Human Progress is Like a Marathon…

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.

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?

Justifying the Upward Redistribution of Wealth in Centralized Societies

Guns, Germs, and Steel by Jared Diamond is such an interesting look into the development of human society. The other day I discussed the factors that made Japan quickly adopt, and just as quickly abandon firearms in the 16th and 17th centuries. But Diamond also speaks of the formations of various governing bodies humans create as their numbers grow. There are bands with people numbering in the dozens, tribes which can consist of multiple bands and generally include hundreds of people, and Chiefdoms generally consisting of thousands of human inhabitants. Chiefdoms resemble State’s and are the smallest organization of humans to justify kleptocracy, “transferring net wealth from commoners to upper classes” (276).

This central control was justified in larger organizations of society when everyone in a group did not know one another, and was not related to one another in some way. In bands and tribes if you came across someone you didn’t know, it was common to discuss familial relations until one was found in common. Disputes would generally be settled by a mutual relative of the feuding parties, excluding the need for a monopoly on force, which the rulers in Chiefdoms and State’s exercise.

The problem among centrally governed societies becomes the balance between keeping peace through settling disputes, and functioning “unabashedly as kleptocracies” (276).

These noble and selfish functions are inextricably linked, although some governments emphasize much more of one function than of the other. The difference between a kleptocrat and a wise statesman, between a robber baron and public benefactor, is merely one of degree: a matter of just how large a percentage of the tribute extracted from producers is retained by the elite, and how much the commoners like the public uses to which the redistributed tribute is put (276).

Keep in mind that even though the elite maintain a monopoly on force, this does not mean that the outcome will be good for any particular feuding party. The innocent party could be punished by the elite as often as the guilty, and inevitably when the elite and their kin are involved in disputes, they will win regardless of guilt or innocence. What the monopoly on force instead does is keep violent actions to a minimum among the commoners who cannot use force without retaliation. But what makes the commoners put up with the upward redistribution of wealth inherent in all Chiefdoms and States?

Diamond pinpoints 4 solutions kleptocrats and elites have used through history to maintain control:

1. Disarm the populace, and arm the elite…

This should be obvious from Hitler, Stalin, Mao, the British marching on Lexington and so on and so forth. The biggest centralizations of power have always happened when commoners are least equipped to fight back.

2. Make the masses happy by redistributing much of the tribute received, in popular ways. This principle was as valid for Hawaiian chiefs as it is for American politicians today.

Indeed, if it is for the children, to help the poor, or to protect us from terrorists, the commoners will gladly throw more tribute (tax dollars) towards the kleptocrats in hopes that the commoners will again be safe, or taken care of. But remember what Diamond said before, the difference between a robber baron and a politician is simply the degree of redistribution. Certainly elites like George Kaiser benefited from the tribute the taxpayers gave to Solyndra through the Department of Energy, but no commoners could say the same.

3. Use the monopoly on force to promote happiness, by maintaining public order and curbing violence. This is potentially a big and underappreciated advantage of centralized societies over noncentralized ones (277).

And this is really what modern States boil down to. If their monopoly on force is used fairly, to only punish those who have victimized another, and not to protect elites who have victimized commoners, then the population is peaceful and generally happy. The real problem is how the commoners can make sure this happens.

Even in a country like the US with a generally fair justice system, the monopoly on force is used against those whose “crime” includes no victim. The war on drugs, government regulations, and corruption: these factors sometimes lead to the monopoly of force being used on those who do not deserve it, and this is when the population becomes skeptical of the legitimacy of the elites who rule them. In America for example, police officers need to be held to the same standard as the population, but unfortunately many get away with crimes because of the badge they wear while committing the crime.

The final way for kleptocracies to maintain control over a population is for elites to “construct an ideology or religion justifying kleptocracy”. Pretty much every religion has served to justify kleptocracy at least one time in history, in some society. But ideology in modern America seems to be the preferred justification. On the one hand you have an ideology that says people will not be safe from outside threats unless the elites take our money and soldier tributes. On the other hand you have an ideology that says the greater good must trump individual concerns. They are related, but appeal to different segments of the American population.

But if we throw out the ideologies supporting kleptocracy, then we realize that we can still have an organized society in modern times that does not justify kleptocracy, but keeps people safe and taken care of. It would still be centralized, but there would be no monopoly on force by one group of elites. I am not saying go back to tribes or bands of humans, that is not realistic, but perhaps take a page from their book on dispute resolution. Arbitration between feuding parties can solve problems based on the incentives of each party, and disincentive of violence. I am saying allow people to function in groups without compulsion, and decide how to get along, without elites using force to resolve differences.

Part of the ideology justifying kleptocracy involves the myth that people cannot organize themselves without an “authority”. But proper organization, the functions purported to be carried out by the elites governing, is not uniform across states, and more often leads to injustice. The fear that keeps us subservient to these elites is that things would be worse if they were gone. We may think, sure, it is an unjust society, but it beats widespread murder and mayhem.

And maybe in times past this was true, but as we advance as a society, connected by the internet and advancements in travel, we are outgrowing states. If the earth ever hopes to be linked together by a global society, we cannot rely on the archaic organizations of States monopolizing force to do it. Free interaction, trade without compulsion, and organization based on the absence of force will take humanity to the next level, where there is no distinction between elites and commoners.