Acton Institute Powerblog

The Hockey Stick of Human Prosperity

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Since the era of Adam Smith economists have been asking, “What creates wealth?” One key answer is specialization and trade. On a timeline of human history, the recent rise in standards of living resembles a hockey stick — flatlining for all of human history and then skyrocketing in just the last few centuries.

As economist Don Boudreaux explains, without specialization and trade, our ancient ancestors only consumed what they could make themselves. How can specialization and trade help explain the astonishing growth of productivity and output in such a short amount of time—after millennia of famine, low life expectancy, and incurable disease?

Joe Carter Joe Carter is a Senior Editor at the Acton Institute. Joe also serves as an editor at the The Gospel Coalition, a communications specialist for the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, and as an adjunct professor of journalism at Patrick Henry College. He is the editor of the NIV Lifehacks Bible and co-author of How to Argue like Jesus: Learning Persuasion from History's Greatest Communicator (Crossway).


  • Steve Vinzinski

    Joe that was a very good article you put together in conjunction with the you tube presentation by Don the economist.I always thought of the past two hundred or so years and how the entire United States has advanced so far.From the Airplane to going to the Zoo.Advances every where from polio to by-pass surgery procedures.When I refer to polio I am referring to the vaccine and all the vaccines and prescription drugs.The coffee maker the life span increasing fifty years we can go and on.That was a good point on poverty.

  • The hockey stick of prosperity is one of the most important issues in history and economics, but so few know about it. An important question is why only in Western Europe and not until the 16th century? And why has it been so slow since then to happen in most of the rest of the world. The answer lies in two books I have often promoted: Helmut Schoeck’s “Envy: A Theory of Social Behavior” and Larry Seidentop’s “Inventing Individualism.”