Friday, 6 July 2018

The Origins of Wealth (Part 4 of 4)


NJ Bridgewater

The Decline and Fall of Civilizations

Gordian II, one of the Roman emperors during the ‘Crisis of the Third Century’[1]

In the Crisis of the Third Century, also known as the Military Anarchy or the Imperial Crisis (235 – 284 AD), the Roman Empire nearly collapsed under a number of factors, including political instability and civil war, invasion from foreign peoples, plague and economic depression. One of the most significant of these factors was the undermining of capitalism and free enterprise. Trade networks were disrupted as Rome lost its military ascendancy over external enemies. As Thomas Sowell writes, it was “only after the Roman Empire began to lose its own internal cohesion, patriotism and fighting spirit” that it finally began “to succumb to its external enemies and finally collapse.”[2] National security, of course, is one of the essential purposes of government, as government’s role is to secure the borders of a nation against invasion, as well as to secure the property and other rights of individuals within the nation. This goes back to the words of John Locke which we have quoted above. He writes that political power, as wielded by governments, is exercised “for the regulating and preserving of property, and of employing the force of the community, in the execution of such laws, and in the defence of the commonwealth from foreign injury; and all this only for the public good.”[3] In other words, preservation of the rights of each individual, both from internal and external threats, is the true goal and purpose of government. Rome’s greatest mistake, however, was in debasing its own currency. Historically speaking, debasement of currency is when governments reduce the inherent value of coins by reducing the content of precious metals within them. Nowadays, debasement can also take place through artificial inflation of the currency, i.e. by printing or creating more money. As most currencies in the world are now fiat currencies, i.e. created by decree and not linked to gold or other real-world assets, governments are capable of printing or creating as much money as they want. I explain this in greater detail in my article on Bitcoin, entitled “What is Bitcoin?”, which gives an introduction to the history of currency, money, the question of intrinsic value, and the nature and purpose of Bitcoin.[4] A shorter, summarized article on this topic can also be found on the Digitex Futures Exchange blog,[5] and I have published a video introduction to Bitcoin on YouTube. You can find the transcript on my Crossing the Bridge blog.[6]

Thomas Sowell, economist[7]

In addition to external factors, such as foreign incursions, there were a number of economic factors which led to the Roman Empire’s decline, including, as Thomas Sowell notes, “the growth of a large parasitic class” which served as “an underclass supported by government handouts”, along with “a large and growing bureaucracy”, and such large and suffocating bureaucracies also led to the decline of the Byzantine, Spanish, and Ottoman Empires.[8] In several of his works, Thomas Sowell also points to other factors which led to Rome’s decline and eventual fall. One of these, he notes, is high taxation. As tax rates increase, Sowell argues, various economic activities are abandoned. Thus, in ancient Rome, many people abandoned agriculture and moved to the cities, forming a greater and greater part of the underclass he referred to earlier.[9] In order to provide for this growing class, dependent on the free bread and circuses of Rome, the government resorted to the age-old vice of debasing the currency. “Inflation is not only a hidden tax,” Sowell argues. “It is also a broad-based tax” as it, in effect, “transfers some of the wealth of everyone who has money… from the richest to the poorest” in society.[10] This so-called ‘hidden taxation’ is the government’s way of extracting wealth from the entire population, rather than raising actual taxes to unsustainable or extortionate levels. As I explained in my article, “What is Bitcoin”: “The value of your U.S. dollars today is less than the value of the same denomination 10 years, or 100 years ago. If you put $100 in the bank today, it will be worth less in 1 year’s time. The value of your money will practically evaporate into thin air. Why is that? Because the more currency is pumped out by the system, the less value it has. It becomes less scarce, and scarcity is essential to our notion of value.”[11] While “gold and silver”, according to the economist David Ricardo, “like other commodities, have an intrinsic value,”[12] U.S. dollars and other fiat currencies have no intrinsic value. Inflation, political chaos, and other external and internal factors brought down the Roman Empire, demonstrating the fragility of institutions and the effects of economic ignorance and manipulation. The same dangers confront our modern world today.

