Today’s lecture completes the focus we have been maintaining for the last three or four
weeks on the increasing inequality within the US that has been characteristic of the era of
globalization, and the domestic political reaction against globalization, currently in the form of
protectionism but possibly leading to other reactions, such as a less flexible labor market or
restrictions on immigration. After Spring Break, we’ll switch to a more international focus,
beginning with inequality among nations.
This course subsumes globalization under a larger framework, the transition from
traditional to modern society, now something over 200 years in the making. This transition is
characterized by, among other things, the liberation of thought from authority, that is, of received
religious wisdom, the consequent accumulation of scientific knowledge and its application to the
material conditions of life so as to improve those conditions, an accumulation and application that
spreads out in space and accelerates in time as we approach the present.
Three hundred years ago, human life hung by a thread. Disease was rampant. The vast
majority of people farmed, yet there was almost no surplus. Crop failure, because of bad
weather, floods, insect infestation or fungus infestation, meant widespread famine and death by
starvation; this was true from Ireland to China. Such events are unthinkable in the countries that
have completed the transition form traditional to modern society. A tiny fraction of the
population farms, and produces enough food for itself and the entire rest of society, and in fact
there’s enough left over after that for a large export trade. It takes an effort of the imagination to
imagine a crop failure even in one locale, and if that were to happen the ability to move large
quantities of food from one place to another would ensure that the crop failure did not result in
famine even in that one place.
Before the transition from traditional to modern society, life for much more than half the
population was mean, nasty, brutish and short, as Thomas Hobbes; this sounds like the name of a
personal injury law firm. Longevity has increased from the 30s to the 80s, the population has
grown from a few hundred million or possibly a billion to over six billion, people are healthier
and more literate, and so on and so on.
The transition to modern society also created problems unprecedented in human history.