Competition and Political Disunity Made Europe Technologically Dominant

The book Guns, Germs, and Steel by Jared Diamond sets out to answer the question: what made European societies dominate most of the rest of the modern world, instead of vice versa? Why did African, Aboriginal, Native American, or even historically advanced Asian countries fail to dominate the rest of the world through technology?

The author takes over 400 pages to explain in depth why this happened. And of course, there were many factors such as natural food availability, domesticable species of animals, and geographic considerations. But one specific conclusion in the epilogue points to competition among fragmented European states as a prime reason why Europe continues to advance, while Chinese technology buckled under centralized, authoritarian rule.

Chinese Unification

China had some great historical advantages over Europe. They had a head start in food production, and a large population in a relatively small area, meaning a greater pool of minds and labor. The land was diverse enough to produce specialization and great technological innovation, but connected enough to transfuse those advances to the rest of the society. China sent out “treasure fleets” as early at 1405 A.D. which explored as far as the east coast of Africa. The ships were up to 400 feet long, much larger than what Columbus sailed in across the atlantic almost 100 years later. Each fleet consisted of hundreds of ships, and tens of thousands of crew members. So what happened?

Central political authority was what happened. Initially this authority and unification of the people of ancient China helped to produce these technological advances, but eventually that monopoly of control by a small group of people backfired, and stunted China’s growth to this day. A struggle over political power casted the former sailing faction out of control, and the new rulers dismantled the shipyards and fleets in order to further centralize their power. Eventually, ocean going shipping was even made illegal.

…the entire region was politically unified. One decision stopped fleets over the whole of China. That one temporary decision became irreversible, because no shipyards remained to turn out ships that would prove the folly of that temporary decision, and to serve as a focus for rebuilding other shipyards. (412)

Diamond explains that by contrast, Columbus tried to get backing from the King of Portugal, a Duke in France, another Duke, a Count, and finally the King and Queen of Spain, who eventually funded his exploration across the Atlantic. “Had Europe been united under any one of the first three rulers, its colonization of the Americas might have been stillborn”. As advanced as the central authority made the Chinese navy, it just as easily destroyed all that innovation and more. Because of this decision, China did not colonize the Americas, nor compete with European nations militarily or industrially for centuries.

Because of this unity, China missed the opportunity to start an industrial revolution in the 14th century, abandoned such inventions as water driven spinning machines, and “demolished or virtually abolished mechanical clocks after leading the world in clock construction”.

European Fragmentation

By contrast, Europe, though similar in size to the Chinese empire of the day, was not politically unified, and therefore could not be held back by a single ruling, or small group of controlling people. But the proximity of the countries still made technology and innovation travel easily from one society to the next. Europe was therefore able to take advantage of close proximity to other peoples to advance technology, while avoiding the dangers of centralized rule, and unified masses.

We think of disunity as disorganized, creating barriers, and slowing down technology. But think of Columbus as a capitalist, raising money to start a new exploration company. It is a risk to investors, but has a possibly huge pay off. Had he lived in China, the government would have shut down any attempt to explore, because it was illegal to ship via ocean or build ships. But in Europe, there were countless “authorities” who Columbus could appeal to for funding. He was told no many times before finally landing his investment from Spain.

Then, other countries followed suit, exploring the America’s and bringing goods home to Europe, taking advantage of Spain’s initial risky investment. Europe was made richer because of the decentralization of authority which allowed Columbus options in pitching his investment.

The story was the same with Europe’s cannon, electric lighting, printing, small firearms, and innumerable other innovations: each was first neglected or opposed in some parts of Europe for idiosyncratic reasons, but once adopted in one area, it eventually spread to the rest of Europe. (413)

Competition among European states meant that if a development was adopted in one area, surrounding societies could not afford to ignore or suppress it. China on the other hand was isolated and centralized enough to kill competition that would have necessitated the adoption of advanced technology.

Europe’s geographic balkanization resulted in dozens or hundreds of independent, competing statelets and centers of innovation. If one state did not pursue some particular innovation, another did, forcing neighboring states to do likewise or else be conquered or left economically behind. Europe’s barriers were sufficient to prevent political unification, but insufficient to halt the spread of technology and ideas. There has never been one despot who could turn off the tap for all of Europe, as of China. (416)

Unity is not always a good thing, and disunity very well can be beneficial. One last point to hammer home the idea that political decentralization is better than unity, just think of who came the closest to unifying Europe. “But the unification of Europe has resisted the efforts of such determined conquerors as Charlemagne, Napoleon, and Hitler; even the Roman Empire at its peak never controlled more than half of Europe’s area.”

