The journal Journey of Humanity – an ambitious attempt to explain the economic development of society | Economy

IIt’s the social scientist’s dream: to surpass Adam Smith, Max Weber and Karl Marx and come up with a unifying theory of why society has grown the way it has, where it’s going next and how its wrongs can be repaired. Sometimes, reading Oded Galor’s optimistic book, I thought he had cracked it, surprised by his imagination and his verve. For example, it is evident when pointed out that agricultural economies dependent on the plow necessarily diminish the role of women in wider economic and social life because plows require male muscles, leading to women taking over load the household chores rather than sharing the chores in the fields where the soil is easier. to work. What Galor shows is that this gendered division of labor persists across generations, even in countries to which peoples using the plow migrate. It is nothing if not original.

But in the end, fulfilling the dream of explaining everything is too much to ask, even for an economist of Galor’s line. He is so dedicated to the hidden, long-term impulses that determine our destinies – geography, climate, diversity, the ability to be forward-looking, the role of education, the rights and wrongs of Malthusian economy – that it neglects what is in full view. A story that claims to describe the journey of humanity without understanding why certain innovations – such as the three-masted sailboat, the printing press or the computer – change civilizations while others are more ordinary, can only be incomplete. . These “general-purpose technologies” not only have diverse origins, as he argues, but also require an extraordinary interplay of state funding, large markets, cultural readiness, and capitalist organization to get off the ground. The printing press was not only the result of Gutenberg’s life on the Rhine, where trade routes from various regions brought inventions and ideas: it also needed Protestant princes to finance the prototypes and buy the presses, and then an explosive, religiously motivated appetite for publications. Bibles, Hymns and Sermons in Reformation Europe.

Indeed, Galor devotes little of his book to capitalism, the structure of states and the resulting dynamic interdependence between the public and private sectors, or the importance of Enlightenment values ​​that liberated notions of the public sphere. and rule of law. These are gigantic omissions. It’s a technocratic journey full of illuminating graphics, but oddly bloodless and neglectful of political economy to explain humanity’s journey.

Still, large sections of Galor’s book are to be applauded. Economist Thomas Malthus, now dismissed by mainstream economics as an interesting eccentric, is resurrected by Galor as the man who correctly saw that for millennia humanity had been trapped by its own fertility in sustenance, starvation and starvation. As soon as material things improved, the birth rate increased, the population too, and the pressure on food resources exploded, bringing humanity back to famine. Incredibly, wages demonstrated these Malthusian effects, buying roughly the same amount of food from the Assyrian Empire, through the Romans, and up to the eve of the Industrial Revolution.

Oded Galor: too optimistic? Photography: Peter Goldberg

According to Galor, what broke the Malthusian lock on the fate of humanity was the gradual acceleration of the introduction of technologies that required mass education for their successful implementation. This triggered a virtuous cycle of more innovation, more investment in education, more need to invest in the quality of children rather than the quantity, so that birth rates fell enough to allow standard of living and life expectancy to increase. Because it was now rational to invest in the education of children rather than making them work, child labor and exploitation disappeared.

Above all, it shows how cultural attitudes persist long after the chain of events that gave rise to them, so that countries and cultures that progress tend to stay ahead. He is scathing about the shock market liberalization programs that accompanied the “Washington Consensus,” ignoring these lingering traits. Efficient market economies cannot be built spontaneously in cultures hostile to design itself.

Yet his optimism about humanity shines through – appreciate its diversity, commit to nurturing its children, and they will find their way to innovate and create a culture of growth. It’s a great way to see the world, but a healthy recognition that power, capitalism, finance, the existence and structure of states, and public philosophies – some right, some wrong – are all part of the mixing would have made his narrative more realistic. . Sad to say they would have made him less optimistic as well. Humanity, as Kant said, is made of crooked wood that nothing can be made of entirely straight. Galor’s book would have been stronger had it risen its sun with some shadows.

Humanity’s Journey: The Origins of Wealth and Inequality by Oded Galor is published by Bodley Head (£20). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply

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