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Stephen Davies on the Wealth Explosion (1): How Europe was and was not exceptional

About two hundred and forty years ago, the human species began to experience a wealth explosion. Poor people, who had been living and dying on the edge of starvation for millennia, began to get less poor, and slightly richer people started to become even richer, and much more numerous. Every graph measuring human comfort, wealth, progress, length of life, and so on, switched – historically, in the blink of an eye – from being a nearly horizontal line to being a nearly vertical line. This wealth explosion began in North West Europe, and quickly spread to other parts of Europe and to the USA. Now, poor people everywhere are getting less poor in unprecedentedly vast numbers. It’s a different world, and for just about everyone, a hugely better one.

What caused this wealth explosion? And why did it first erupt where it did, in Europe?

For some time now I have been getting to grips with a new book by Stephen Davies entitled The Wealth Explosion: The Nature and Origins of Modernity.

The central and most striking arguments in this book concern how Europe was – and just as significantly, was not – exceptional, as a potential detonator of this wealth explosion.

Clearly there was something exceptional about Europe, or the wealth explosion that we all now enjoy would not have started here. And equally clearly, all the positive ingredients needed for the explosion had to be present here for it to start happening. But the mere presence of all these positive ingredients, says Davies, is not what made Europe exceptional. Until Europe started exploding economically at the end of the eighteenth century, it had been, globally speaking, an economic and cultural backwater. All of these ingredients – demographic, economic, social, institutional, intellectual, spiritual – had been present, in greater strength and for far longer, in other parts of the world, most notably in China. The economic and cultural centre of the world, at least until the late eighteenth century, was not Europe but rather the lands around the Indian Ocean. So, why did the wealth explosion not happen there?

The answer that Davies supplies in The Wealth Explosion is that Europe was exceptional in being the only one of the world’s great civilisations that was not, at the historical moment when it mattered, politically unified. No European “hegemon” emerged in the centuries just before the wealth explosion got started, in the way that single imperial regimes had emerged to dominate Russia, the Middle East and India, and as had long been in successive imperial command in China.

This was the decisive negative ingredient that Europe possessed but which was lacking elsewhere, and this was what made the difference. The wealth explosion got seriously explosive in Europe because, when it started and from then on, nobody in Europe was powerful enough or motivated enough to stop it. On the contrary, the rulers of Europe never stopped competing with one another, and were therefore strongly incentivised to keep their wealth explosion going, despite all the upheaval that it caused. Economic stasis, and cultural stagnation of the sort that would have stopped the wealth explosion, was not, for the various contending rulers of Europe, an option. They needed guns, guns which had to keep on getting better. They needed money, to pay for the guns, and for the ever increasing numbers of people needed to develop, fire and later to carry the guns into battle. They needed the wealth explosion, no matter how much it was empowering new classes of citizen producers and citizen warriors. So, they let it happen. They even encouraged it. At which point the only way not to be beaten by the wealth explosion was to join it. And there we have it: the modern world.

The above is my best shot at summarising what I think is the most important line of argument in The Wealth Explosion. I had intended to write a single, quite long, mostly glowing review of this book. And I tried, I really tried. But the task defeated me (especially the “quite” long bit). Despite its small size for such a subject (only 248 pages) The Wealth Explosion contains so many interesting ideas besides those summarised above, so much pertinent historical detail, and so many judgements based on the voluminous writings and discoveries of other historians, that I found it impossible to say everything that I wanted to say about it in one blog posting, while remaining confident that anyone at all would want to wade through all that I had written. So, I abandoned the attempt to say everything, and instead decided to make a start by merely saying something. I now intend that there will be several more postings here about The Wealth Explosion (in the manner of these recent postings here by Patrick Crozier about Ulster).

That’s the plan anyway. I’ll end this first posting about The Wealth Explosion by saying that, although I don’t now want to elaborate on why I find the central argument of this book, as outlined above, to be so persuasive, I do find it to be very persuasive, and the book in general to be fascinating. And since the historical event in question is arguably the biggest single fact that there is about the world that we now live in, that makes this a very good book indeed. How do you write an excellent work of grand historical theory? You ask important questions and you supply convincing answers. You support these answers with many other interesting and closely related truths, and with reports of relevant debates among and with your fellow historians. This is what I think Stephen Davies has done.

Meanwhile, to learn more about The Wealth Explosion, read the review of it that Ananya Chowdhury did manage to write, for the Adam Smith Institute blog. Or, read what Stephen Davies himself wrote about his book and its conclusions, for CapX. Or, if you like it when people are good at talking to camera as well as good at writing (Stephen Davies is very good at both), listen to what Davies said to the Cato Institute about his book, as recorded in this video.

77 comments to Stephen Davies on the Wealth Explosion (1): How Europe was and was not exceptional

  • bob sykes

    I am reminded of Arnold Toynbee’s thesis that cultural and political innovation always occurs at the geographical margins of large civilizations. I think he called it “the march.”

  • Snorri Godhi

    I look forward to more on this subject, and maybe i’ll even get around to read the book.

    A couple of quibbles about this post.

    About two hundred and forty years ago, the human species began to experience a wealth explosion. Poor people, who had been living and dying on the edge of starvation for millennia, began to get less poor, and slightly richer people started to become even richer, and much more numerous.

    The above is not wrong, but perhaps a bit misleading.
    An argument could be made that it all goes back to the beginning of the last millennium. If you look at Angus Maddison’s data on estimated GDP/capita, you’ll see that Europe got progressively richer during pretty much the entire last millennium — and not just Europe, but every single European country (with a few partial reversals).
    (Northern?) Italy soon became the richest country in the world (GDP/capita), and when it lost that position, it was not because the Italians got poorer, but because other people, particularly the Dutch, got richer.

    It is true, however, that one cannot talk about an “explosion” until about 240 years ago.

    (To be continued.)

  • Snorri Godhi

    The answer that Davies supplies in The Wealth Explosion is that Europe was exceptional in being the only one of the world’s great civilisations that was not, at the historical moment when it mattered, politically unified.

    This is of course a strong anti-EU, pro-Brexit argument 🙂 — one that Dan Hannan made years ago.

    I believe that there is more to be said, however. The Middle East, India, and even China, have been divided on and off, sometimes for centuries.

    What is really distinctive about Europe (in my immodest opinion) is the fractal coastline, together with the natural barriers: the Alps, Pyrenees, English Channel, Skagerrak/Kattegat, etc. These features led (some) European nations to trade with each other by sea in preference to invading each other by land. They also led, ultimately, to the Age of Exploration.

  • JohnK

    Surely this cannot be right. The wealth of Europe and the USA came from plantation slavery.

    It must be true, the New York Times says so.

  • Quentin

    So, nothing to do with the rise of the rule of law, then?

  • neonsnake

    the rise of the rule of law, then?

    If I understand the argument correctly, “rule of law” would be a necessary, but not sufficient condition – not wishing to downplay the importance of the necessary conditions, but Mr Davies appears to be trying to identify the unique factor that was only present in the UK (or Holland) that led to the unprecedented sustained innovation of the past 200ish years.

    I’ve not read the book, but my first thoughts are immediately favourable to the apparent conclusions reached (again, assuming I’ve understood them correctly).

    I’m very much looking forward to this series, Mr Micklethwait, and very pleased to see you posting.