Wealth in the Modern Era

We have looked so far at a vast span of history, from the earliest origins of humanity, through to the first cities and civilizations, the earliest empires, the fall of Rome, feudalism, the British Empire and modern capitalism, while we have examined the follies of communism and some of the building blocks of both civilization and capitalism, both of which are essential to building long-lasting wealth and prosperity. We have also looked briefly at the historical benefits provided by empires, most notably the British Empire, and the dangers of inflation and debasing the national currency. What can we say of wealth, therefore, in the modern era? Wealth is, and has always been, a measure of power and opportunity. Wealth enables the individual to be secure in his person, family and estate by providing him with the means to support himself. Wealth consists of assets, and these include key physical, mental and social assets, including money, real estate, family, health, happiness, mental tranquillity and security. These are both tangible and intangible assets, all of which form a holistic conception of wealth and prosperity. To be truly wealthy is to have all of these elements in abundance, leading to prosperity and material, social and emotional balance. We are immeasurably fortunate to be born in the era in which we now live. We no longer have to struggle to survive on the savannah of Africa as hunter-gatherers. We no longer have to toil day-in and day-out in the fields of Mesopotamia, growing cereals and pulses. We no longer have to work and toil all day, six days a week, in the coal mines of Europe or in the factories of industrial North America. Life has changed, conditions have improved, and the economic well-being and wealth of humanity has increased en masse.


Nairobi, Kenya[13]

Though there are still large parts of the world which suffer from poverty, extreme poverty as a whole has decreased, living standards have improved, life expectancies have increased, many diseases have been eliminated, and technology is daily improving, leading to longer lifespans, better standards of living and more opportunities. In addition, the rule of law and capitalism are spreading and taking root in more and more places worldwide, leading to greater economic freedom for the individual and families. This is not to say we are not facing grave, existential dangers and potential crises. We may, indeed, be on the brink of some kind of massive economic crisis due to growing inflation, government debt and moral uncertainty worldwide, but things are, on the whole, improving. What this means for you, as an individual, is that the opportunities to increase your wealth, both in terms of health, monetary assets, and other aspects, is greater now than ever before. Every individual, especially one born in a free, Western society, now has the opportunity to improve his or her condition and take the reins of prosperity into his or her own hands. If not you, then who? And if not now, then when? Wealth is not something that will fall from heaven and land upon you. Wealth is something which grows through diligence, which increases through effort, and which spreads through conscious effort, good attitudes, focus and determination. The purpose of this article/chapter/post has been to give the reader a wider perspective, to refute certain illusions and misconceptions, and to allow him or her to understand what wealth truly is, how it emerged historically, and what is needed to create, preserve and grow wealth worldwide and on an individual basis. Wealth does not come from government intervention, though governments can create the right conditions for it to grow, but it comes from free commerce and enterprise, which depend on individual will and drive. This is the time to act.

How to Get and Grow Wealth

In order for a plant to grow, it has to have the right conditions which, in general, include fertile soil, fresh air and abundant light from the sun. The sun, indeed, is the source of all light and life on Earth, with the exception of tubeworms near hydrothermal vents at the bottom of the deepest oceans. The sun is the source of heat and light, which is used by plants to make glucose through the process of photosynthesis. Light energy is absorbed using chlorophyll, and this is used to react chlorophyll with water to create glucose, i.e. sugar. The fertile soil provides minerals, and the fresh air provides carbon dioxide, while oxygen is released as a by-product of the whole process—oxygen which we breathe and use to sustain our own bodies.[14] In like manner, if we want to grow wealth, the right ingredients and the right conditions must be in place. As we have examined at length, a capitalist system provides the best environment for wealth to take root and grow. This is because wealth is not something static or unmoving. It is not merely transferred from one generation to the next through an unchanging elite, nor is it simply bestowed upon any particular privileged group, race or class. While wealth does often pass down particular families, social classes are by no means static, and levels of wealth increase and decrease, ebb and flow, as much between individuals as within the life of one individual. Indeed, wealth and social standing change within the lifetime of one individual. As Thomas Sowell explains in Basic Economics, the young, in their twenties for example, do not belong to the same socio-economic bracket as the same people in their thirties, forties or fifties. This social mobility is a characteristic of Western liberal societies with robust capitalist systems. Wealth, therefore, in modern, capitalist societies, is largely a product of attitude, skill, knowledge, effort and focus. This belies and contradicts the entire argument of Marxism and the common attitudes to wealth among social activists in the West.

