Take a moment to consider how the conveniences and comforts we often take for granted were once considered luxuries beyond the wildest dreams of even the wealthiest individuals. 

Today, a hot shower or a cup of coffee brewed in seconds are completely mundane. A journey across continents taking mere hours is, for many, just a normal part of life. Yet, these marvels would have been the envy of even the most affluent in medieval societies, prior to a period we can refer to as the “Great Enrichment.”

How the Great Enrichment transformed the world

The Great Enrichment, spanning from the 18th century onward, saw a profound transformation in the economic landscapes of many nations — first in the West, then later across the world. 

Technological breakthroughs, from the steam engine to the mechanization of production processes, undoubtedly played a pivotal role in reshaping economies. The accumulation of capital, driven by increased productivity and trade, fueled the engines of progress, laying the groundwork for the expansive economic growth that characterized the Great Enrichment.

During the 18th and 19th centuries, the rise of capitalism, which supplanted stagnant, archaic systems such as feudalism, meant that private enterprise and market mechanisms played a central role in allocating resources. 

The transformative power of capitalism, coupled with the protection of property rights and the rule of law, created an environment conducive to economic dynamism and wealth creation.

Moreover, recent centuries were marked by an unprecedented surge in global trade, facilitated by improved transportation and communication networks. Regions once secluded from the currents of commerce found themselves interconnected in a web of exchange. 

The influx of goods, ideas, and cultures ultimately contributed to an enrichment of societies unparalleled in human history. As such, today’s globalized economy and dramatic decline in global poverty would have been unimaginable to our ancestors from a few centuries ago. 

Indeed, in 1820, a staggering 80 percent of the global population lived in extreme poverty, whereas that number has dropped to below 9 percent today — not perfect, but a phenomenal feat for our species nonetheless, considering how much of an anomaly this is in our overall history.

A continuation of the Great Enrichment could well mean that, in the not-so-distant future, almost all of humanity will be able to meet their basic needs for food and shelter.

But, for that, it’s important to understand how we emerged from medieval poverty to reach our current position. Essentially, why did the economy — and society — change in the ways that it did?

The Great Enrichment could not have happened without a cultural shift

Traditionally, historical narratives focus heavily on the Industrial Revolution and the accumulation of capital as primary catalysts — which is not incorrect. 

However, understanding the magnitude of this transformation necessitates recognizing the myriad interconnected factors that propelled societies towards unparalleled prosperity.

Beyond material considerations, the Great Enrichment was heavily tied to a significant cultural shift. Indeed, without this cultural shift, there could have been no Great Enrichment. But why was culture so important?

For an assessment of the cultural dimensions of the Great Enrichment, we can turn to the work of Deirdre McCloskey, an economic historian and professor who has contributed significantly to our understanding of economic development and the factors behind the Great Enrichment.

McCloskey argues that the rapid economic growth and improvement in living standards that began in the 18th century was not primarily driven by material factors such as capital accumulation or technological innovation alone. 

Instead, she emphasizes the role of ideas and a change in societal attitudes toward commerce, innovation, and entrepreneurship.

She asserts that a cultural and ideological shift was crucial in fostering an environment where people were encouraged to pursue economic activities and contribute to innovation without fear of social stigma or punishment.

For context, in pre-modern societies, those engaged in trade were often stigmatized, considered lower in social status compared to landowners or warriors.

The reevaluation of commerce as virtuous, the empowerment of individuals, and the celebration of entrepreneurship — values intertwined with classical liberalism and Enlightenment ideas — emerged as cultural catalysts that propelled societies towards unprecedented economic growth. 

While acknowledging the role of technological innovation and capital accumulation, a more holistic understanding requires us to appreciate the intricate dance between cultural dynamics and material forces. 

Moreover, the story of the Great Enrichment invites us to recognize the transformative power of ideas, values, and attitudes in shaping the course of history.

If we want to see the global increase in living standards continue and more people around the world being able to uplift themselves from poverty, we must not turn away from the values that made the Great Enrichment possible.

Reasons for optimism about humanity’s future and a continuation of the Great Enrichment will be key topics of discussion at Students For Liberty’s upcoming LibertyCon International, where Deirdre McCloskey will take to the main stage to discuss how (true) liberalism is what drives human progress and prosperity.

Students For Liberty’s flagship annual event, LibertyCon International will be held in Washington, D.C., on February 2-4, 2024. It promises to be the place for engaging with leading experts and connecting with others who share a dedication to advancing pro-liberty ideas and creating a freer future.

Click on the button below to sign up for updates and secure your spot at this exciting event. We can’t wait to see you there!

This piece solely expresses the opinion of the author and not necessarily the organization as a whole. Students For Liberty is committed to facilitating a broad dialogue for liberty, representing a variety of opinions.