Friday, February 10, 2012

Why Europe beat China

In his book, Guns, Germs, and Steel, Jared Diamond outlines a convincing case that geographical differences in certain regions serve to either hinder or jumpstart a society’s overall progress.  Early success then generates more success, and thus a little head start can lead to the difference between a Civilization capable of seafare, metallurgy, and centralized government, and a huntergatherer tribe whose main characteristics are, in the words of Thomas Hobbes, “nasty, brutish, and short.” Diamond highlights the geographical sweetspots to be the Fertile Crescent and Asia, which accounts for the rise of two superpowers: Europe and China. 

However, his explanatory model, which precludes any nongeographical  explanations, has gaping holes when it comes to comparing the relative success of Europe with that of China in the middle ages. 

More than anything, a society’s ascension is based strength of its technological base.  Much of what can be attributed to Europe’s ascension can be numbered on a list of new inventions.  Including:

The water wheel marked a huge improvement in productive efficiency, allowing workers to labor on something else, either on more concrete appliances or intellectual endeavors, such as reading and writing.

Eyeglasses doubled the working life of a skilled craftsman.  Whereas before an artisan’s skill would plummet with the decline of his sight, rendering him all but impotent by the age of 40, eyeglasses allowed fine workers to continue their vocation decades longer.

The importance of the printing press can hardly be exaggerated. Although originally invented in China, the printing press never caught on because of the inflexibly of the Chinese Block type.  But when Gutenberg invented the printing press for alphabetical languages, the world would never be the same.  The literacy rates shot up, people began to read and think more, productivity increased from more reliable documentation and communication. 

For all the progress that Europe witnessed in the centuries preceding the Renaissance (11-1300’s), China was actually its superior at the time.  The Chinese invented the wheelborrow, stirrup, compass, paper, printing, and gunpowder.  But as Europe witnessed progress going into the Renaissance, China endured a steep decline.
Therefore, the question of why Europe, as opposed to China, emerged as the world’s premier superpower can be restated as to why Europe was more amendable to invent new technologies than China, and why China actually went backwards.  As for China’s regress, the Hungarian sinologist Etienne Balazs attributes it to its totalitarian constraints on private initiative, where monopolies reigned, bureaucracies were all-powerful, and Chinese ingenuity was sapped by the prevailing regulations that gripped its citizens from cradle to grave, all creating an artificial plateau that the Chinese could surmount.

As for Europe’s relative success, David Landes, author of The Wealth and Poverty of Nations, attributes it to several factors. 
  • ·           "The Judeo-Christian respect for manual labor, as summed up in a number of biblical injunctions.” He gives the example of when God warns Noah of the flood, and how God doesn’t just save him, but instead tells Noah to build an ark.
  • ·        The Judeo-Christian conception of Man being in control of nature, contra pagan nature worshippers.
  • ·         But most importantly, just as China’s decline could be extrapolated from its command economic system, Europe ascended due to its relative economic freedom. The institutions of private property and free enterprise gave the Europeans more incentive to innovate and create than the Chinese. It wasn’t the pure, Laisse faire Dickinson capitalism, but it was sufficiently close to it.
Admittedly, this article only scratched the surface of the issues involved, but intentionally so.  One has to start somewhere.  


  1. Basically this:

    The Chinese are their own worst enemies.