Modern Conclusions

People often fret about where investments would come from without the government. This historical example of competition leading to a rise in technological superiority should give us some insight into why fragmented investing mechanisms in the free market can produce better effects than centralized control over investments by the federal government.

While NASA is funded through tax dollars, it is a very limited number of people making the decisions about what that money will be invested in. One mistake could easily misplace billions of dollars on a dead end project, or useless innovation. Worse, they are more likely to misuse invested funds, because there is less interested oversight. What I mean is investors, risking $5 million each for space exploration will be more concerned about making their investment succeed and pay off than will the government who took the tax dollars, and awarded them to NASA.

And furthermore, funding NASA has a similar effect to dismantling shipyards in China. Space exploration becomes a government project, which private entities struggle to find the funds to compete with. One reason for this is, the government is already “doing the work” and has practically unlimited funds. Another reason is that since so much money is being extracted from the economy already, less capital is available to invest, and therefore goes into more “sure things”. Space exploration is a risky enterprise, but if billionaires and companies could keep an extra billion dollars or so per year, they would have budgets for all sorts of investments, some risky, some not. In this sense, government taxation limits high risk, high reward investments, like the one Columbus pursued.

But the space exploration structure created by government has a coin flip’s chance of success, while a private enterprise by its nature must have a better chance of succeeding in order to attract investors. And like Columbus’s pool of 500 Princes to appeal to for funding, there is always another investor to make the pitch to. But in attempting to steer NASA towards beneficial innovations, there is one authority to appeal to.

Hey China, can I build some ships to explore? No. Hey U.S.A., can I build some rockets to explore? Well, first you have to give half your budget to us in taxes so that we can do some exploring ourselves, then you have to spend half of what’s left complying with standards and regulations we set for your business, and your employees. With the money that’s left over, you can try to turn a profit in the first year, and if you do, we are going to take half of that. But hey, if you got anything let over, go for it. But pretty much, no.

This is one example of countless as to how a centralized authority discourages innovation currently, just as Chinese central authority did in the middle ages. China completely banned shipbuilding, and therefore there was no shipbuilding structure to show later people how stupid that decision was, and demonstrate the benefits of ships. But just because the U.S.A. might not completely ban an investment, their controls will still have detrimental effects on those investments, even if you argue the effects wouldn’t be as stifling as China’s was on shipbuilding.

The unifying aspect of the U.S.A., the federal government, demands 35%-39% in taxes from corporations, and up to 39.5% on investment income. This, along with countless regulations, other taxes, and laws have the same effect in various degrees as China banning the building of ships. It is not illegal to start a corporation that would innovate, profit, and increase the standard of living. But almost half the productivity of any such company will be taken by the government. At 100% taxation, this would have the same detrimental effect on investment as middle ages China had in deterring shipbuilding. It only makes sense that at 50% taxation, it will have at least half the detrimental effect on advancing technology.

Decentralization of Political Power

There are countless other examples of how the U.S.A. currently halts innovation and diffusion of technology.  All drugs must be approved by the FDA, so instead of competition leading to the best product, one despot exists to “turn off the tap” of potentially lifesaving drugs. Or consider law enforcement: there is no structure in place to prove how good private security, and private law enforcement would work. Just as China could not see the benefits in shipbuilding due to the dismantled shipyards, we cannot see the benefits in privatizing crime prevention, because any private system has been dismantled by the central authority.

The obvious conclusion to all of this historical information is to decentralize political power if we wish to continue innovating, and advancing technology. There is nothing to worry about in America from removing the centralized authority: we have 50 states with governments already functioning, ready to compete. Europe’s disunity is exactly what got the world to the advanced technology that we have today. Going forward we need to make sure the U.S.A. does not make the same mistake China made in the 1400’s; suppressing technology effectively locking them in the dark ages for centuries.

Guns, Germs, and Steel: Why Japanese government adopted then quickly abandoned guns.

Guns, Germs, and Steel: What justified the upward redistribution of wealth by government?

3 thoughts on “Competition and Political Disunity Made Europe Technologically Dominant

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