Whenever I watch media coverage of another Occupy Wall Street event I am reminded of an exchange between Jewish protesters in the 1979 Monte Python movie Life of Brian. One of the protesters asks another what the Romans have brought to the area and the conversation goes like this:
Question: All right, but apart from the sanitation, medicine, education, wine, public order, irrigation, roads, the fresh water system and public health, what have the Romans ever done for us?
Answer: Brought peace?
Response: Oh, peace – shut up!
The point is that the Roman institutions brought a good deal to the area that was being overlooked by the protesters. The Wall Street protesters, in their hatred of capitalism, overlook things including the fact that over the last 100 years capitalism has reduced poverty more and increased life expectancy more than in the 100,000 years prior.
Every semester I ask my students: “What would you rather be? King of England in 1263 or you?” Turns out, students would rather be themselves. They enjoy using their iPhone, indoor plumbing, central heating, refrigerators and electric lighting. All of these things are available to the average person in America today and none of them were available to the aristocracy when the West operated under the feudal system.
How is it that for thousands of years mankind made very little progress in increasing the standard of living and yet today half of the goods and services you use in the next week did not exist when I was born? It wasn’t that there was some change in the DNA such that we got smarter. The Greeks knew how to make a steam engine 3,000 years ago and never made one. The difference is in how we organize our economic system. The advent of market capitalism in the mid 18th century made all of the difference.