  • CaptDMO

    Gee, about 240 years ago?
    The NEW United states got sick and tired of Muslim (and other) Pirates , formed the Marines, and went out to kill them instead….freeing up commerce for EVERYBODY!
    The new slavery market provided for sugar, tobacco and other (rent seeker) merchants to feed the beast in Europe.
    “Oh MY! You make SWEETS here?”
    French revolution opened up the gullets of BUNCHES of formerly “protected” aristocratic monopoly tyrants.”What is it that happened…..?”
    A LOT of things happened,
    IMHO, ALL intersecting, NONE of it “designed” by geniuses, or attributable to any one “movement” of the day.
    How many “App” home brew coders fell over backward into buckets of cash (once the Net/ Web was paved for them) that turned LA and surrounds into alternating streets of ridiculously priced houses, and crap laden tent cities lining the roads to get to them?
    How many smugglers and black market dealers will get as rich as Kennedys, assorted low skill labor union folk, “Mall” medical investors, beginning when Brexit delivers the OFFICIAL to slap Brussels up side the head? (I believe a glove is traditional)
    And as usual, with ALL such ventures in the past…”We’re gonna’ need weapons!”
    A “market” for AWESOME wealth in itself!
    I hear the Chinese are hungry enough to make knock-offs of ANYTHING, for ANYONE these days.
    How was the ship building industry 240 yers ago, because the private jet industry is BOOMING with former “entertainers” (and their posses) desperately looking for “influencer” cash, while eating their old seed corn, these days.
    Where’s the specialist “history book” on the status of The Macaroni Club members affect on expanding commerce and innovation, say…250 years ago? (Or the evaporation of wealthy “intellectuals” of the Algonquin Round Table [Roaring 20’s] for THAT matter!)

  • John B

    It did not start in ‘North West Europe’ it started in Britain.

    And that was because of limited Government, rule of law, property rights, sovereignty of the individual giving rise to social equality and equality of opportunity, free market capitalism. These things were not found in feudal, agrarian, centrally Governed ‘North West Europe’ until later once Britain had led the way.

  • Gavin Longmuir

    As it happens, I have been reading “The Lever of Riches” by Joel Mokyr (1990), which covers the subject of technological & economic progress more broadly. As an aside, it often seems that older books were better edited and mercifully free of the Political Correctness which defiles so much recent “scholarship”. There has been an astonishing amount of research done over the years on what caused the acceleration of economic growth in the 18th Century. Even in 1990, Mokyr’s book had a bibliography that covers 12 tightly-spaced pages.

    The idea that competition between violent, ever-warring Europeans promoted innovation has been around for a long time. Clearly, competition is always & everywhere a big spur to innovation — but it seems like a necessary but insufficient condition. After all, 18th Century Europeans did not invent violent competition — sadly, that has been a big part of the history of the world.

    Mokyr talks a lot about the dissemination of ideas as part of the process of innovation. One trivially fascinating example — after centuries of Japanese civilization in which they had progressed in many ways, the Portugese showed up on their shores. The Japanese were absolutely astounded that the Portugese had buttons on their clothing. No-one in Japan had ever thought of the idea of a button, which allows much more flexibility in the design of clothing. This kind of transfer of ideas seems to have been a big part of technological innovation.

    Idea builds on idea. The steam engine was the foundation of the great leap forward in Europe, freeing industry from the constraints of limited unreliable wind & water power. But actually building a steam engine required precisely-bored cylinders, which required earlier progress in metallurgy and manufacturing (often driven by military requirements). Those improvements in turn required previous agricultural improvements which freed up some people from working directly on the land to work in mining and manufacturing. And the agricultural improvements also included things like bringing the potato from the New World, which depended on prior developments in ship design, which in turn depended on ….

    This exponential growth in human knowledge & capabilities has been in progress since the first forgotten genius realized he could make use of fire. Centuries of essential small steps, block by block, would eventually lead to some much larger steps. The Industrial Revolution was destined to happen somewhere, sometime. And once it had happened, the ideas were destined to spread as they always do. Which is why today we get our high-tech mobile phones from previously backwards China.

  • Radu

    I am not sure I fully agree…

    “Until Europe started exploding economically at the end of the eighteenth century, it had been, globally speaking, an economic and cultural backwater.” – looking at art, architecture, trade, law etc, I do not see Europe being a backwater in the 1500s or 1600s. Not as much total wealth at that point as China sure, but that does not mean backwater imo. Also I think that the explosion was a tipping point, but the process started quite far back. The reasons are probably several, decentralization among them.

  • Stonyground

    The enlightenment and the scientific revolution must have been important. The mechanisation that drove the industrial revolution couldn’t have happened without the knowledge needed to make it happen.

    “…freeing industry from the constraints of limited unreliable wind & water power.”

    What are we to make of the idiots who want to bring those restraints back.

  • Frank S

    Roger Bacon in the 13th century AD extolled the use of observation (‘experience’) to test and develop scientific knowledge. Francis Bacon in the 17th C added the use of deliberate experiment for the same purpose. The notion of testing ideas by experiment and observation also helps with technological development. The 18th C saw big progress with steam engines, and then whoosh it all took off.

  • David Roberts

    This question has been answered to my satisfaction by Deirdre McCloskey. Her trilogy is an enjoyable but daunting read. Has anyone else here read it, and agree with my view, or not?

  • Lloyd Martin Hendaye

    Surely Davies’ thesis is correct. But underlying Anglo-European linguistic-cultural diversity is the region’s extremely variable topography.

    From Dark Age times, Anglo-Europe’s “hegemon” was the Papacy’s West Roman Church. When Byzantium fell to Turkish rule in 1453, Gutenberg’s vernacular dissemination of classic Greco-Roman texts engendered first Reformation, then Scientific and Industrial Revolutions stimulating diverse Enlightenment concepts allied with a Judaeo-Christian “missionary effect”.

    From Spanish Hapsburgs to Austria-Hungary and British imperialism no Czar, Great Moghul or Yellow Emperor ruled Europe’s roost because islands, mountains, rivers made any geopolitical/secular vs. socio-cultural unity impossible. In every aspect, competition ruled… and as the 19th Century’s efflorescent Innovation Age wore on through 1900, the die was cast– there was no turning back.

    On the evidence, Earth’s 12,250-year Holocene Interglaial Epoch ended in AD 1350, coincident with a 70-year Grand Solar Minimum through 1420 plus Kamchatka’s strato-volcano Kambalny Eruption. Ending 1850/1890, followed by a 140-year “amplitude compression” rebound to AD 2030, Earth now faces a Super-Grand Solar Minimum through c. 2110 reinforcing a cyclical 102-kiloyear Pleistocene Ice Age due to cover 60 – 70% of habitable landmasses with glaciations two miles thick.

    Depend upon it, the generation born c. AD 2012 will see more change through 2100 than antecedents have experienced in four centuries since Galileo and Kepler kicked things off in 1600.

  • neonsnake

    This question has been answered to my satisfaction by Deirdre McCloskey.

    I’d want to read what else Mr Micklethwait has to say, but the impression I got is that Stephen Davies has come to similar conclusions to Dierdre McCloskey, with some nuanced differences around the importance of competition, as well as the necessity of the grant of liberty for people to “have a go”.

    I’ve not read her Bourgeois Trilogy (yet), but have been consuming what articles I’ve been able to find since a previous posting here brought her to my attention only a couple of weeks ago. I agree so wholeheartedly with so much of what she says that I’ve found myself wondering whether I agree because I want to agree, if that makes sense, and wondering if I have found myself in something of an echo chamber.