Far be it from anyone to attack any particular social class or group, therefore, as these social classes and groups are organic and ebb and flow with the passage of time. Few are born with a silver spoon in their mouths. It is up to each one of us to improve our social condition, educate ourselves, and create a livelihood which can provide for our needs and wants. Healthy attitudes towards wealth and money are necessary in order to grow wealth organically and holistically. Too many are there who see wealth or money as inherently evil, and who thus shy away from it as if from the plague. Many also, are there, who engage in a discourse of envy or resentment, in which a nameless class of wealthy individuals are excoriated while one’s own economic and financial lot is bemoaned. Such negative attitudes are the breeding ground for much ideological confusion and bitterness. Many a Marxist or communist was born in the seeds of envy and despair, and many more are born in the self-hating fog of middle class self-righteousness. Money, say some, is the root of all evil, misquoting the Apostle Paul, who said that “the love of money is the root of all evil.”[15] This amounts to envy, the basis of socialism, wherein and whereby one robs Peter to pay Paul, as the saying goes. Money, in this sense, is no different from any other material asset. One can be attached to anything that is material, or even emotional, and it is attachment to material things which leads to sorrow and despair. Attachment to one’s own wealth, in which money becomes a goal and end in and of itself, leads to profound unhappiness. It is a kind of addiction. The avaricious are all-too-often mean and miserly, leading lives of quiet dissatisfaction until they are left with nothing worthwhile to speak for their names. In contrast, real wealth is holistic, and includes a balance of elements, including both physical assets, good health, family and emotional and spiritual well-being. As Plato says in Laws:

“There are human and there are divine goods, and the human hang upon the divine… Of the lesser goods the first is health, the second beauty, the third strength, including swiftness in running and bodily agility generally, and the fourth is wealth, not the blind god (Pluto), but one who is keen of sight, if only he has wisdom for his companion. For wisdom is chief and leader of the divine class of goods, and next follows temperance; and from the union of these two with courage springs justice, and fourth in the scale of virtue is courage.”[16]

Let us cast off, therefore, these illusions about money and wealth. Neither money nor wealth are evil in and of themselves. Money is merely a quantum or quota of wealth, which in itself is a measure of potential power or energy. It is opportunity bottled-up and sealed within an unobservable container, represented in the form of physical or electronic assets. Money is neither physical nor is it merely theoretical. It exists within a form, but only so long as we believe it to be formed. It is, in short, as I explained in my article, “What is Bitcoin?”, a meme. It is an idea, which we believe holds value, and which is recognized to hold value. Its value is inherent or intrinsic to the extent that it is limited and valuable in itself, as in the case of gold, silver, and Bitcoin, which are all intrinsically-valuable assets. Wealth consists of both our physical possessions and our titles to land, properties and estates, as well our physical body, our emotions, our relationships and our spirituality. All of these constitute wealth, and the question arises: how can we increase and grow our wealth? How can we achieve prosperity? How can we get rich? How can we get more wealth and more money? These questions I hope to address in greater detail later on. For now, let us speak generally. The origins of wealth, which have investigated in this article, lie in the backdrop of culture and society, and those who live within a capitalist society, where the rule of law exists, and private property is respected, have every opportunity to acquire greater wealth. This can be achieved through good attitudes, creativity, a solid vision for the future, a goal-oriented mindset, focus, determination, and effort. Change begins within oneself, and it is only by changing yourself that you can achieve wealth.

