A fundamental insight of modern economics is that the key to the creation of wealth is a division of labor, in which specialists learn to produce a commodity with increasing cost-effectiveness and have the means to exchange their specialized products efficiently. One infrastructure that allows efficient exchange is transportation, which makes it possible for producers to trade their surpluses even when they are separated by distance. Another is money, interest, and middlemen, which allow producers to exchange many kinds of surpluses with many other producers at many points in time.
Positive-sum games also change the incentives for violence. If you’re trading favors or surpluses with someone, your trading partner suddenly becomes more valuable to you alive than dead. You have an incentive, moreover, to anticipate what he wants, the better to supply it to him in exchange for what you want. Though many intellectuals, following in the footsteps of Saints Augustine and Jerome, hold businesspeople in contempt for their selfishness and greed, in fact a free market puts a premium on empathy.
A good businessperson has to keep the customers satisfied or a competitor will woo them away, and the more customers he attracts, the richer he will be. This idea, which came to be called doux commerce (gentle commerce), was expressed by the economist Samuel Ricard in 1704: Commerce attaches [people] to one another through mutual utility…. Through commerce, man learns to deliberate, to be honest, to acquire manners, to be prudent and reserved in both talk and action. Sensing the necessity to be wise and honest in order to succeed, he flees vice, or at least his demeanor exhibits decency and seriousness so as not to arouse any adverse judgment on the part of present and future acquaintances.
And this brings us to the second exogenous change. Elias noted that in the late Middle Ages people began to unmire themselves from technological and economic stagnation. Money increasingly replaced barter, aided by the larger national territories in which a currency could be recognized. The building of roads, neglected since Roman times, resumed, allowing the transport of goods to the hinterlands of the country and not just along its coasts and navigable rivers.
Horse transport became more efficient with the use of horseshoes that protected hooves from paving stones and yokes that didn’t choke the poor horse when it pulled a heavy load. Wheeled carts, compasses, clocks, spinning wheels, treadle looms, windmills, and water mills were also perfected in the later Middle Ages. And the specialized expertise needed to implement these technologies was cultivated in an expanding stratum of craftsmen. The advances encouraged the division of labor, increased surpluses, and lubricated the machinery of exchange. Life presented people with more positive-sum games and reduced the attractiveness of zero-sum plunder.
To take advantage of the opportunities, people had to plan for the future, control their impulses, take other people’s perspectives, and exercise the other social and cognitive skills needed to prosper in social networks. The two triggers of the Civilizing Process— the Leviathan and gentle commerce— are related. The positive-sum cooperation of commerce flourishes best inside a big tent presided over by a Leviathan. Not only is a state well suited to provide the public goods that serve as infrastructure for economic cooperation, such as money and roads, but it can put a thumb on the scale on which players weigh the relative payoffs of raiding and trading. Suppose a knight can either plunder ten bushels of grain from his neighbor or, by expending the same amount of time and energy, raise the money to buy five bushels from him. The theft option looks pretty good. But if the knight anticipates that the state will fine him six bushels for the theft, he’d be left with only four, so he’s better off with honest toil. Not only do the Leviathan’s incentives make commerce more attractive, but commerce makes the job of the Leviathan easier. If the honest alternative of buying the grain hadn’t been available, the state would have had to threaten to squeeze ten bushels out of the knight to deter him from plundering, which is harder to enforce than squeezing five bushels out of him.