  • Jay

    Which is to say freedom has an economic value. Innovation (not just the invention part, but also the ability of that invention to spread widely) is the key to economic growth. Innovation flourishes more in an environment where there is not a rigid/structured environment. More government, more bureaucracy always slows growth. I have lived in Australia, Britain, Singapore and now the US. The less rules and regulations, the more prosperous the place. This is why the US economy has improved under Trump – he’s taken a flamethrower to the rule book. It’s why European growth rates are continuing to slow over the long term. It’s why Britain will be better off out of the EU – the next step will be to persuade our own politicians to stop doing the same thing.

    There are fundamentally two ways of doing things – managing and experimenting. Managing involves controlling the process (whatever you’re doing) possibly rigorously. It works well on small scales, indeed in some cases it’s essential – do you want your self driving car experimenting with your family in it? However at larger scale this approach is not possible. At best you can push things in one direction or another, but you cant control it. China is the perfect example of trying to manage things at a large scale. It’s also going to demonstrate spectacularly, at some point in the next decade or so, that this doesnt work. Just as the USSR, Cuba, and more recently Venezuala have shown. The experimental approach, let people do what they want and have a mechanism to remove those (activities, not people) who are not adding to the pot, has been demonstrated, by all of western Europe to a greater or lesser degree (lesser now, more in the past). The US is the poster child for this approach.

    The “experimental” approach goes by several different names depending on the context. It is also called free markets, the scientific method, and even evolution.
    Try anything, remove the stuff that doesnt “work”

  • Gavin Longmuir

    David Roberts: “This question has been answered to my satisfaction by Deirdre McCloskey.”

    For the benefit of those of us in the Great Unwashed, could you please share your understanding of how Ms. McCloskey answered the question.

  • David Roberts

    Gavin Longmuir: My understanding of Deirdre McCloskey ideas, as superficial as it may be, includes many of the points already made in this thread. If though you want to know what I think is the most critical factor. I would say it is the evolution of a particular morality in north western Europe. The Great Unwashed need to be aware that this did require some attention to cleanliness.

  • neonsnake

    Gavin, Jonathan Pearce linked to this piece a little while ago, by Ms McCloskey.

    I took a particular pleasure in this paragraph:

    “The virtue of liberty did matter. The magic world is liberalism, the liberalism of Adam Smith and Mary Wollstonecraft and Henry David Thoreau. The explosion of ingenuity after 1800 came from the gradual inspiriting of millions of liberated people to have a go. Thoreau ran his father’s pencil factory, and made it flourish. Liberalism liberated first poor white men, then, yes, former slaves, then women, then immigrants, then colonial people, then gays. Liberation and innovation dance together.”

    Having read some pieces, my understanding is that she views as the essential, sufficient, ideal: liberty. That in North West Europe, we freed people to “have a go” themselves, for themselves – and by God, they did so, and here we are in the best of all possible worlds *cough*.

    Many other conditions were present, of course, which were necessary but not sufficient in and of themselves.

    She also wrote a piece called “Why you are not a conservative”, which contains this delightful excerpt:

    “The conservative admires evolution up to a couple of decades before the present, but unlike libertarians he is fearful and angry about any recent or, God help us, future evolution. Adoption of children by gay couples, say. A social democrat, on the other hand, does not admire many of the evolutions up to the present, and unlike libertarians she is quite sure she can lay down a better future by compelling you to give up your stuff and your liberty—for your own welfare, of course. Industrial policy, say.”

    You can see why I might be fanboy-ing a little over her 😉

    David Roberts – please jump in with any further insights.

  • Rich Rostrom

    How could Europe be a backwater in 1500-1800, when European mariners were active in every corner of the oceans? (And no one else ventured out of their neighborhoods.) And European settlers had swept over the New World?

    How could the “the lands around the Indian Ocean” be “the economic and cultural centre of the world” when half of those lands were inhabited by Stone Age primitives (Australia, southern Africa, most of Sumatra), and another large portion by savages or impoverished tribes (east Africa, Arabia), and the oceanic trade of the area was dominated by Europeans (Portuguese, Dutch, English, French) who also ruled substantial land areas?

    The major “civilized” area next to the Indian Ocean was India, and India was dominated by Europeans no later then 1757, when Britain gained control of Bengal.

  • Gavin Longmuir

    David R: “… I would say it is the evolution of a particular morality in north western Europe.”

    Thanks for that explanation. It brought to mind a passage from Joel Mokyr’s “Lever of Riches” dealing with “The Years of Miracles: 1750 – 1830” — p. 107 to be precise:
    “Britain, then, had no monopoly on invention, but when it was behind, it shamlessly borrowed, imitated, and stole other nations’ technological knowledge.”
    I guess that was not the particular morality Ms. McCloskey had in mind.

  • neonsnake

    stole other nations’ technological knowledge.”
    I guess that was not the particular morality Ms. McCloskey had in mind

    No, no, it was!

    It’s the whole point – test lots of ideas, and see which work (and which don’t of course!)

    She talks at one point about “green hair”. Silly example, of course, but you see? Try everything and see what works.

    Judge not, Gavin!

  • Gavin Longmuir

    Neonsnake — I get the point about technological progress depending on testing lots of ideas, ideas having sex, etc. But it is not at all clear whether that willingness to experiment & accept repeated failures is related to any kind of morality.

    When people begin to steal ideas — that is where morality enters the picture!

  • neonsnake

    When people begin to steal ideas — that is where morality enters the picture!

    The type of “testing” I mean when I refer to it in positive terms might be something like, you using a plough in your field, and me using a pointy stick. I might look over, see the progress you’ve made, and think “crikey, that’s a good idea!” and build myself a plough.

    Of course, if I steal your plough, not your idea, that’s a whole different matter 😉

  • Snorri Godhi

    Neonsnake: wrt your McCloskey quote:

    The conservative admires evolution up to a couple of decades before the present, but unlike libertarians he is fearful and angry about any recent or, God help us, future evolution. Adoption of children by gay couples, say.

    The problem with this statement is that reasonable people (such as yours truly) cannot possibly identify with either “conservatives” or “libertarians” as defined by McCloskey.

    I cannot identify as a “conservative” who “admires evolution up to a couple of decades before the present, but […] is fearful and angry about any recent or, God help us, future evolution”, because i do not believe in Lamarckian evolution. That means that any “”evolution”” must be considered on its merits: Has it been progress or regress?

    Anybody with a minimum knowledge of Darwinian evolution, knows that almost all genetic change is for the worse, if not outright lethal for the organism. Similarly, social change is almost always for the worse, unless guided by historical experience and common sense — in which case it is for the worse a bit less than 50% of the time.

    More importantly, whether change (genetic or social) is for the better or for the worse, is to be decided by experience, not by “”experts”” (ie by the ruling class).

    Take the example of adoption by gay couples, put forward by McCloskey. Is it a change for the better or for the worse?
    Only when a large number of children adopted by gay couples reach the age of 50, shall we be able to do some serious research on the issue — research that is unlikely to give easy answers.
    Therefore, i cannot automatically accept change that happened even 5 decades ago.
    Therefore, i am not a “conservative”, let alone a “libertarian”, as defined by McCloskey. Sometimes i am a reactionary (especially in a British context), sometimes a conservative (in a more Darwinist sense of the word), sometimes a progressive or even a revolutionary; in the latter case, obviously, based on historical experience at home and abroad.

  • Frank S

    Thessalonians 5:21 King James Version
    ‘Prove all things; hold fast that which is good.’

