The Waltz of Progress

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Economic history is not an obvious crowd pleaser, as it lends itself more to questions of theory than human interest. Think again, argues Peter Jay, economics editor of the BBC and author of the newly published Road to Riches or The Wealth of Man (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 383 pages); mankind's economic story is an epic of appetite and Darwinian struggle, of inspiration and endeavor in the face of adversity. This is history writ large, a story spanning continents and millennia.

Jay provides a "waltz motif" for what he sees as the three stages of economic development: advance, followed first by predatory threats to this gain and then by a solution to safeguard progress. This pattern of fits-and-starts is simple but neatly reliable as he dances across time from the first agricultural revolution to the second industrial revolution, through man's roles as hunter-gatherer, farmer, citizen, imperialist and capitalist. Along the way, Jay highlights some ingredients for economic success. Ancient Rome provides an example of the importance of good governance, for example, while late 17th century Britain had stability and a liberal economic structure. But beware of economic determinism: man is the hero of the story, but a victim of his environment and temperament. Famine, plague and war have interrupted progress throughout history.

Jay fires off an arsenal of facts, from the curious to the mundane, that add weight if not sparkle to this volume. Readers may not be gripped by the significance of double-entry bookkeeping in medieval Italy, and the proliferation of such tidbits can sometimes make for rough reading. But Jay is nothing if not lucid, with each chapter containing a summary and a narrative. This is history by "a layman for laymen," as Jay puts it, and he defends his choice to oversimplify "bravely, but not intolerably." Why observe and explain nothing? The academic purist may take issue, but the rest of us will be grateful.

The contemporary philosophy of "economic bliss" holds complacently that the "good guys in the shape of political democrats and economic liberals have finally won," but Jay is skeptical. Despite untold material comforts, the world remains as precarious as ever if not more so because of inequality, strife and the threat of catastrophic climate change. Road to Riches may ultimately be the story of progress, but in many ways, Jay warns soberly, the economic waltz of the third millennium may have the same jerky rhythms as those of the first two.