial derivatives) as well as weapons and mills.

That's a different question and I think the answer to that is obviously complex, but a lot of it is luck. If the Dutch and Portugese had shown up in the Indian ocean while Ming were still engaged, they would have had a rude shock. Otherwise, historians have looked at factors like the location of iron in China (further from population centers) and timing of major epidemics. One really interesting book is


Please don't post unsubstantive comments to HN, especially not with snark on top. It degrades the level of discussion below what we're hoping for here.

I'm sure you can make your substantive point informatively if you want to. If you don't want to (or don't have time), posting nothing is also an option.

One explanation is the book "Triumph of the West" by Roberts. He makes the case for it being the culture.

Looking at the comments in this thread, I'm really starting to get sick of the stupidity and ignorance of the hn community. I hope you're all just paid provacateurs.

War isn't some special attribute of european history or success. While some people (mostly on the narc spectrum) are motivated by competition, many aren't

Historical Counterexamples:

Chinese warring states periods, Japanese warring states periods, post gupta and mughal empires in India, west African pre colonial history, and there's many more.

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