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Courage and commerce — which did more to enrich humanity

My Times column on the bicentenary of the battle of Waterloo:


In Waterloo week, I confess I am a sucker for tales of military glory. I cannot get enough of the closing of the doors of Hougoumont, the charge of the Scots Greys, Wellington’s use of the reverse slope, the moment when Ney’s Old Guard broke, or the disappearance of Lord Uxbridge’s leg. Not just Waterloo, but derring-do in general is often by my bedside: I’ve just finished reading books on climbing K2 and the Battle of the Bulge; I am up to speed on seracs and panzers.

But I don’t approve of my own taste. Galloping bravely against an enemy, in however good a cause, is not the chief way the world is improved and enriched. The worship of courage as a pre-eminent virtue, which Hollywood shares with Homer, is oddly inappropriate today — a distant echo of a time when revenge and power, not justice and commerce, were the best guarantee of your security. Achilles, Lancelot and Bonaparte were thugs.

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 1815, a modern Agamemnon landed from Elba, and promised the Grande Armée a second chance at glory. Had he succeeded, it would have meant more violence, more plunder and less trade, at least for a while. Defeating him required wasting huge amounts of blood and money, limbs and metal. Everybody was worse off as a result. It had to be done, of course, but it would be better if it had not had to be done.

Yet 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 smooth wheels, counter-intuitively less likely to slip if heavily laden; the steam-blast into the chimney to accelerate the draught over the coals; the vertical cylinders connecting directly with the wheels; the connecting rods between the wheels. A year later came his redesign of rails themselves, then later his multi-tubular boiler.

As his biographer, Samuel Smiles, put it:

“Thus, in the year 1815, Mr Stephenson, by dint of patient and persevering labour . . . had succeeded in manufacturing an engine which . . . as a mechanical contrivance, contained the germ of all that has since been effected. It may in fact be regarded as the type of the present locomotive engine.”

Suddenly the movement of goods and people fast and cheaply over long distances became possible for the first time.

Not content with that, in 1815 Stephenson also invented the miner’s safety lamp (though snobbish London grandees, unable to conceive that such a humble man could have done so, gave and have continued to this day to give the credit to Sir Humphry Davy). 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.

Incidentally, there is a tenuous connection between Napoleon and Stephenson. If Bonaparte’s conquests and the corn laws had not driven up the price of corn, then horse feed would have been cheaper and the coal owners who employed Stephenson would not have risked so much money in letting him build a machine to try to find a less expensive way to pull wagons of coals from the pithead in Killingworth to the staithes on the Tyne.

Yet while the great and the good gather at Waterloo this week to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the battle, few of them will travel to Killingworth this year. There is no Killingworth station in London, no Stephenson boots. (In 1814 Stephenson did call his previous version of the “travelling engine” Blucher. A sculpture of it stands in Killingworth.)

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.

Commercial prudence is surely a high virtue, and has delivered at least as much good as martial spirit, rustic self-reliance or devout piety have done. It is a pity it does not make for better books and films.

By Matt Ridley | Tagged:  Rational Opimist  the-times