I try to play devil’s advocate with myself, in order to always move closer and closer to truth in my beliefs. So the other day while running, which is a great outlet for getting the mind flowing as much as the blood, it occurred to me that there must be examples of government advancing civilization at certain times.
It is practically impossible to tease apart all the factors in a society that contribute to its advance, stagnation, or decline. Clearly it is easy to point to the “benefit” government creates in one sector, while ignoring the cost in another sector (for example corn subsidies might be good for the farmer, but bad for the taxpayer). That is not what I am talking about.
I am talking about examples of government force being wielded so as to prevent a cataclysmic catastrophe, or bring about a monumental advance. Perhaps an example would be Chinese government funded invention and discovery of the 15th century.
Now per usual, I have to remind readers that I still do not believe the end justifies the means. Even if I stole $10,000 from my neighbors, knowing they would blow it on booze and cigarettes, and invested it for a return of 20% over just one year, returning $12,000 to them, this would still be wrong. Even if I do know how to manage their money better than them, it is still theft, and it is still aggression to take it in the first place, even if I return it with interest, and even if I buy them something with their stolen money that would greatly improve their quality of life.
But anyway suppose government could advance civilization, on the whole, without harming anyone in the sense that everyone’s life was actually improved in some objective manner. Yes, already a big what if, but considering extreme examples can help define our philosophy. So for argument’s sake say a government has in the past over a ten, twenty, hundred, or five hundred year period “advanced civilization”.
The Marathon to Become Civilized
To run a marathon in just under three and a half hours takes about an 8 minute per mile pace, and this is a respectable marathon time for any amateur. Now, in order to hit the target time, the best way to run it is slightly negative splits, that is, to get just a little faster each mile. No one is perfect, and most people end up varying a bit from mile to mile, but it is hard to hit your target time if you are off by more than about about ten seconds on either side, per mile.
What happens if our marathoner decides to go out with the elite runners, and does a 4:40 first mile? Well he is sure as hell not going to hit his target marathon time of 3:30. Most likely he will have to drop out of the race because he has never sprinted so fast in his life, and his legs now feel like jello. If our runner manages to push himself the rest of the way after that first mile, we are looking at a five hour marathon at best.
Relying on government to advance civilization is like forcing an 8 minute mile pace marathoner to sprint at random times throughout the race, “because it will more quickly get him to the finish”. And sure, for 4 minutes and 40 seconds of that marathon, it was easy to argue that he was quickly advancing towards his goal. But at what overall cost?
Civilization will naturally progress, and some miles might be slower than others, but government does not get us any closer to our overall goal in any real sense. It may feel like we are rapidly advancing at times, but the hidden costs of that advance are bound to slow progress down later. The monster we allow in government force will always come back to haunt us with a destructive war, genocide, epidemic, or any number of other unintended consequences of allow some people to break the rules of society that the rest of us must live by.
Chinese Versus European Progress
An old article I wrote based on Jared Diamond’s book Guns, Germs, and Steel contrasted the centralized authority of Chinese government in the early 1400’s, with the diverse competing governments of Europe in the late 1400’s. China had 400 foot ships going on treasure expeditions as early as 1405, but when a rival faction took over the government, they grounded the fleet, dismantled the shipyards, and made shipping illegal in order to centralize their power. This one decision possibly set China back a thousand years; but it was the same type of power which initially gave China a navy more advanced than would again appear on earth until the 18th century.
Columbus had a 62 foot ship almost a hundred years after the Chinese were sailing to Africa on 400 foot ships. But even though Europe was initially behind in technological development, their progress was steady according to Diamond.
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…
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. (413-416)
I’m using Europe as a “free market” example because the states were competing with each other. But clearly their power was also a government sprint versus a steady pace. Perhaps the Portuguese fishermen who had already discovered North America would have set a different tone for the new world than Columbus’s government funded expedition, and the government armadas which followed.
Maybe working together with the Native Americans in the interest of mutually beneficial transactions would have advanced society naturally so that we stayed on pace to reach our marathon goal. Instead we are still at mile 18 when we wanted to be finishing.