Economist and historian Deirdre McCloskey calls it "the Great Fact" -- the humongous increase in humans' standard of living that began about 200 years ago.So what happened to get us to these 50,000 different items.
And what a Great Fact it is! It's great not only in the sense of being amazingly, resplendently good for ordinary men and women, but also in the sense of being the single most surprising and astounding change that we humans have experienced in our 70,000 or so years on this planet.
For 99.7 percent of the time that we bipedal, scantily haired, language-blessed apes have trod this globe, we did so under material conditions that you and I from 2011 would find utterly intolerable. As another economist, Todd Buchholz, correctly noted, "For most of man's life on earth, he has lived no better on two legs than he had on four."
Then all of a sudden, starting a mere 200 or so years ago in northwestern Europe, boom! Material riches start pouring forth not only into the castles and manor houses of royalty and the nobility, but into the humble homes of peasants, of hoi polloi, of human creatures who, generation after generation -- tracing back all the way to their single-celled ancestors -- lived lives poor, nasty, brutish and short.
What did our great-great-great-great-grandparents do to suddenly deserve access to new and remarkable goods such as underwear made of tightly woven cloth that could be vigorously washed without unraveling? What did our great-grandparents do to deserve access to "Tin Lizzy" Fords?
What did our grandparents do to deserve access to antibiotics and televisions? What did our parents do to win access to air conditioning and inexpensive jet travel? What did we do to deserve access to cellular telephony, GPS driving directions and supermarkets that routinely stock 50,000 different items?
Something else happened -- something else that has, until now, been overlooked.So unite with your local capitalist, you have nothing to lose but your poverty!
That something else is what McCloskey calls "the Bourgeois Revaluation." Only when merchants, tinkerers and practical seekers of profit in markets came to be respected -- and to be widely spoken of with respect, even with admiration -- did the social status of the bourgeoisie increase enough to make membership in that group desirable to large numbers of people. And when this Bourgeois Revaluation happened, innovation skyrocketed.
It's this innovation -- mad, fevered, historically off-the-charts amounts of innovation -- that really is what we today call "capitalism."