What, oh what, could possibly explain the explosion of prosperity in the last 200 years? Image courtesy of Adobe Stock.

Imagine we could convert the 300,000 year history of Homo sapiens into a 24 hour clock. We could divide the time on that clock into the most recent one minute and the previous 23 hours 59 minutes.

Up until one minute ago, almost every person on the planet was terribly poor. The rare rich person got that way by stealing stuff from the poor. A Viking Jarl or King got that way by plundering the English, Irish, Frankish, or Slavs. The well-to-do in the Roman era stole from conquered countries or lived in luxury on the backs of their abundant slaves.

It has only been in the last minute (meaning the last 200 years) that widespread wealth and prosperity has emerged. That corresponds to the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, if you’re looking for some link and cause.

What is the major difference before and after one minute ago?

Prior to one minute ago on our 24 hour clock, you got rich by stealing what little someone else had. Since one minute ago, you got rich by meeting the needs of other people through exchange.

That is a paraphrased word picture provided by Johan Norberg (@johanknorberg) in his interview with Luke McCann (@Narrow_Path_Man) – Capitalism, Socialism and Stakeholder Capitalism with Johan Norberg. It’s a great podcast. Please check it out.

(Yeah, illustration is his idea with my paraphrase. I would never be able to paint such a great word picture. I add the details about Vikings, since that is something I know.)

Perhaps there is something hard-wired into us, a part of our unconscious mental process, created by the collective memory of the previous 23 hours 59 minutes of Homo sapiens history.

Up to one minute ago you had to live in fear some roving band was about to raid your village or farm taking what little you had, perhaps taking you into slavery.

Or perhaps the roving band would kill you and your sons, then rape your wife and daughters before carrying them off to work as slaves for the rest of their shortened lives.

If you lived five minutes ago, during the Viking era, you also had to fear the Vikings raiding far away from your village. In that case, the king might send his tax collectors round to take whatever silver and cows you had accumulated in order to pay off the Vikings to make them go away.

Or if you lived between two and six minutes ago, the king’s tax collectors might just come around to take a half ounce of silver because the king needed to build another castle or to pay for expensive imports his newest wife desired.

No matter how it might happen, up until sixty seconds ago you would have lived in danger of losing what meager possessions you had on some random day.

Since one minute ago, you had property rights and more security that your stuff would not be stolen someday soon. To live well, and perhaps get wealthy, you had to meet the needs of your neighbor with some goods or service that they wanted. You made your living through economic exchange.

If you came up with some creative breakthrough that made life better for a whole lot of people you could get filthy rich.

Perhaps our consciousness of how everyone on the plant lived prior to one minute ago is still our brain. Thus, we distrust capitalism, even though it is the reason we live so well, with enough food that obesity is a widespread issue, wearing nice clothes that don’t itch and aren’t flea infested, and live in pleasant houses or apartments which are warm in the winter and cool in the summer.

Perhaps we have some built-in reaction that thinks someone who has great wealth got it by stealing it somehow. For the previous 23 hours and 59 minutes of Homo sapiens existence, that is how things worked. Eight or ten generations ago, that is the world where your ancestors lived.

In actuality, during the capitalism of the last 150 or 200 years, that wealth was generated by meeting the needs of others. By providing tremendous benefits to many other people. By making life far better for lots of people who were glad to give that person money in return for making their life better.


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