    Where ‘prove’ means ‘test’. Pretty good wisdom way back then. Took us quite a while to get the message though. The 18th century saw the ball really start to roll, the 19th century great progress, and even more in the 20th including the developing of statistical design of experiments which has had enormous, beneficial, impact in agriculture and industry.

  • Gavin Longmuir

    Frank S: “The 18th century saw the ball really start to roll, the 19th century great progress, and even more in the 20th …”

    That sounds like exponential growth. One of the features of exponential growth is that it starts small — 1, 2, 4, 8, … — and then after many increments it becomes 1024, 2048, … and we really begin to notice it. We might even give this apparent jump a name, like ‘Industrial Revolution’. The point is — the growth started a long time ago, and had been trundling away in the background while empires rose & fell.

    Perhaps we should not be thinking of the Industrial Revolution as any great discontinuity with the past? Yes, the growth of technology reached a point where the impacts on human life became unmistakable. But that growth was based on a very deep foundation in time.

  • Like Snorri Godhi (September 4, 2019 at 1:09 pm), I was unimpressed by the quoted remarks of Deirdre McCloskey in the thread above (they may of course sound worse out of context than it). Some evolutionary theorists suggest that only one mutation in a million or less confers benefit, and the difference between past evolution and contemporary evolution is precisely that the latter has not been weeded by failure, so must be assumed to be full of un-beneficial changes that the slow process of selection has removed from the past, with the beneficial ones of today lost in the noise, though those conservatives (in Dierdre’s definition) of the future (that the Dierdres of the future will deride) will know what they are.

    So at first glance, her quoted criticism of conservatives seemed to me to be to be foolish to the point of crassness when she was using natural-selection evolution, with its million-to-one or less statistics, as her analogy.

    I was no more impressed with Deirdre’s specific example. To use an obvious analogy, much data tells us that children of two-parent families do better on average than those of one-parent families. This does not cause me to wish that the whole panoply of powerful encouragements that the Victorians used to make two-parent families get together and stay together be restored, but it does cause me to wish that a true free-speech society be recovered in which that point could be fairly made – without getting you treated like a guy with a MAGA hat in a left-run restaurant – so it could influence people in their life choices as far as they might let it. As Snorri notes, we may one day have data on other variants, and deciding on that future information – not on present fashion – will be true respect for evolution.

  • neonsnake

    That implies, Niall, a belief (on my part or Ms McCloskey) that every evolution, or every new idea, is necessarily a good one; I don’t subscribe to that. I believe that given a choice, with no one forcing me to do things a certain way, I might choose to use a pointy stick on my farm. And I would be wrong, when some other person chooses, not being forced to use a pointy stick, to think about it and invent a plough.

    And, I would then recognise my error – or, see that the plough is superior, retire my ill-conceived method of the pointy stick, and build myself a plough.

    But only without someone above saying “You both must use pointy sticks!” is someone free to invent the plough.

  • Gavin Longmuir

    Neonsnake: “But only without someone above saying “You both must use pointy sticks!” is someone free to invent the plough.”

    If one looks closely at something like the plough, the analogy to evolution becomes quite surprising. No single person invented the plough, because the plough itself is the product of several different ideas — a plowshare and then a mouldboard and other required pieces. Having designed the plough, one has to hope that someone else has already invented enough different aspects of iron-working to be able to manufacture the implement.

    Then there we are, proudly staring at our completed plough — when a little boy asks “How are you going to pull the plow through the hard ground?”. Once we have proved that the wife does not make a suitable beast of burden, we might move on to the ox. But the ox is slow & recalcitrant, so we have to look for someone who has domesticated & bred suitable horses. (That probably takes only a few centuries). Once we have the horse, we need to wait until someone else invents a suitable harness that does not choke the horse as it pulls the plow. (Seems simple enough, but the historical record suggests that invention took a long time to emerge). One might argue that the evolution of something like the plow is not so much Intelligent Design as Serendipity Design — with continuous improvement as our ancestors learned by doing, came up with bright ideas for improvement, and then developed the technology to be able to implement some of those ideas. Does this process have anything to do with Libertarian ideals? Doubtful!

    Whether Ms. McCloskey realizes any of this, I can’t say because I have not read her prolific works. But I have done some quick checking, and I have to say her work does not rank high on the list of books I want to read.

  • Nullius in Verba

    “Anybody with a minimum knowledge of Darwinian evolution, knows that almost all genetic change is for the worse, if not outright lethal for the organism.”

    Almost all genetic change is neutral, and either has no observable effect, or has effects which can be either beneficial or detrimental depending on the environment.

    “More importantly, whether change (genetic or social) is for the better or for the worse, is to be decided by experience, not by “”experts”” (ie by the ruling class).”

    Yep. Exactly.

    And of course it is the ‘experts’ of the culturally conservative faction (the former ruling class) who decide it is for the worse before we have that experience, just as it is the ‘experts’ of the culturally progressive faction (the new ruling class) who decide in advance of the data that it is for the better. The one seeks to ban it, the other to compel it.

    The ‘free market’ perspective says that people should be free to try, and find out. No rules compelling it. And no rules banning it. Because we don’t know in advance of the experiment which choice results in the bigger mess, if either.

    People should be free to explore, free to make mistakes, free to take the risks, free to accept the consequences. And the same goes for all the risks and consequences of not changing.

    “I was no more impressed with Deirdre’s specific example. To use an obvious analogy, much data tells us that children of two-parent families do better on average than those of one-parent families.”

    Yes. The question is: “Why?” Is it because the number of parents affects prosperity (like, would 3 parents be even better?), or is it because parental prosperity/education/work ethic/whatever affects family stability, or is it because some other unknown and unmeasured factor affects both? This is why we need the open debate – to be able to make that sort of point.

    “but it does cause me to wish that a true free-speech society be recovered in which that point could be fairly made – without getting you treated like a guy with a MAGA hat in a left-run restaurant”

    Yep. Or a gay couple at a conservative adoption agency. 🙂 I totally agree.

  • bobby b

    “The conservative admires evolution up to a couple of decades before the present, but unlike libertarians he is fearful and angry about any recent or, God help us, future evolution.”

    So, she writes in caricatures?

    I think a better way to describe true conservative thought lies in that old quote by G.K. Chesterton: “Don’t ever take a fence down until you know the reason it was put up.”

    Change can be good. Unless things truly suck, change simply for the sake of change is unwise.

  • Julie near Chicago

    Yes, bobby, that is a very good rule of thumb. It’s a major aspect of “look before you leap.”

    Or you might say, “Don’t throw out Gizmo with the Gremlins.”

    Of course, those are rules of thumb. Most of the time we have a period of years or at least some seconds during which to apply these rules. But not always.

  • Snorri Godhi

    Almost all genetic change is neutral, and either has no observable effect

    True. I had in mind genetic change that does have an observable effect; that is to say, phenotypic change.

    or has effects which can be either beneficial or detrimental depending on the environment.

    It depends on what range of environments you allow for, i suppose. The short legs of dachshunds are beneficial in symbiosis with humans, but wolves with such short legs would not have reproduced without humans. Mutations that make organisms infertile are definitely not beneficial in any environment … wait a minute, what about worker ants and worker bees?

    —- Aside from the above point, i get the impression that what neonsnake and Nullius are trying to say is that McCloskey did not mean what she wrote: she meant something else.

    That might well be, but i prefer to address what she wrote, since that is what people are going to understand when they read her short essay.

    Which i have read btw. The distinction that she highlights between the “negative” Golden Rule of the Old Testament and the “positive” Golden Rule of the New Testament is very important imho.

