The Great Divergence

by Kenneth Pomeranz

The classic question historians argued over for many years was “Why did Rome fall?” There were dozens of explanations, and each of them had some merit. Nowadays, the easy answer is “All of the above”, but there are still some lingering arguments regarding the relative importance of different factors. My own impression, after reading lots of this stuff, was that Rome lost its asabiya and slowly disintegrated.

Recently another grand question has animated historians: how did the West come to dominate the world? As we’ve learned more about Japan, China and India, we have come to the realization that all three of these civilizations were quite advanced and in fact were well ahead of the West in many dimensions right up until about 1800. Some historians divide the Western expansion into two phases: an early phase in which the West conquered stone age societies, primarily in the Western Hemisphere, but also along the margins of Africa and some islands. The second phase began with the Industrial Revolution, in which the West leapt far ahead of everybody else in economic output. This leap in productivity allowed the West to dominate the entire world militarily and economically. The British soldiers of the late 19th century sang, “Whatever happens / we have got / the Maxim gun / and they have not.” (The Maxim gun was one of the first true machine guns.)

In those days, Westerners had a simple answer to the grand question: the West dominated the world because it was so far superior to everybody else. The West was Christian, industrial, lawful, and technological; everybody else were just savages. This made some sense when Westerners were up against Amerindians or Africans; there truly was a vast gap in the economic, technological, and military progress between the West and these groups. Western agricultural productivity enabled huge masses of Westerners to swarm all over the conquered territories, swamping the natives by simple pressure of numbers.

But what about China, India, and Japan? These were not stone age civilizations; right up until perhaps 1800, they were just as advanced as the West. Now, it’s true that the West never conquered China or Japan, but they certainly bullied them around easily. The British kicked Chinese butt in several wars to insure that their merchants could continue to sell huge quantities of opium in China. Imagine the Mexican Army staging a few punitive military expeditions into Texas and California to cow our government into permitting their drug gangs to sell drugs openly on our streets. That’s pretty much what the British did to China. Or how about the brass of those Americans sailing into Tokyo Bay and demanding that the Japanese open themselves up to trade with American merchants, on pain of the American Navy smashing up Japanese boats and bombarding Japanese towns?

How did the West leap so far ahead of these Asian civilizations that it was able to lord it over them so freely? Kenneth Pomeranz addresses the question in this book. Most of the book is devoted to establishing the basic fact that the Asian civilizations were not backward; they were in some ways well ahead of Western civilization. Mr. Pomeranz establishes this with painstaking analysis of detailed economic statistics. For example, did you know that Chinese farms in the North China plain had superior methods for manuring their fields than English farms in the same time period, and that they were consequently slightly more productive? Or that Indian per capita transport capacity around 1800 exceeded that of Germany in the same period? Pomeranz assembles a mountain of data showing that China, Japan, and India had economies that performed just as well as those of the West.

His answer to the grand question is that the West (primarily England) was able to perform something of an economic hat trick. Its huge colonial empire permitted it to import food, lumber, and other land-intensive commodities, devoting its own land to more industrial activities. Just one of his factoids in support of his hypothesis is that, in 1900, 20% of the British caloric intake came from sugar imported from the West Indies and Brazil. This in turn permitted the British population to expand beyond the natural limits imposed by the size of their island. In effect, by sacrificing huge numbers of African slaves making large amounts of sugar, the British were able to jump-start the Industrial Revolution. That’s a simplified rendition of Pomeranz’s hypothesis.

I don’t buy it. First, the whole thing is purely economic in nature. That is, an economic historian does lots of great research and collation of data and assembles an economic explanation for Western success. There’s a great deal of value in this approach, but I think it misses a more important factor that is completely outside his field, and so he’s blind to it.

My explanation for the Great Divergence is derived from my researches into the development of rationalism. These are presented in great detail in my hyper book The History of Thinking. The basic argument is that the Greeks invented rationalism because of a variety of unique historical circumstances. This ultimately led to logic, science, and technology, which in turn gave the West a big advantage over everybody else. That advantage was composed of a variety of techniques and technologies that may not have been decisive individually, but taken as a whole they equipped the West with the ability to walk all over everybody else.