Conclusion

Mankind, for countless hundreds of thousands of years, has lived a basic life of subsistence, a harsh life on the plains, and in the forest, and mountains of the world, hunting wild game and gathering fruit, nuts and wild cereals. Nevertheless, our Stone Age ancestors, some 60 – 70,000 years ago, began developing collectibles, which were not only beautiful and served as ornamentation, but also represented concrete value. They could be exchanged for goods and services, which greatly facilitated more complex relationships and the beginning of trade. Collectibles, such as beads, served as the first proto-money, allowing small bands and clans to trade with one another at gatherings and aggregations. Religion, no doubt, played a role in these earliest human societies, with religious festivals probably serving a key role in the development of early societies. Indeed, as the last Ice Age drew to an end, around 11,700 years ago, a new era of mankind dawned—the Agricultural Revolution. Our earliest settlements, such as Göbekli Tepe, dating to 9500 BC, were based around religious temples, indicating one of the key motivations for collective human settlements. This was at a time when men were taking their first steps in developing agriculture, which blossomed around and throughout the Fertile Crescent—an area spanning from Egypt in the West, to Canaan and Anatolia on the Mediterranean, and Mesopotamia in the East. Gradually, as more and more cereals and pulses were cultivated, and as beasts of burden and farm animals were tamed and domesticated, human settlements grew in abundance along the fertile lands of the Two Rivers—the Tigris and Euphrates. The earliest cities were built along these two rivers, centred around temples and governed by priest-kings. This earliest civilization developed organized religion, writing, mathematics, record-keeping, administration, and commerce, and wrote the first law codes and ancient literature. These were the building-blocks of civilization and the beginning of social mobility and wealth accumulation.

As society became more stratified, new opportunities for trade and business emerged. People could specialize in a plethora of professions. They could become tradesmen, craftsmen, farmers, labourers, scribes, priests and so much more. While hierarchies naturally developed, and elites ruled at the top of society, with slaves at the bottom, this new type of society set the mould and opened the way for future social progression and evolution. The elements of civilization and the conditions of capitalism were created, which allow for a greater standard of living and more opportunities for development and social well-being. The rule of law is the basis of a civilized society and is an essential component of capitalism, along with property rights and a free market. The rule of law is dependent on justice, on the recognition of individual rights, and the rights and responsibilities we have to our families and the community. Property rights are the basis of human rights, as they allow us the freedom to enjoy the fruits of our own labour, and to preserve these against the violence or aggression of others. A state, also, has the responsibility to secure its borders and protect its citizenry from foreign incursions or aggression. These are all essential elements of the rule of law and are necessary conditions for wealth to grow and prosperity to predominate. While feudalism and communism are both detrimental to individual rights and the general welfare of mankind, modern societies, which contain the above elements, and which foster the right conditions for capitalism to flourish, inevitably experience higher standards of living and a reduction in extreme poverty. Globally, extreme poverty has been reduced due to the expansion of free market capitalism, and better systems and infrastructure, which allow the market to function more freely and with greater ease. Technology and education are key factors in improving social conditions, as are the spread of culture and knowledge, both of which allow for societies to develop more rapidly.

