If you visit the Web site, “Astronomy Picture of the Day,” you will find, among other photographs, a beautiful satellite image of the earth at night (antwrp.gsfc.nasa.gov/apod/ap001127.html). In this image, also pictured on page 2 of this issue of Acton Notes, the bright lights of human habitation are scattered across the continents. Among the brightest regions, of course, are the United States and Western Europe; among the darkest, central Asia, South America, and Africa. In this way, the image vividly indicates regions of prosperity and regions of poverty.
Why is wealth thus distributed across the globe? Some say because the West has oppressed and exploited the rest. David Landes, however, offers an alternative hypothesis in his book, The Wealth and Poverty of Nations. “Anyone who looked at the world, say a thousand years ago,” he writes, “would never have predicted great things for this protrusion at the western end of the Eurasian landmass that we call the continent of Europe.” The crucial difference? Private property. If there were no private property, in Landes’s words, “why should anyone invest capital and labor in the creation or acquisition of wealth that he may not be allowed to keep?” With the West’s increasing recognition and protection of private property, especially as affirmed by the church during the Middle Ages, wealth creation proceeded apace. As Landes concludes, “the very notion of economic development was a Western invention.”
The real cause for the West’s affluence lies in its different political and economic ideas and institutions, which created the incentives for private enterprise to create wealth and then protected the fruits of that enterprise. Sentiment alone will not improve the condition of the world’s poor; rather, the first step is possessing a sound understanding of the conditions under which wealth is created. The Acton Institute continues to foster such an understanding among our future religious leaders. I thank you for the support that makes this possible.
Rev. Robert A. Sirico