    However, as i stated a month or two ago on Samizdata, i do not believe that we should follow the Golden Rule (either of them), except with people over whom we have unchecked power. I share McCloskey’s concern about our responsibility to the weak, but she does not seem to share my concern about our weakness vis-a-vis the powerful.

  • Snorri Godhi

    PS: if i had to condense my comments into less than 10 lines, i could hardly do better than what bobby wrote.

  • Nullius in Verba

    “So, she writes in caricatures?”

    Who doesn’t?

    “I think a better way to describe true conservative thought lies in that old quote by G.K. Chesterton: “Don’t ever take a fence down until you know the reason it was put up.””

    Which means we’re surrounded by an ever-growing number of fences which we diligently maintain and dogmatically defend without the first idea of where they all come from, what they’re for, whether they’re still useful (or ever were), or what’s on the other side.

    If man was meant to be free, God wouldn’t have given him so many rules and regulations.

  • David Roberts

    “Tradition is a set of solutions for which we have forgotten the problems. Throw away the solution and you get the problem back. Sometimes the problem has mutated or disappeared. Often it is still there as strong as it ever was.” ― Donald Kingsbury, Courtship Rite

    This quote also describes conservative motivation.

  • Excellent quote, David Roberts (September 5, 2019 at 6:55 am); thanks for adding that to my stock.

    Which means we’re surrounded by an ever-growing number of fences which we diligently maintain and dogmatically defend without the first idea of where they all come from, what they’re for, whether they’re still useful (or ever were), or what’s on the other side. (Nullius in Verba, September 5, 2019 at 6:14 am_

    Be fair: Chesterton offers explicit support for the tearing down of a needless fence – after due diligence has been done on why it was first erected (i.e. as against ‘needless’ just meaning that an arrogant intellectual couldn’t see it its purpose at first glance).

    David Roberts quote suggests the alternative: tear it down, notice that problems arise, and build it up again. This can be done with humility (oops, seems I was wrong to think that fence was useless) or with arrogance (I am never wrong – that fence had to die; here’s a bandaid).

    And as for being surrounded by an ever-growing number of fences – that sounds like the world of social justice today. 🙂

  • neonsnake

    Chesterton offers explicit support for the tearing down of a needless fence – after due diligence has been done on why it was first erected

    I don’t necessarily disagree. I believe that I’ve said more than enough on the subject of “unintended consequences” for it to be very clear that I’m not in favour of sweeping radical change, but rather I’ve advocated for “incremental change” with careful reflection on it’s effects, before pressing on if appropriate.

    Where I might disagree – slightly – is that I’d say “Hey, I don’t want to tear down your fence – but is it ok if I put a gate in it? Let me or others go and live outside the fence for a while, and report back.” – with the absolute knowledge and acceptance that I might come back and say it’s fine, we can take the fence down – OR I may come running back screaming “We need a higher fence!!!”

    I accept either outcome, and I wonder if sometimes I give the impression that I believe that every excursion beyond the fence will always result in a fantastically positive outcome.

    I can see why, but it’s not the case – and I refer back to my oft-repeated aversion to “unintended consquences” as evidence. I merely believe that people should have the opportunity to try, and I have faith in free markets (economic or “of ideas”) to adjust accordingly – with the implied notion that we need free markets of economics and of ideas, which we don’t have now, at least to a degree that we’re comfortable with.

    One of the reasons I have faith in the power of the market to adjust is this: I truly believe that an overwhelming number of people, faced with freedom, will choose more “conservative” (in a positive sense) ideals, and be careful and cautious, will not take enormous risks, and will adhere to traditions that have been tried and tested over the years (again, and I apologise if I’m over-egging the pudding, but I’m trying to be very clear – I do not disapprove of those people AT ALL, no matter what impression I may have given before, providing they’re living traditionally because they want to, and not because they are forced to by either law or custom).

    Therefore, the few people who go outside the fence will not cause enormous repercussions when (not if) they get it wrong; any damaging effects can be absorbed.

    One might argue that the evolution of something like the plow is not so much Intelligent Design as Serendipity Design — with continuous improvement as our ancestors learned by doing, came up with bright ideas for improvement, and then developed the technology to be able to implement some of those ideas. Does this process have anything to do with Libertarian ideals? Doubtful!

    This has really confused me.

    It’s very plausible that I’m conflating my Daoism with Libertarianism, and attempting fruitlessly to force the square peg of Libertarianism into the round hole of Daoism.

    I’ll try my best to articulate:

    I believe that the world organises itself better without a governing influence, if left to it’s own devices. We see that in nature. This does not mean that nature is not red in tooth and claw, nor that there are not winners and losers at an individual level. Merely that it works better overall.

    We can apply the same thing to people, and for our purposes, economics. If we take the staggering progress of the last couple of hundred years to be a good thing (overall, while accepting that there were individual winners and losers), then I believe it can be put down to a couple of related factors with respect to the UK.

    Since 1215 (the Magna Carta), the UK has made slow, incremental progress towards liberating a large proportion of it’s populace. Other important dates could include, but are not limited to, 1381 (The Peasant Uprising), the entire 1600s, and 1832 (The Great Reform act).

    A result of this was that (more) people were (relatively) free to trade, and to keep (mostly) their own profits, without the surplus going to (only one example) the feudal lord. That’s the first factor – people could trade and realise the benefit for themselves.

    The second factor, which is related to the first by it’s reliance on freedom, is that they were free to experiment, without a feudal lord (or similar “authority”) telling them how they must trade. So, because they were realising their own profits, they naturally found ways to increase those profits. Undoubtedly, many early experiments blew up in their faces (literally), and eventually, messily, evolved into methods that worked.

    And lo and behold, all measures of human output hockey-stick from 1850 or so onwards.

    Did everyone benefit? No. But did an unfathomably large amount of the entire world benefit, like never before? Yes, I think so.

    So why am I confused by your statement that the difference between Intelligent Design and Serendipitous Design has nothing to do with Libertarian Ideals?

    Because I believe that the idea of letting people organise themselves without governing them, letting them live their own lives, create their own businesses, realise their own profit, and come up with their own ideas, building on other’s ideas, is Serendipitous Design, and has resulted in the great progress of the last couple of centuries. It’s unplanned, and yet, look where it’s got us. It’s not Intelligent Design (lets use Cuba as an example?) which leads to stasis at best, and reversion at worst.

    Serendipitous Design seems to me that everyone looks after themselves, within the overall market of economics and ideas, looks after the things that they can look after, let other people look after themselves, trade goods and ideas, and everyone is enriched by trading between themselves the things that they are better at than the receiver.

    Now, I’ve always understood that because of, amongst some other things, this quote: “there has been such a thing as letting mankind alone; there has never been such a thing as governing mankind” from Chuang Tzu (meaning, there has never been a successful attempt at governing mankind), which is as good an explanation of “wu wei” as any.

    I thought, perhaps incorrectly, that Hayek’s concept of a “Spontaneous Order” was a close enough match to be workable. I honestly thought that the concept of Serendipitous Design vs Intelligent Design was a core concept of Libertarianism, but is this one of those times when I’m asking more of it than it can provide?

  • Gavin Longmuir

    David R: ” I would say it is the evolution of a particular morality in north western Europe.”

