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Volume 28 • Number 2

April 2014



Justice and the Wealth of Nations

by Dan Moller

Some countries are affluent and others desperately poor, and those of us concerned about global justice are much exercised by that fact. But the discussions have largely taken place without consideration of the relevant economic history. In fact, they have largely ignored the single most important analytic lens through which historians and economists view the issue. This is the Great Divergence— the historical process whereby a remarkable gulf between the fortunes of certain Western countries and the rest of the world opened up around 1800, after a long period of something much closer to parity. And yet the Great Divergence is crucial to making sense of the present-day differences. For, as I argue below, the historical process of the Divergence strongly suggests that the roots of current disparities actually lie in the distant past, or in factors that began manifesting themselves then, and the most plausible explanations of that divergent history don't themselves involve injustice. In a nutshell, the rich got rich through economic growth, and the poor didn't become poor at all, but rather remained poor because of an absence of growth. And because the onset of that growth was never likely to be simultaneous, vast disparities were in fact virtually inevitable. There was never any realistic chance that all countries would embark on exponential economic growth at precisely the same time. Vast disparities of some duration were thus completely predictable and nearly impossible to prevent.

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ISSN: 2152-0542