II – Modernity as a virus

Part I is here

As an analogy, lets think about Modernity as a virus. By “Modernity” I mean society in which consistent growth in material living standards can occur, and where more than a small minority live above subsistence. The kind of society that was unprecedented before the industrial revolution, but is now the kind of society in which a majority of people now live to some extent.

In our world the modernity virus first arose in England and the Netherlands. Every other society who is now experiencing modernity has in some way contracted it from those societies, sometimes by way of others.

Due to our lack of ability to view the multiverse, unfortunately our sample is n=1. We cannot be sure if this place of origin actually tells us anything about the virus at all. WE can’t even be sure whether our world is just one of few where the exceptionally improbable virus occured at all. We cannot be sure that the virus would not likely have appeared somewhere else had random factors played out differently. Given how quick the virus spreads any point of origin may well become the unique point of origin, despite it only being randomness that lead to it being the point of precipitation.

It may well be no more important that the virus occurred in North West Europe than the first factories occurred in Leeds before Manchester – or vice versa, we don’t make a large point of the priority here. Maybe in time we won’t make a point of NW European priority.

But lets imagine how this priority may mean something, using the analogy of modernity and virus. We then have to imagine two different sets of necessary factors. What are the factors that affect the creation of a virus, and what are those that lead to its spread?

These are distinct.

If we accept prevailing hypotheses about the origin of HIV we would not factors like the necessity of simian human contact, moreover simians with auto immunity virus. We would also note that behavior such as consuming bushmeat increases the possibility of the simian virus jumping species and creating HIV. We then would conclude that the conditions likely to produce the virus are most likely found, maybe only found, in West Africa.

The conditions that lead to the spread of HIV are entirely different. Apes no longer play a role at all. The factors that are now important are the possibility of fluid transfer whilst the virus is transmissive which in turn relates to human practices including sexual networks, blood screening, sexual behavior etc.

We used to conflate these two kinds of factors with modernity and give reasons why the lack of one feature found in NW Europe would prevent Catholic society from experiencing growth. Following their impudent industrialisation explanations were made about why the lack of other features would hold back East Asia. Now we speculate on societies in Islam, but we are generally happy accepting that modernity can now spread everywhere eventually. Finding the elements necessary for contraction of the virus is the dream of development economics, and hopefully by finding them everyone might live above subsistence to some extent.

But the first lots of factors – those necessary for the genesis of the virus – are very interesting. By comparing and contrasting NW Europe with elsewhere, we might learn what factors could have made this genesis more probable in one place or another. Possibly it was a long list of necessary conditions, all of which had been present elsewhere at some time, but only in NW Europe by chance did they come together at the same time. If we have a stab at finding these conditions, we might even be able to glimpse at those places where it happened somewhere else.

About Richard Tsukamasa Green

Richard Tsukamasa Green is an economist. Public employment means he can't post on policy much anymore. Also found at @RHTGreen on twitter.
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14 Responses to II – Modernity as a virus

  1. Paul Montgomery says:

    This post really needs a photo of Agent Smith. ;)

  2. Rafe says:

    Yes, Agent Smith was an early exponent of the classical liberal agenda – a robust moral framework, free trade, light taxation and minimal government to maintain law and order and secure property rights.

    This is the result, a brilliant visual display of the parallel rise of health and wealth (almost) worldwide. Thanks to SkepticLawyer Helen Dale.


    Gerard Radnitzky wrote an interesting paper on the “European Miracle”. It is a bit wordy but worth a look.


    The bottom line is that the secret of the ‘European Miracle’ has been the evolution of limited government. There is no trade-off between freedom on the one hand and economic success and scientific progress on the other hand. The two are inseparable because economic growth has come from economic freedom and competition, and scientific progress has come from a free market of ideas.

    The phenomenon of the ‘Rise of the West’ has been made possible by the evolution of freedom in the economic sphere from political and religious influences, and by other developments leading to the security of property rights. It is an open question whether the relatively free society which grew out of the ‘European Miracle’, will be a unique, fragile and transient exception in human history or an enduring achievement.

    It should be noted that the European Community is in the process of dismantling the ‘European Miracle’ or at least placing it under severe strain. A similar process has bipartisan support in the US.

  3. conrad says:

    “The two are inseparable because economic growth has come from economic freedom and competition, and scientific progress has come from a free market of ideas.”

    Historically, I would think that most scientific progress has come without a free market of ideas or great economic freedom (I guess it depends how you want to measure scientific progress) — which is not to say that it doesn’t happen to a greater extent in places that are economically and politically free, something that hasn’t been especially common in many places of the world historically. Even in more recent times, the Soviets kept up for a long time, China has basically caught up, and small ultra-authoritarian countries like Iran and North Korea seem to have progressed far enough to be a bother to everyone else. Given this, I don’t think the two are inseparable.

  4. Patrick says:

    and small ultra-authoritarian countries like Iran and North Korea seem to have progressed far enough to be a bother to everyone else.

    All on their own, too. ‘Nary a free market to be seen.