    Thank you for that explanation. It brought to mind a short passage from Joel Mokyr’s “Lever of Riches”, talking about “The Years of Miracles: 1750 – 1830” — p. 107, to be precise:
    “Britain, then, had no monopoly on invention, but when it was behind, it shamelessly borrowed, imitated, and stole other nations’ technological knowledge”.
    But I guess that is not the particular morality Ms. McCloskey had in mind.

    There are a lot of necessary but insufficient conditions that had to be fulfilled to create the “Years of Miracles”. But are we simply missing the issue of exponential growth:
    1 – 2 – 4 – 8 – 16 – 32- 64 – 128 – 256 – 512 – 1,024 – …
    A continuous process which has been in progress for a long time suddenly hits 1,024 and we call it the Industrial Revolution. We see what appears to be a rapid acceleration, and forget the many incremental steps over the millenia it took to get there.

  • Gavin Longmuir

    Neonsnake: “I believe that the world organises itself better without a governing influence, if left to it’s own devices.”

    We are probably looking at the same elephant, Neonsnake. You are looking at the trunk & tusks; I am looking at … well, you know what I am looking at.

    Yes, it would be better to get Big Intrusive Government off our backs and out of our way — which some might see as the goal of Libertarianism. But we human beings are social creatures, ‘intelligent ants’, who can achieve great things and create the maximum good for the maximum number if we cooperate — which implies some level of Limited Government. Back to that quotation whose source I cannot remember — “A man alone does not stand a chance”. The challenge we humans have never been able to resolve is how to keep Government (i.e. our Political Class of other mere human beings) within proper limits.

    Barry Soetero polluted the pond when he characterized government as the ‘things we do together’. But with a properly Limited Government, he would be pointing in the right direction. Since this thread is supposed to be on the growth of technology, look at the case of John Harrison in the 1700s building a very accurate timepiece which allowed for much improved ocean navigation by solving the problem of calculating longitude. The need for a good way to measure longitude had been obvious since Columbus’ day — but in the subsequent 2 centuries, no individual had solved the problem.

    The British government in the 1700s offered a large cash prize, and also provided some financial support for inventors. Any individual ship-owner or free association of ship-owners could have done the same thing many decades earlier — but they had not. Harrison built a very accurate watch which finally achieved the goal. However, his watch owed a debt to ideas from earlier watchmakers. Additionally, the materials used to make his watch relied on developments in the field of metallurgy by many generations of earlier humans. And the tools Harrison used to manufacture his watch had been thought up by other earlier people. Harrison’s achievement is reminiscent of Newton’s statement about ‘standing on the shoulders of giants’.

    Creativity and productivity come from individuals; at the same time, as a social species we need some form of Limited Government as a means for effective cooperation. The unresolved challenge is that a UK government which can at one time wisely & efficiently stimulate a solution to the problem of longitude can at another time also very wastefully mandate that the countryside be littered with hopelessly uneconomic unsustainable bird-whackers. Limited Government is a goal which human beings have yet to make real.

  • Nullius in Verba

    “Be fair: Chesterton offers explicit support for the tearing down of a needless fence – after due diligence has been done on why it was first erected (i.e. as against ‘needless’ just meaning that an arrogant intellectual couldn’t see it its purpose at first glance).”

    Yes, though I would change the emphasis slightly and put it that one ought to do due diligence on why it was first erected before being allowed to keep the fence.

    I don’t like unnecessary fences. I don’t like old fences, so I’m not a conservative. I don’t like new fences, so I’m not a progressive. I like liberty.

    A gross over-simplification of complex and nuanced ideologies, I know! But stereotypes often exist for a reason. 🙂

  • neonsnake

    But I guess that is not the particular morality Ms. McCloskey had in mind.

    There are a lot of necessary but insufficient conditions that had to be fulfilled to create the “Years of Miracles”. But are we simply missing the issue of exponential growth:
    1 – 2 – 4 – 8 – 16 – 32- 64 – 128 – 256 – 512 – 1,024 – …
    A continuous process which has been in progress for a long time suddenly hits 1,024 and we call it the Industrial Revolution. We see what appears to be a rapid acceleration, and forget the many incremental steps over the millenia it took to get there.

    I agree; there’s a small uplift post 1600 in the UK which might (or might not) be down to the Great Revolution. It’s always difficult to say for sure.

    I hope I don’t miss all of the many steps, but undoubtedly I will miss some (I gave some dates that I believe are important, but I will, necessarily, have missed LOTS).

    As for morality – I’m slightly unclear on the question, to be fair.

    Ms McCloskey is a devout Christian, FWIW. I don’t know if that helps.

    I’ve seen her say, and I agree, that part of the moral difference was that “at some point”, trade stopped being seen as an immoral way to make money (as opposed to being an upstanding member of the aristocracy, clergy, etc, and earning your money through doing f-all!)

    And then, and Snorri touched on this earlier:

    She contrasts these two points:

    “Do not do unto others what you would not want done unto yourself.”

    With

    “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”

    And says that we need both.

    I tend to agree, but to me it’s a truism, not a revelation.

    I am looking at … well, you know what I am looking at.

    Gavin! How rude that you’re looking at that!

    😉

    Lightheartedness aside, mate – just so I don’t misunderstand – where are you looking?

    I probably agree that we’re looking at the same problem from different angles. You speak about cooperation, and I speak about trade. I believe trade is cooperation, and that learning from other people/cultures is a form of trade of ideas.

    Is that something we agree on, or diverge on? Not a critique, just wanting to make sure I’m not misunderstanding.

  • neonsnake

    one ought to do due diligence on why it was first erected before being allowed to keep the fence.

    You would?

    I’m curious – am I actually more conservative than you, when I say “keep your fence, just let me stick a gate in it”, do you think?

  • “Hey, I don’t want to tear down your fence – but is it ok if I put a gate in it? Let me or others go and live outside the fence for a while, and report back.” – with the absolute knowledge and acceptance that I might come back and say it’s fine, we can take the fence down – OR I may come running back screaming “We need a higher fence!!!”

    A good society is indeed free enough to get information in this way. History is replete with left-wingers who become ‘apostates’ and, often-enough, the most vigorous opponents of of the far side of the fence are those who defected from it (socialism is one classic example).

    Also, there will always be those who can only discover the right side of the fence by visiting the other. While in abstract theory, this guy could have saved himself some time and trouble by never doubting his gender identity, perhaps that is a false alternative and in practice he could never have made up his mind – and maintained his admirable intent to go on being an individual – without trying on the other for size. We all of us have learned some lessons at a higher price than was in theory necessary. Was it Adam Smith who said, “Experience is the teacher of mankind and most will learn from no other”?

    And of course, asserting the probabilities, as Snorri and I did above, is to assert that the improbabilities will – must – sometimes occur. You won’t always come running back shouting “We need a higher fence” – just, to the conservative mind, usually. 🙂

  • neonsnake

    So, she writes in caricatures?

    I think a better way to describe true conservative thought lies in that old quote by G.K. Chesterton: “Don’t ever take a fence down until you know the reason it was put up.”

    Certainly in stereotypes, at least.

    In part, I chose “that” quote to illustrate why I’m somewhat hesitant to describe myself as “a” conservative, despite “being” conservative in some ways, whilst at the same time being more open to new ideas and not as apprehensive about them as your stereotypical “conservative”.

    As I said elsewhere, I’m probably happy to accept your definition of conservative; but maybe not the UK definition of (capital-C) Conservative.

    It’s a horrible balancing act right now in the UK, for people of my ilk 🙂

  • Nullius in Verba

    “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”

    I’ve always thought the issue with that one was that it assumes everyone wants the same things done to them. But do unto others as they would have you do to them, so that others will do to you what you want those others to do to you – it’s doesn’t have quite the same snap, does it?