Let’s start with maritime technology. The West had mastered sailing technology by the 16th century, and proceeded to explore and conquer much of the world. It is often argued that the Chinese junks were at least as good as the Western ship designs, but this simple comparison doesn’t address the real differences. Yes, Chinese naval architecture was every bit as good as Western, but there’s more to a navy than just ships. The West didn’t just build ships – it built navies, something the Chinese didn’t bother themselves with. The Chinese did mount one big push to build a navy, and they sent that navy as far as East Africa in the fifteenth century. But then they decided that there was no need to continue, and they dismantled their navy.

The fundamental mistake was not technological, it was political-economic. The Chinese saw no value in long-distance trade; in this, they were catastrophically wrong. Long-distance trade was fundamental to the Western expansion; in the East India Company we have an example of a mercantile operation that also had a military component. The British were trader-conquerers just like the Vikings of the tenth century.

The deeper reason for the Chinese strategic blunder was the structure of Chinese society. Merchants in China were regarded as little more than necessary evils, rather like lawyers have long been regarded in the West. Sure, a talented and energetic Chinese merchant might get rich, but that didn’t make him a gentleman. Chinese civilization regarded wealth with some distaste. Yes, everybody wanted to be rich (and the Chinese government has always had serious problems with corruption), but wealth didn’t give you status. There were no merchants who were pillars of their communities, no titles awarded to successful merchants. If you craved the respect and admiration of others, you certainly didn’t become a merchant; you studied the Chinese classics and became a government officer.

Because merchants were held in such low esteem, trade never excited Chinese interest. They carried out a lot of trade for spices and exotic woods from southeast Asia, but that was about it. Even when Europeans showed up with something the Chinese really wanted – silver, necessary for Chinese coinage – the Chinese never bothered to send their own ships out to trade for silver. Instead, they stayed at home and let the Europeans handle all the trade.

Here we have another example of Chinese irrationalism. It suited the vanity of the Chinese government to let the foreigners come to Chinese ports to trade their silver. This comported well with their fantasy that China was the center of the universe. But it completely ignored the greed of Chinese merchants. Given half a chance, they would have set out on trade expeditions of their own, making the same kind of huge profits that the Europeans enjoyed from the silver trade. Unlike their colleagues in the West, merchants had no sway in Chinese society.

Another excellent example of Chinese irrationalism was their attitude towards technological progress. They say little need for it. When a Jesuit in China gave the Emperor an intricate clock, the Emperor’s response was a bored yawn. After all, China built clocks, too. There are records of a gigantic clock occupying an entire building that, apparently, was technologically quite sophisticated. But the Chinese saw no value in such technology; they dismissed such machines as mere toys. Westerners, meanwhile, built more, applied them to all manner of tasks, and eventually built clocks so accurate that they solved the navigational problem of longitude determination.

It could be argued that the real difference between China and the West was greed; the West applauded greed, while the Chinese had a higher standard of civilized behavior. It is certainly true that the Chinese standard of gentlemanly conduct was more civilized than the Western standard. But there was something deeper at work here: the anticipation of progress. Although the Chinese are responsible for a good chunk of humanity’s technological progress for the last 2,000 years, the Chinese never seemed to pursue progress consciously. Chinese technological advances were all “bottom up” – a shipbuilder coming up with a slightly better way to lay down a keel, perhaps; or a metalworker figuring out a better system for casting bronze. It was never deliberate, always serendipitous, and always incremental. Western progress was just the same until the early modern period. Sometime around the sixteenth century, Westerners started thinking more deliberately about progress; they started looking further ahead, imagining bigger goals. Consider, for example, the dogged efforts by Prince Henry of Portugal in his decades-long campaign to find the route around Africa. Only once in history did China attempt anything like this: the aforementioned fleet traveling to East Africa. It was too big a step, too bold for Chinese tastes. Because it did not return spectacular profits, the Chinese concluded that it was all a waste of time. Prince Henry’s efforts didn’t generate profit for decades, but when they did, the results were truly spectacular.

The West regularly employed big, complex, long-term plans; China never did. The West looked far into the future and figured out how to get ahead; the Chinese always proceeded one step at a time. The difference lay in the West’s confidence in its rationalism. Westerners knew that multi-step plans really would work if they were constructed with careful logic; the Chinese didn’t have logic and so they never developed the confidence to engage in such ambitious plans. In traversing the Indian Ocean, Westerners learned to sail due east from the Cape of Good Hope, taking advantage of the trade winds at that latitude. The Chinese fleet that traveled to East Africa stayed close to the coast, feeling its way forward. Therein lay the real difference between the West and the Chinese, Indian, and Japanese civilizations.