David Brooks says that the reason America was the 20th century’s big economic power was, “a ferocious belief that people have the power to transform their own lives gave Americans an unparalleled commitment to education, hard work and economic freedom.” Ezra Klein says, duh, we also didn’t get attacked multiple times between 1900 and 1945.
Both are kind of right. Clearly our economic institutions didn’t do too much damage (though they did sometimes do quite a bit of damage), but the same can be said about other nations, as well (particularly Britain, excepting some unfortunate postwar choices). America’s educational choices were also savvy relative to other states, especially the decision to invest heavily in land-grant and technical schools focusing on applied science and engineering. The early development of applied geology schools would prove very fortuitous indeed.
And certainly our ability to avoid invasion was helpful, but primarily because that allowed us to avoid significant institutional upheaval. Note that this applies to Britain, as well. And we were very, very lucky that the Civil War was fought before the period of heavy industrialization and primarily on agricultural land in the south.
We were very, very lucky in lots of ways, if we’re going to be honest. The secret to our incredibly rapid productivity growth and rise to industrial dominance came in large part because we had developed a massive, homogeneous, and insular domestic market. That is, we erected tariff walls but let millions upon millions of people stream in. As such, we had a huge domestic market ripe for American manufacturing firms to exploit. Even better, the vanishment of European class-structures in America meant that there were mass market tastes to be satisfied.
So what happened? Well, we developed a system of mass-throughput technologies that made tons of identical goods for sale around the country. And we did that, in part, by exploiting the massive resource reserves we were busy discovering, thanks to our mining engineers. As it turns out, throwing a pile of resources into a factory making hundreds of thousands of similar products is very productive. Far more so than the labour intensive niche-market production found in Europe.
And Europe couldn’t really adopt those technologies successfully until conditions in those nations fit the production means–until mass markets developed. And that required the end of nobility, and peace, and trade. And when those conditions did obtain, Europe caught up with us at an astounding pace. But it’s important to point out that we didn’t do all that stuff on purpose. There was no plan, really. It just happened to work out.
Which isn’t to say that none of our wealth and power was earned or deserved. It’s just to say that we should be careful patting ourselves on the back too much, and we should be careful not to rely to heavily on future events going as well for us as past events did. Sometimes you have to make your own luck.