Why the West? I do not think there is any other historical controversy that has so enthralled the public intellectuals of our age. The popularity of the question can probably be traced to Western unease with a rising China and the ease with which the issue can be used as proxy war for the much larger contest between Western liberals who embrace multiculturalism and conservatives who champion the West's 'unique' heritage.
A few months ago I suggested that many of these debates that surround the "Great Divergence" are based on a flawed premise--or rather, a flawed question. As I wrote:
"Rather than focus on why Europe diverged from the rest in 1800 we should be asking why the North Sea diverged from the rest in 1000." I made this judgement based off of data from Angus Maddison's Contours of the World Economy, 1-2030 AD and the subsequent updates to Mr. Maddison's data set by the scholars who contribute to the Maddison Project.
As far as 1,000 year economic projections go this data was pretty good. But it was not perfect. In many cases--especially with the Chinese data--it was simply based on estimates and extrapolations from other eras. A more accurate view of the past would require further research.
That research has now been done. The economic historian Stephen Broadberry explains:
As it turns out, medieval and early modern European and Asian nations were much more literate and numerate than is often thought. They left behind a wealth of data in documents such as government accounts, customs accounts, poll tax returns, Parish registers, city records, trading company records, hospital and educational establishment records, manorial accounts, probate inventories, farm accounts, tithe files. With a national accounting framework and careful cross-checking, it is possible to reconstruct population and GDP back to the medieval period. The picture that emerges is of reversals of fortune within both Europe and Asia, as well as between the two continents. Drawing on a multiple specialized studies, Mr. Broadberry is able to create a table that is more accurate than the one I used earlier:
|Taken from Stephen Broadberry. "Accounting for the Great Divergence." voxEU.org. 16 November 2013.|
There are a few things here worth commenting on.
The greatest difference between Mr. Maddison and Mr. Broadberry's numbers concern China. Maddison's Chinese only experienced "extensive growth" -- that is to say, the total GDP of China increased over time, but the wealth available to the average Chinese peasant did not change. China's wealth increased because it had more people, not because these people were getting richer.
Broadberry's data presents a more nuanced picture. In it we can clearly see the economic "efflorescence" of China's medieval economic revolution and the wealth that came with the mid-Ming economic reforms. In many of these periods the average Chinese man was more wealthy than his European counterpart. China was far from stagnant for 1,000 years.
But it also never had sustained economic growth. As happened across the premodern world, successful dynasts would establish a system that allowed commerce to flourish, urban centers to grow, and wealth to increase. In the words of Jack Goldstone, these societies would undergo an economic "efflorescence" that historians of later days would remember as a Golden Age . These Golden Ages would not last. After a few centuries these societies would push agrarian civilization to its limits and contraction would begin.
This process is seen quite clearly in the Chinese data. The decline in GDP per capita between 1600 and 1750 hides the fairly impressive economic achievements of the early Qing: despite a fourfold (!) increase in population, Chinese living standards remained on par with most of Europe, even though most of this expansion was happening in unproductive, virgin lands far away from China's traditional urban centers while expensive levies were continually raised to pay for one war after another.  Alas, this type of efflorescence could not endure; as the centuries passed the condition of the Chinese peasant plummeted. It is sobering to realize that the average Chinese of 1000 was twice as rich as his descendents were 850 years later.
Broadberry's data for Western Europe and India are very similar to the data sets compiled by Maddison and company. In both data sets India's GDP per capita starts at a fairly low point and then falls over the centuries. By 1200 Western Europe has a GDP per capita higher than most parts of the world, but (with two exceptions ) by 1500 this number stops increasing. In both data sets the two exceptions are Netherlands and Great Britain. These North Sea economies experienced sustained GDP per capita growth for six straight centuries. The North Sea begins to diverge from the rest of Europe long before the 'West' begins its more famous split from 'the rest.'
There is an important difference between Madison's and Broadberry's data sets, however. Madison worked in 500 year intervals. Broadberry's sources are much more specific. With his data we can pin point the beginning of this 'little divergence' with greater detail. In 1348 Holland's GDP per capita was $876. England's was $777. In less than 60 years time Holland's jumps to $1,245 and England's to 1090. The North Sea's revolutionary divergence started at this time.
Acknowledging this leaves us with a different set of questions than the ones that animate the traditional "Why the West?" debates. It forces us to look past industrialization and colonization and pay attention to deeper changes of earlier eras. Broadberry's short analysis tries to do just that. I encourage you to read it. I do not agree entirely with his explanation - but he, at least, is trying to answer the right questions.
 T. Greer. "The Rise of the West: Asking the Right Questions." The Scholar's Stage. 7 July 2013.
 Stephen Broadberry. "Accounting for the Great Divergence." voxEU.org. 16 November 2013.
 Jack A. Goldstone. "Efflorescences and Economic Growth in World History: Rethinking the "Rise of the West" and the Industrial Revolution." Journal of World History. vol 13, issue 2 (2002). 323-389.
 ibid., 339-353.