Two thousand years ago, the proudest boast was civis Romanus sum [“I am a Roman citizen”]. Today, in  the world of freedom, the proudest boast is “Ich bin ein Berliner!”… All free men, wherever they may live,  are citizens of Berlin, and therefore, as a free man, I take pride in the words “Ich bin ein Berliner!”

–John F. Kennedy

The Industrial Revolution was the beginning of our changing times, the period that made possible the prosperity we have today. Usually, we give credit and gratitude to the machines and the personalities who made them, but it might all be misplaced. I’d say that the Industrial Revolution was just the tipping of the trend that began long ago with Pericles’ Athens and something that we take for granted today: citizenship.

Can Industrialization be Planned?

The idea that prosperity follows from industrialisation will fail if we look at countries like the USSR, Maoist China, or Nehruvian India. Looking at the West, making full use of  Marxist-Leninist or Fabian ideas, central planners fixed their eyes on industrializing rapidly, an objective they achieved. But where was the prosperity? They had the factories, the experts, and all the machines. What went wrong? Why did the pristinely planned countries have many running factories that couldn’t produce anything of value or minimise their losses?

Cush countries rapidly industrialised, but the revolution they anticipated never happened. This unexpected failure can be explained by the context within which they industrialised – citizenship or the lack of it. Citizenship is the state of man distinct from that of a subject, serf, cattle, or some form of a slave. It is the recognition of man as an end in himself. As an institution, it is supported by others such as the rule of law, self-governance, and property rights.

Industrialization or Individual Rights?

From this, we can see that while people in parts of post-Enlightenment Europe were citizens, the people in the rest of the world were not. This, I believe, is the foundation of their success.

With the privilege of enjoying rights predicated on responsibilities, protected by laws, rather than by the transitory goodwill and patronage of aristocrats and autocrats, the citizens of  Europe had more legal and economic latitude to paint, write, build, farm, create,  discover, or litigate.

Unlike the rest of the world, citizens of Europe didn’t have to worry about being arbitrarily jailed, killed, or deprived of personal property or inheritance. There were no authorities to tell them where and how to live, so they had personal control over their lives and property, and often, their communities prospered as a result.

They would go on to create grassroots enterprises, making use of their talents and bearing the financial risks. The son of a blacksmith in England would discover the effects of induced current. A few years later, a Serb financed by an American investor would create the AC motor, one of the cornerstones of our electrical world. Likewise, industries would pop up around the ideas of individuals and backed by their sweat and blood, while the rest of the world would watch in awe and envy.

The Secret Ingredient

Many revolutionaries would come and go, trying to achieve the same prosperity and success through their ingenious plans and grand visions for society. It would all be in vain, as they assumed industrialization to be the sole factor for prosperity. In doing so, they confused the effect to be the same as the cause. Nobody planned the progress that the Western world went through. However, this is not to say that there weren’t any plans. In fact, millions of individuals, like you and I, planned their lives and made their own choices. These plans may have only concerned bread and shoes, but it was these little plans that would change the world for the better.

It all happened because unlike ever before, the wills of millions of citizens aligned toward common goals of prosperity. It wasn’t the result of theoretical ideas based on universal brotherhood but the cumulative outcome of voluntary cooperation of individual citizens.

The history of liberalism is not a history of kings, conquerors, or statesmen. It is the  ‘scholastically insignificant’ history of all of us. Its grand consequences don’t follow from the passions of great men or the writ of great bodies but from human action.


Aashay is a Writing Fellow with Students for Liberty’s Fellowship for Freedom in India. He is currently pursuing his Bachelor of Technology in Computer Science Engineering and is interested in studying emergent phenomena.

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