In the end, however, each individual must take it upon himself to improve his own lot. We are all given an opportunity—to better ourselves, to remain stagnant, or to retrogress. Nothing in the world is static. Social classes are mobile. The working man one day is middle class the next. In modern, free countries, there is nothing to stop any individual from bettering his own condition, from learning, from educating himself, and from progressing—financially or otherwise. We must free ourselves from the ideologies that promote envy, chaos or contention, and which seek to undermine the fundamental structures of society, such as the rule of law and the family, or the values, morals and social mores which bind society together. We must not look upon any group, race, gender or class as essentially disadvantaged or privileged, but, rather, must recognise that we are all equally privileged and disadvantaged in one way or another. Only by developing a positive attitude to ourselves, by imbuing ourselves with a sense of purpose and determination, by shedding negative attitudes towards money and wealth, can we hope to make progress and improve our condition holistically and comprehensively. Real wealth is not just the accumulation of money, important as that is; rather, it consists in both tangible and intangible assets, in the values that we hold and in the meaningful purpose that we set for ourselves. If our attitudes are holistic, our progress will be holistic. And if we shed negativity and attitudes which impede progress, we can make progress within our own lives and achieve success for ourselves and our families.  And that is what humanity’s story is all about—we move one step ahead, each day, we build knowledge and understanding, we grow, and we learn, and we walk together along the path to wealth and prosperity.

NJ Bridgewater

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[1] Image source: Classical Numismatic Group, Inc. (CC BY-SA 3.0). URL: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Crisis_of_the_Third_Century#/media/File:GordianusIIsest.jpg (accessed 04/07/2018). For more information on the license, see: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/ (accessed 04/07/2018).
[2] See: Thomas Sowell (2006) Where is the West? Townhall.com, Nov 09, 2006 12:00 AM. URL: https://townhall.com/columnists/thomassowell/2006/11/09/where-is-the-west-n760096 (accessed 03/07/2018).
[3] See: John Locke, Two Treatises of Government, Book II, Chap I. Section 3. URL: http://www.johnlocke.net/two-treatises-of-government-book-i/ (accessed 03/07/2018).
[4] See: NJ Bridgewater (2017c) What is Bitcoin? Crossing the Bridge (blog), 7 December 2017. URL: https://nicholasjames19.blogspot.com/2017/12/what-is-bitcoin.html (accessed 03/07/2018).
[5] See: Nicholas Bridgewater (2018) What is Bitcoin? Digitex Futures Exchange Blog, May 14, 2018. URL: https://blog.digitexfutures.com/cryptocurrency/what-is-bitcoin/ (accessed 03/07/2018).
[6] See: NJ Bridgewater (2017d) Bitcoin: What is it? (video and transcript) Crossing the Bridge (blog), 10 March 2018. URL: https://nicholasjames19.blogspot.com/2018/03/bitcoin-what-is-it-video-and-transcript.html (accessed 03/07/2018).
[7] Image source: Thomas Sowell, 1 January 1964 (public domain). URL: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thomas_Sowell#/media/File:Thomas_Sowell_cropped.jpg (accessed 04/07/2018).
[8] See: Thomas Sowell (2010) The Thomas Sowell Reader (New York, NY: Basic Books), p. 210.
[9] See: Thomas Sowell (2014) Basic Economics.
[10] See: Sowell (2014).
[11] See: NJ Bridgewater (2017c) What is Bitcoin?
[12] See: David Ricardo (author), J.R. MucCulloch (editor) (1846) The Works of David Ricardo, with a Notice of the Life and Writings of the Author (London: John Murray), p. 263.
[13] Image source: Cityscape, Nairobi, Kenya, by Sam Stearman, 2004, and uploaded 29 July 2005. GFDL permission obtained by Quadell (CC BY-SA 3.0). URL: https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/1/11/Nairobi_cityscape.jpg (accessed 04/07/2018). For more information on the license, see: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/ (accessed 04/07/2018).
[14] See: BBC (2014) Plants, GCSE Bitesize, BBC.co.uk. URL: http://www.bbc.co.uk/schools/gcsebitesize/science/add_aqa_pre_2011/plants/plants1.shtml (accessed 03/07/2018).
[15] See:  1 Timothy 6:10 (King James Version).
[16] Plato (author), Jowett (translator) Laws, Book I.