    I would say, rather than Rafe’s line, that ‘sustainable economic growth and scientific progress have come from freedom..

    I removed competition is omnipresent, except in a graveyard and a socialist’s wet dream. To attribute something to competition in the sense Rafe has is similar to attributing it to humans, or oxygen.

  5. conrad says:

    I don’t even know if you need freedom for sustainable growth — many empires have lasted for ages and have been comparatively prosperous without freedom (again, I’m not claiming they wouldn’t have done better with it).

    To me, what it shows is that humans are a pretty resilient and ingenious lot, and that even under terrible conditions, they can still think of good ideas (indeed, sometimes they’ll be forced to by their crappy governments). This reminds of all the stuff people write about China. It’s always about how the government is doing this, that, or the next thing and this is why they are becoming prosperous. In my books, the reason China is becoming prosperous is mainly because the people are smart and industrious, and the government is somewhat but not totally incidental in that.

  6. Patrick says:

    China gives its people a fairly high degree of freedom to innovate technologically and gives them large incentives to do so (not illegal to be a millionaire in China these days!).

    I disagree about sustainable. Was there real ‘growth’ in most of those empires other than by acquisition(conquest)? Doesn’t actual GDP-per-capita type growth seem to increase pressure for democracy? So if you take ‘scientific progress promotes GDP-pc growth’ and add them together, only democracies are sustainable…

    Clearly not a definitively resolved point, but recent events lend weight to the theory!

  7. Ken Parish says:


    Are you going to deal with Weber’s stuff about Protestantism’s role in the triumph of market capitalism?

  8. Rafe says:

    Conrad, the association between relative freedom and general prosperity is established in Terence Kealey’s book on the economics of scientific research.

    The Soviets only kept up in isolated areas with the help of secrets leaked by friends in the West. Who think that Iran and North Korea developed their own ideas to become nuclear powers.

    Kealey noted that the long-lasting ancient empires were mostly stagnant in their scientific, technological and economic development.

  9. Richard Tsukamasa Green says:

    Once again regretting I have limited capacity to reply…

    I am tempted to write a further post later on the tendency towards statist (that is where the form and behavior of the state is emphasized, and this includes attributing events to laissez faire) explanations, not just here but towards history in general – including people who. In part because literacy has traditionally been a tool of states, hence recorded history, and we look under the lamp post in the Rankean tradition. I had forgotten how strong this tendency is, especially (perhaps ironically) amongst classical liberal, which is strange because it’s what I was reacting against with my honours research where I felt formal/state institutions were emphasized over the informal institutions with which they were embedded. Far too much state factors we point at also are attributable to the effects of the modernity virus rather than the converse (for example wealth creating constituencies that could pressure government for greater economic liberties).

    Ken – Not directly, mainly because I’m not up to speed with all the (many) criticisms of Weber (who I respect as much as anyone else for making sincere but flawed efforts). I have personal critiques of Weber, mainly over the direction of logic and causality, but there’s also empirical issues.
    There’s also the problem that the idea of Weber’s ideas is a great deal more prevalent than Weber’s actual ideas – just like the idea of Adam Smith’s ideas is much better known than the ideas he (or Marx or Nietzsche or whomever) actually had. The fact that we are in the habit of calling it the “Protestant Work Ethic” rather than “The Calvainist Work Ethic” is a good sign of this. We start thinking in terms of Protestant virtues instead of a by product of a specific dogma. The by product aspect is important though.

  10. Rafe says:

    Weber’s work was advanced in important ways during the 1930s by Talcott Parsons, Ludwig von Mises and Karl Popper, working independently and each refusing to notice the existence of the others (in public). Very strange!


    To see their common features, skip through the paper to a table towards the end.

    If the three masters and their apprentices had exchanged notes and formed a common front they could have saved economics from mathematical formalism and also kept economics and sociology in a healthy partnership. That task has been taken up by some of the Austrians in the US associated with Pete Boettke at the George Mason University.

  11. wizofaus says:

    I assume at some point someone’s going to mention the degree to which fossil fuels have made production of vast amounts of food (and other material comforts) with minimal human input possible? I’m pretty sure there’s a few good graphs out there showing how economic growth and exogenous energy usage have tracked pretty closely for a long time.

  12. wizofaus says:

    It’s even been argued (by Kenneth Pomeranz among others) that one significant reason why the Industrial Revolution occurred in England and not, say, China is the accessibility of large coal resources. Which isn’t too far away from Diamond’s reasoning behind why the agricultural revolution started in the Middle East and Europe.

  13. wizofaus says:

    (Sorry meant to add link to http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Great_Divergence, which lists “Coal” as the first possible factor behind the IR)

  14. Tel says:

    In my books, the reason China is becoming prosperous is mainly because the people are smart and industrious, and the government is somewhat but not totally incidental in that.

    They have finally decided to devote their energy into building something other than massive stone walls, grave goods and imperial palaces. I have no idea who to thank for that, or even whether to thank them.

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