    “I’m curious – am I actually more conservative than you, when I say “keep your fence, just let me stick a gate in it”, do you think?”

    Is ‘a gate’ ‘a fence’? (Like, when is a door not a door…?)

    What’s the difference between an open gate, and no fence? Is it about who decides when you’re allowed to open it?

    “While in abstract theory, this guy could have saved himself some time and trouble by never doubting his gender identity, perhaps that is a false idea and in practice he could never have made up his mind – and maintained his admirable intent to go on being an individual – without trying on the other for size.”

    It wasn’t doubt about his/her gender identity that proved to be the core lesson. It was that despite society saying this particular fence is no longer applicable, it was a lie and the fences turned out to be higher than ever. Muslim conservatives maintain the old fences, left-wing progressive have erected new ones. Non-conformity is not tolerated by either side.

  • neonsnake

    You won’t always come running back shouting “We need a higher fence” – just, to the conservative mind, usually. 🙂

    So what?

    Why is that such a problem? What does that take away from you?

    I’m not asking, I’m not demanding, that you come with me outside the fence. I’m just saying “let me”.

    Why are you so scared of that?

    It’s my choice to do so, isn’t it?

  • neonsnake

    What’s the difference between an open gate, and no fence? Is it about who decides when you’re allowed to open it?

    I say it’s my choice. And if people want to sit behind their fence, then cool. There up to them. But give me the gate.

  • I would change the emphasis slightly and put it that one ought to do due diligence on why it was first erected before being allowed to keep the fence. (Nullius in Verba, September 5, 2019 at 4:20 pm)

    One could define a conservative – more usefully than McCloskey does – as someone who believes the fence is innocent until proven guilty, and a left-winger as someone who believes those who tear it down are innocent until proven guilty. However such rival beliefs are merely consequences of a more basic disagreement. If articulated rationality were a huge proportion of the total knowledge of the human race, there would be little need to defer to past customs. But if it is not – if customs embody the unarticulated experience of the past – then more caution is indicated.

  • Gavin Longmuir

    neonsnake: “You speak about cooperation, and I speak about trade. I believe trade is cooperation, and that learning from other people/cultures is a form of trade of ideas.”

    I think we are very close in what we are trying to articulate. But when one is staring at an elephant’s ass, things don’t seem as rosy as when one is looking straight into its eyes. 🙂

    Voluntary trade is a key component of what has brought the developed world to its current state, with less poverty and abuse, and more people living longer, better-fed, more comfortable lives. However, voluntary trade may be another one of those “necessary but insufficient conditions” for economic progress. We also need to have ways to keep the playing field level so that voluntary trade can proceed unimpeded — whether that is trade in goods, services, music, art, ideas. Some measure of cooperation between human beings is required for that, and historically we have always ended up with some form of government — be it simple respect for the tribal leader’s ruling or slavish kowtowing to some United Nations dictat.

    The trouble is that government grows; historical experience on this is undeniable. We choose Ghengis Khan as the leader of our little band of nomads, and before long he is using us to try to take over the world. That is the challenge — how to get the cooperation necessary to permit unimpeded voluntary trade without empowering a Political Class which aims to control us? It is tough to get Limited Government.

  • You won’t always come running back shouting “We need a higher fence” – just, to the conservative mind, usually. 🙂

    So what? Why is that such a problem? What does that take away from you? (neonsnake, September 5, 2019 at 6:59 pm)

    My phrasing was not intended to suggest there was a problem for me – that’s why I began

    A good society is indeed free enough to get information in this way.

    and ended

    And of course … the improbabilities will – must – sometimes occur

    It is said that 4 in every 5 start-ups fail. It is said that (of those mutations that have a real effect) the ratio of beneficial to harmful is less than one in a million. The cost of a failed startup is borne by the investor. The cost of a failed government programme is met by you and me and other citizens. So I’m all for private individuals being the ones that go beyond the fence and bring back wise warnings or startling information – or an ego that cannot admit it was a bad idea. Meanwhile, the urgency with which I advise anyone I care about not to bother will reflect whether I think the attempt would have a one-in-five chance of succeeding or only a one-in-a-million chance.

  • It wasn’t doubt about his/her gender identity that proved to be the core lesson (Nullius in Verba, , September 5, 2019 at 6:58 pm)

    The main point of his article is indeed about something quite different, but in the process of describing what he learned about SJWs, he also, simply as background, describes something he learned about himself. That was the bit that seemed relevant to this discussion, and specifically to neonsnake’s gate – that for the author of that article personally, going beyond the fence might have been the only way to come back.

  • “Britain, then, had no monopoly on invention, but when it was behind, it shamelessly borrowed, imitated, and stole other nations’ technological knowledge” (Mokyr, quoted by Gavin Longmuir, September 5)

    It was rather other governments that shamelessly stole the profits of inventors – or threatened to do so. The UK had unusually stable laws, currency, tax regimes, etc., so getting funding for turning inventions into profitable businesses was easier and the chance of reaping (and keeping) the rewards more sure. As a result, foreign inventors, of their own free will (more often than foreign inventions, by theft) went to the UK.

  • Snorri Godhi

    Somewhat surprisingly, neonsnake is the first to explicitly mention Hayek and spontaneous order. It seems to me that the concept of spontaneous order can be used to argue both for tradition/conservatism and for innovation. You might be interested in Edward Feser’s essay, which also explores the connection between Hayek and Darwin. (I note that i disagree with Feser on some fundamental issues not relevant to that essay.)

    Apart from the tension between tradition and innovation, there is another tension inherent in spontaneous order. To phrase it in Chesterton’s terms (and paraphrasing a US Founding Father whose name eludes me): the natural tendency is for more fences to be put up than are removed. Or, as David D. Friedman (i believe) put it: the only true market failure is the failure to stop the growth of the State.

    I mention this problem with the concept of spontaneous order, even though i have no solutions to offer, other than a heuristic: before advocating for change, try to make sure that the change you are proposing will minimize the overall number of fences. Once you have thought it out, you might discover that, in the great scheme of things, it is best to leave many existing fences in place; or even add a new fence at a strategic location. For instance, the US/Mexico border.

  • neonsnake

    Somewhat surprisingly, neonsnake is the first to explicitly mention Hayek

    I enjoy surprising people.

    Go on? Your implications is that I’m wrong to do so.

    *Grin*

    “Sunshine”

  • neonsnake

    Somewhat surprisingly, neonsnake is the first to explicitly mention Hayek and spontaneous order</blockquote

    Actually, I'm sorry. Your point is made and taken.

  • neonsnake

    The cost of a failed startup is borne by the investor. The cost of a failed government programme is met by you and me and other citizens. So I’m all for private individuals being the ones that go beyond the fence

    I think I’m just too tired of arguing for allowance of that, honestly.

  • bobby b

    “I don’t like old fences, so I’m not a conservative. I don’t like new fences, so I’m not a progressive. I like liberty.”

    “Don’t play in the freeway” is a fence. “Don’t touch the fire” is a fence. “Don’t just eat doughnuts” is a fence. “Don’t be gay” is a fence.

    Some of these fences have proven to be well-founded. Some have not. The only reason we now understand which are which is because people have built Neonsnake’s gates, and have gone out and explored the origins of those fences.

    We’ll always have, and need, fences. But we cannot just accept the fences blindly. And Chesterton, in his quote, explicitly acknowledges the need for gates when he says ” . . . until you know . . . ” “Until.”

