The Industrial Revolution and the Colonial Conundrum

It is often argued by the classical liberal thinkers that ideas of individual liberty were the driving force behind the Industrial Revolution. Intellectuals like Steven Pinker and Deirdre McCloskey see the revolution in a very linear fashion. They argue that people lived in pitiful conditions before the great industrial revolution came as a knight in shining armor to lift them up. However, the Industrial Revolution also provided newer tools which acted as catalyst for the exponential growth of colonialism, which curtailed individual liberty across the continents. Can we then, as classical liberals/libertarians, claim the credit of the Industrial Revolution, but choose to overlook the loss of liberty in the colonies established by the newly industrialized nations?

It is time for the libertarians of the 21st century to acknowledge the elephant in the room:  colonialism. It’s essential because many argue that the Industrial Revolution or even the ideas of Liberty—that Pinker and McCloskey cherish—were the causal forces behind colonialism. I am not suggesting that these people are correct; however, their point resonates favorably among a sizable population group, even beyond the former colonies.

If the history of enlightenment and Industrial Revolution has to be seen in a linear fashion, what should we make of colonialism? A part of the linear transformation towards the Liberal world order? If liberty should be valued for its consequences, why should postcolonial thinkers go down the path? History, as some argue, perhaps, is the history of discourse and discourse, in itself, is a game of articulation. If we as libertarians lose the game of discourse and articulation, what lies ahead for the movement?

When the British—who kick-started the Industrial Revolution—became better-off and moved to distant lands for more opportunities to trade, they forgot the values of liberty. In my country, India, they stole over 45 trillion dollars over the years of their rule. Not only that, they went on to acquire the forests by alienating local communities and forest dwellers, who lived there for centuries. Throughout, they acted as if the notion of property rights was not relevant in colonial India. Let’s not forget that property rights are intrinsic to the ideas of liberty. Libertarian thinkers like Murray Rothbard consider property rights as the sine qua non of Human Rights.

There may be an argument that the ideas of liberty helped in the development of countries which went through the industrial revolution. As per McCloskey, the ideas of liberty allowed the English people “for the first time to experiment, to have a go, and, especially, to talk to each other in an open-source fashion about their experiments and their goings, rather than hiding them in posthumously decoded mirror writing out of fear of theological and political disapproval.” Furthermore, others argue that the Industrial Revolution could very well have happened in China, but it didn’t, because the rulers there did not support innovators and in fact restrictive on them when they started attaining success.

China did not have an Industrial Revolution and the British did. However, we must note that China—at that point—did not go on to take away resources of people across the globe, but the British did. Business is not a zero-sum game of resources, but a positive-sum game instead. While exploring the newer lands for business opportunities, had the British adhered to their liberal principles, the British would still have grown, and so would have been the other countries.

Liberty, we must remember, is not relative. If the ability to choose is violated, even for a single human being, there is no liberty. It is still not late. Libertarians of the 21st century should stop resting on the laurels of the ‘Industrial Revolution’, and look into the degeneration of newly industrialized nations into illiberal colonial powers. We should do some soul-searching and try to understand these ideas of the Enlightenment- what was their soul, what went wrong, and why it went wrong. This will help us to present a strong narrative about a world based on the soul and principles of liberty for all.


 Adnan Abbasi is currently pursuing Bachelor of Arts (Hons.) degree majoring in Social and Political Science from Ahmedabad University. He is a Writing Fellow at Students for Liberty’s Fellowship for Freedom in India.