Jonny Anomaly and Hrishikesh Joshi in Quillette:
When we look around the world and observe the massive wealth disparities between citizens in rich and poor countries, many of us are apt to conclude that the differences must have arisen because of colonialism, imperial warfare, or theft of raw materials like gold or oil. Of course, all of these things have happened at various points in time, and they can arguably explain some variation in the standard of living. Colonialism can be especially destructive of institutions that support peace and commerce. But a recent article by the philosopher Dan Moller casts doubt on the view that injustices like these can explain much of the observable differences.
Instead, Moller musters economic data to suggest that blatant injustices barely show up in the overall trajectory of economic growth in most countries over long periods of time. Specifically, Moller appeals to “the Great Divergence,” illustrated by graphs like this:
The basic idea is that rich countries got rich by pulling away from poor countries, not by making other countries poor. For the longest stretch of human history, most people lived in what we would today consider to be extreme poverty. However around the 18th century, some European countries started to diverge away from this low baseline. Eventually countries like Japan followed suit, and more recently, Hong Kong and China. On the other hand, today’s poor countries did not become poor for the most part (Zimbabwe and Venezuela are good counterexamples). Rather they remained poor.
Not surprisingly for economists, the main explanation for the Great Divergence is trade, fostered in part by favorable social and political institutions. This may seem obvious to those who understand that trade is a positive sum game, and that there are exponential gains from trade as markets expand and the division of labor becomes more fine-grained. The problem is that most philosophers who write about global poverty are convinced otherwise. They think that people in wealthy countries are in some sense responsible for poverty in less developed countries, and that we therefore have an obligation to do something about it.