It is often argued by classical liberal thinkers that ideas of individual freedom were the driving force behind the Industrial Revolution. Intellectuals like Steven Pinker and Deirdre McCloskey see revolution in a very linear fashion. They argue that people lived in miserable conditions before the great industrial revolution came as a knight in shining armor to lift them up. However, the Industrial Revolution also provided new tools that served as a catalyst for the exponential growth of colonialism, which eroded individual freedom across the continent. So can we, as classical liberals/libertarians, claim credit for the Industrial Revolution, but ignore the loss of freedom in the colonies established by the newly industrialized nations?
It is time for 21st century libertarians to acknowledge the elephant in the room: colonialism. This is important because many argue that the Industrial Revolution or even the ideas of liberty—which Pinker and McCloskey espouse—were the causal forces behind colonialism. I’m not suggesting that these people are right; However, their point resonates favorably among a large population group, even outside the former colonies.
If the history of the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution is to be viewed linearly, what should we make of colonialism? A part of the linear transition towards a liberal world order? If freedom should be valued for its consequences, why should postcolonial thinkers get in the way? History, as some argue, perhaps, is speech and the history of speech is, itself, a rhetorical game. If we as libertarians lose the speech and rhetoric game, what lies ahead for the movement?
When the British – who started the Industrial Revolution – got better and moved to distant lands for more trade opportunities, they forgot the values of freedom. In my country, India, they have stolen more than 45 trillion dollars during their years of rule. Not only that, they went on to acquire the forests, alienating the local communities and forest dwellers who had been living there for centuries. Throughout, they acted as if the concept of property rights was not relevant in colonial India. Let us not forget that property rights are inherent in the concept of liberty. Liberal thinkers such as Murray Rothbard considered property a right not right of human rights.
An argument can be made that ideas of freedom helped the development of countries that went through the Industrial Revolution. According to McCloskey, the concept of independence allowed the English “For the first time there is a need to go, and especially, theological fear and political refusal to talk to each other in an open-source fashion about their experiments and their goings-on, rather than hiding them in posthumously decoded mirrors.” Furthermore, others argue that the Industrial Revolution could very well have happened in China, but did not, because the rulers there did not support innovators and actually restricted them when they began to achieve success.
China did not have an industrial revolution and the British did. However, we must remember that China – at that time – did not take away the wealth of people around the world, but the British did. Business is not a zero-sum game of wealth, but a positive-sum game. If the British had followed their liberal policies while exploring new lands for business opportunities, the British would still have grown and so would other countries.
Freedom, we must remember, is not relative. If the ability to choose is violated, even for a human being, there is no freedom. It’s not too late. 21st century liberals should stop resting on the laurels of the ‘Industrial Revolution’ and look at the decline of the liberal colonial powers of the newly industrialized countries. We should do some soul-searching and try to understand these ideas of the Enlightenment—what their soul was, what went wrong, and why it went wrong. It will help present a powerful narrative about a world based on principles of spirit and freedom for all of us.
Adnan Abbasi is currently pursuing a BA (Hons) degree in Social and Political Science from the University of Ahmedabad. He is a Writing Fellow of the Students for Liberties Fellowship for Freedom in India.