History shows tolerance, not hostility, route to prosperity

Mike Coblenz
Mike Coblenz

President Donald Trump wants to “Make America Great Again” through trade wars and bans on immigration. History shows clearly that this is not a path to prosperity.

In the 17th Century, Holland was the richest nation on Earth. It led the world in art; Rembrandt and Vermeer: science; Huygens and Leeuwenhoek: and philosophy; Spinoza and Bayle. Dutch businessmen developed the first corporations, the first modern stock exchange and the first central bank.

How did tiny Holland do it? In a word: tolerance.

Spain gained control over the Netherlands in the late 15th Century with the collapse of the Holy Roman Empire. As the Protestant Reformation spread across Europe in the 16th Century, Spain responded by imposing Catholicism in all of the lands it controlled, and the Dutch revolted.

In 1585, after the surrender of Antwerp, Protestants were allowed to move to the northern territories. The leaders of the major cities — Amsterdam, Antwerp, Ghent, Delft — opened their gates to people fleeing religious persecution in Spain and across Europe.

Holland became a magnet for artists, artisans, craftsmen, scholars, scientists, adventurers and risk-takers of all sorts. Commerce exploded. The Dutch “miracle” was born. Born of tolerance.

Democrats do a really bad job of explaining why they fight for minority rights, women’s rights, gay rights and now transgender rights. The reason, as the Dutch miracle teaches, is that tolerance is good for a society and for an economy.

There are modern examples. In “Sharing the Prize,” Gavin Wright explains how the civil rights movement transformed the economy of the South. Racism and discrimination are a waste of time, energy and money.

Governments wasted time determining which public accommodation should be open to which group of people. Businesses wasted money installing multiple drinking fountains and bathrooms. And the police wasted time and energy policing those fountains and bathrooms.

Once those laws were removed, everyone could focus on more productive pursuits. Police could focus on actual crimes. Businesses could hire the smartest, most talented or hardest-working employees, regardless of race. (And things improved more when they could hire regardless of gender.)

Rather than spend time discriminating, companies could redirect their efforts to product development and marketing. After the enactment of the Civil Rights Act in 1964, the Southern economy grew dramatically, and everyone, black and white, benefited.

There’s a reason virtually every major company in America has non-discrimination policies. It’s because discrimination is a waste of time and bad for business. It’s also immoral and repugnant.

It’s frightening that in the 21st Century politicians are promoting intolerance as a path to prosperity.

In the early 17th Century, flush with gold plundered from the Americas, Spain was the richest nation on Earth. But it was hostile to outsiders. It fought wars around the world, on its border with France, and across the Mediterranean with the Moors.

It was also obsessed with perceived enemies at home. It used religion — the Inquisition — to sort out friends from enemies. As a result, by the middle of the 19th century, Spain was a middling power and a shadow of its former self.

The lessons of tolerance taught by the Dutch miracle and the civil rights movement are lost on far too many people. Xenophobia is frightening, because it’s been proven time and again to be an economic disaster for a nation.

Societies that are open to new people and new ideas thrive. It is sad that we’re now afraid to be such a society.

Michael Coblenz, a patent attorney in Lexington, can be reached at mike.coblenz@gmail.com.