Civilizations come and go but if one were to chart a graph of the legal, economic, technological, artistic, and religious developments of particularly western societies in the last few hundred years, one would see uncannily rapid advancement. The Protestant Reformation brought us the revelation that anyone with a Bible could understand God’s word, not just pious elites, and the never-ending quest for individual freedom and autonomy (driven by some of the great philosophers, religious zealots, and political thinkers of the age) eventually paved the way for representative government. The Renaissance also brought us the system of English Common Law, the legal foundation for most of the world’s current justice apparatus.
But one distinct economic principle grew up out of the Renaissance, a period of great European discovery and advancement, that is worth noting in lieu of current political debate.
This was the burgeoning idea of capital, which later gave way to the system of “capitalism.” One can’t properly evaluate today’s capitalism without considering its early years. Formerly wealth and worth were determined by pedigree, status, title, nobility, and land holding, a completely feudal way of thinking – a way of thinking we’d all consider primitive and rudimentary today. But with the great changes induced by Renaissance thinking, capital, or the value of a currency or comparable asset, began to replace title, land, and family influence. This led to rapid developments in trade and marked a shift in European economies, but it also did something to rigid feudal class structures, in Europe and especially in America. In early America, like no other place on the earth prior, class structures became quite fluid. People formerly bound by birthright, origin, gender, and the like were able to rise in the class ranks with relative ease. This took time to be sure, but the trajectory was all but inevitable.
The formula? Hard work, ingenuity, merit, accomplishment, & expertise. This was a major break from the classic feudalism that caged generations of Europeans in to either endless wealth or mere subsistence. This new system, to put it another way, rewarded innovation, invention, efficiency, and hard work, and cared much less about who your father was. Therefore, before we rush to condemn an economic system that has drastically reduced poverty and demolished discriminatory and inescapable class lines, let’s remember first how we got here.
- Joe D'Orsie (written March 2021)