Matt Ridley has a post commemorating the 200th anniversary of Waterloo (cheers to the jaymaster): Courage and commerce -- which did more to enrich humanity.
We admire achievements in war, a negative-sum game in which people get hurt on both sides, more than we do those in commerce, where both sides win.
The Rothschild skill in trade did at least as much to bring down Napoleon as the Wellesley skill in tactics. Throughout the war Nathan Rothschild shipped bullion to Wellington wherever he was, financing not just Britain’s war effort but also that of its allies, almost single-handedly. He won’t get much mention this week.
So I ought to prefer books about business, not bravery, because boring, bourgeois prudence gave us peace, plenty and prosperity. It was people who bought low and sold high, who risked capital, set up shop, saved for investment, did deals, improved gadgets and created jobs — it was they who raised living standards by ten or twentyfold in two centuries, and got rid of most child mortality and hunger. Though they do not risk their lives, they are also heroes, yet we have always looked down our noses at them. When did you last see an admirable businessman portrayed in a movie?
Dealing is always better than stealing, even from your enemies. It’s better than praying and preaching, the clerical virtues, which do little to fill bellies. It’s better than self-reliance, the peasant virtue, which is another word for poverty. As the economic historian Deirdre McCloskey put it in her book The Bourgeois Virtues: “The aristocratic virtues elevate an I. The Christian/peasant virtues elevate a Thou. The priestly virtues elevate an It. The bourgeois virtues speak instead of We”.
We know almost nothing of the merchants who made ancient Greece rich enough to spawn an unprecedented culture, but we know lots about the deeds of those who squandered that wealth in war. “The history of antiquity resounds with the sanguinary achievements of Aryan warrior elites,” wrote the historian of antiquity Thomas Carney. “But it was the despised Levantines, Arameans, Syrians, and Greeklings who constituted the economic heroes of antiquity.”
… in the very same year, 1815, George Stephenson, a humble, self-taught engine-wright with an impenetrable Geordie accent (to which he probably gave the name), put together all the key inventions that — at last — made steam locomotion practicable. … The year of Waterloo was an annus mirabilis of the industrial revolution, putting Britain on course to dominate and transform the world, whether we beat Boney or not. Steam, followed by its offspring internal combustion and electricity, would catapult humankind into prosperity.
… I do not mean to diss the Duke of Wellington, and it would miss the point to elevate Stephenson into a mythic hero. For all his brilliance, his achievements were incremental and collaborative improvements on the work of others: the work of we, not me. But Wellington’s way of changing history by killing people — while sometimes regrettably necessary — is as old as Troy, whereas Stephenson’s new way, by letting people work productively for each other, was far more momentous in the end.