The End of the Road to Serfdom
For most of the modern era, most people in the rich world have been poor, just like their parents and their children. Social mobility was more dream than reality. Most people were born to serve, as were their children.
The ruling minority liked to imagine that the human oxen laboring in their fields and the women who cleaned their homes and cooked their meals were happy with their lot, and professed shock and horror whenever these hereditary servers sought out ways to improve their station — whether that was by joining the industrial revolution or striking out for a colonized land and the promise of stolen estates and downtrodden servants of their own.
Though the ruling minorities were small in absolute numbers, they claimed the vast majority of their nations’ wealth, and they wielded that wealth in the form of political power. That power allowed elites to turn every chance at social mobility into a mirage: factory owners and colonizers could form cartels that suppressed wages and then command militarized police armies to smash unions.
It took the two World Wars —a generation-long orgy of wealth-destruction — to weaken the power of the ruling class to such a low ebb that it could no longer drown the centuries-long dream of mobility and egalitarianism.
After the wars, the rich countries of the world were remade.
Rich countries instituted ambitious social safety networks: universal secondary education, increased access to tertiary education, home ownership subsidies (in the US) and public housing (most other rich nations), free healthcare for elderly and poor people (in the US) or for everyone (other rich nations).
Unions became common, and as productivity improved, wages rose. Struggles for gender justice expanded beyond a campaign for votes for wealthy white women and into universal sufferage. Civil rights struggles on racial, gender and sexual orientation lines came to the fore, and formed alliances with one another, and with anti-colonial movements in the global south.
The world changed. These were the trente glorieuses — the thirty glorious years where you could dream of a better life for your children. My father, a refugee born to refugees, went on to earn a…