    “Until” is not the same as “unless.” “Until” implies some continuing effort. It implies the constant questioning to which we ought to be subjecting our fences. It implies gates.

  • bobby b

    ” . . . before advocating for change, try to make sure that the change you are proposing will minimize the overall number of fences.”

    Wasn’t that the entire point of the Golden Rule? One distillate of all interactional fences that cuts to the prime driver without the unintentional effects?

  • Gavin Longmuir

    Niall K: “The UK had unusually stable laws, currency, tax regimes, etc., so getting funding for turning inventions into profitable businesses was easier and the chance of reaping (and keeping) the rewards more sure. As a result, foreign inventors, of their own free will (more often than foreign inventions, by theft) went to the UK.”

    That is probably debatable — but then, what isn’t? To take one of Mokyr’s examples, Germany in the 19th Century made itself the center of the investment-heavy chemical industry — to the extent that, within living memory, many UK and US universities required students of chemistry to take courses in technical German. Clearly, the UK did not have a monopoly on being a desirable site for investment.

    On the other hand, Karl Marx chose to go to England — but I am not sure that is an example of what you are talking about. 🙂

  • Nullius in Verba

    “One could define a conservative – more usefully than McCloskey does – as someone who believes the fence is innocent until proven guilty, and a left-winger as someone who believes those who tear it down are innocent until proven guilty.”

    As I keep on insisting, left-wingers are not the people who want no fences, they’re the people who want different fences, in different places. Not at all the same thing.

    People are in opposition to fences/laws. People are innocent until proven guilty. Laws restricting people are hence guilty until proven innocent.

    “But if it is not – if customs embody the unarticulated experience of the past – then more caution is indicated.”

    ‘Customs’ are the legacy of thousands of years of authoritarianism. Customs were all new social innovations once, and thus are largely the fruit of thousands of once-pregressive victories. People are the same now as they ever were – and so are progressives.

    “the natural tendency is for more fences to be put up than are removed.”

    Agreed. Well put.

    ““Don’t play in the freeway” is a fence. “Don’t touch the fire” is a fence. “Don’t just eat doughnuts” is a fence. “Don’t be gay” is a fence.”

    Over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign.

    “Once you have thought it out, you might discover that, in the great scheme of things, it is best to leave many existing fences in place; or even add a new fence at a strategic location. For instance, the US/Mexico border.”

    It’s the wrong solution. We need to find a way to fix Mexico, not wall it out. Stop people wanting/needing to cross the border. Make Mexico as prosperous as the USA.

    Protectionism is never a good idea.

  • Gavin Longmuir

    “Protectionism is never a good idea.”

    Now I understand why you leave your front door unlocked. Your back door too. And your garage door. And why you always leave the keys to your car in the ignition when you park it.

  • Julie near Chicago

    Gee, and here the U.S. gets such a dreadful rap for daring to try “nation-building” in Iraq.

    (If sources are correct, most people trying to immigrate into my country illegally across our southern border aren’t Mexican.)

  • Julie near Chicago

    Gavin,

    In my day, we didn’t lock our house doors (except the front door, which nobody ever used). Nor our cars. Nor take the key out of the ignition, except we had to start doing that when we discovered that if you did lock your car door, you needed the key to open it again. :>(((

    Point being: I just about went nu-kew-lar in the early ’60s when I started hearing the advertisement on the radio:

    Don’t make a good boy a thief. Lock your car door.

    😡

  • RRS

    To Brian,

    Indebted as I am for the links to the scholarship of Emmanuel Todd you have provided us, I am a bit abashed to suggest your considering what that work offers us in understanding how the organization of the social aggregations and their fundamentals affect the courses of their development.

  • bobby b

    “In my day . . . “

    Don’t listen to them. It’s still our day!

    “Don’t make a good boy a thief.”

    Same reaction. You cannot make a good boy a thief. You can reveal a boy to be one, maybe.

  • RRS

    The cultural attainments of societies, including (perhaps especially)the material aspects, are probably dependent largely on the factors that determine and delineate the human relationships amongst their members.

    The studies of North, Wallis & Weingast offer a useful framework in exploring the concept of “Open Access” on the formation and development of relationships; in particular respect to Northern European and North American experience.

  • Julie near Chicago

    bobby, I’ll drink to that! (You supply the mead. *g*)

    [You won’t get rid of that till I get tired of bringing it up…along with the Lamborghini, and with the pergola thrown in for good measure. (Probably sometime around 2031, if world hasn’t gone to blazes by then, as I am assured will definitely be the case.) It was an entertaining little moment in the comments.]

    . . .

    RRS,

    Goood to hear from you again. Tend to agree. Thanks for the reference. :>))

  • Snorri Godhi

    Nullius:

    It’s the wrong solution. We need to find a way to fix Mexico, not wall it out. Stop people wanting/needing to cross the border. Make Mexico as prosperous as the USA.

    Good to see that you endorse a return to colonialism, but i am a bit confused by that “We”: i thought you were British.

    Protectionism is never a good idea.

    I assume that, in this context, protectionism means closed borders.

    If so, you might want to discuss it with British and French Jews, and Dutch gays. They understand the issue much better than me, and unlike their American counterparts, they seem to think that the drawbacks of multiculturalism outweigh the advantages.

    Julie:

    Gee, and here the U.S. gets such a dreadful rap for daring to try “nation-building” in Iraq.

    I assume that this is aimed at NiV’s pro-colonial argument?

  • Nullius in Verba

    “Good to see that you endorse a return to colonialism, but i am a bit confused by that “We”: i thought you were British.”

    Colonialism with the consent and cooperation of the colonised, yes.

    “We” as in advocates for free-market capitalism and liberty. This is the sort of policy we ought to be advocating for everyone everywhere, out of principle, not just in our own back yard out of self-interest.

    “We” as in Westerners – the British (and for that matter, the Europeans generally) have exactly the same problem of letting people move in instead of encouraging our culture to spread out.

    “We” as in humanity – we’re all in it together, it’s a problem for us all. We need to stop thinking in ‘us’-and-‘them’ terms, dehumanising and dismissing those who are not ‘one of us’, saying their problems are not our problems.

    We as humans should want *all* humans to be both free and prosperous. As such, it is a problem for all of us to figure out how to get there, how to have those who already know how to do it teach it to those who don’t. Those who build a wall around themselves, and only care about those people inside it, are thinking tribally – a mindset that leads naturally on to Protectionism. ‘We’ have got all the answers, all the knowledge, all the technology, and we’re keeping them so we can keep our advantage. Naturally, when you build a wall like that, people want to find ways to cross it, and the market provides. It’s like illegal drugs or tariffs or taxes or minimum wage laws or any barrier to trade – build a wall, and there’s money to be made circumventing it. That’s the market trying to tell you there’s a problem, and attempting to find a solution.

    Free market principles apply to markets generally. That includes the labour market, and the market in cultures and ideas. Until we stop building walls and accept that we’re all humans together, turbulence and strife around the barriers will always arise.

    The route to change is to first identify the real problem. The problem is that many countries are third-world shitholes that people hate living in. So fix that problem. That fixes both the ethical problem of reducing suffering, and also happens to fix our little immigration problem as well. It’s the same way that the way to fix the drugs war and the crime it drives is to legalise drugs, not to build higher walls and install more guards and cameras to stop people finding ways round our barriers. The right solution to a trade-barrier conflict is never to build stronger, higher, nastier barriers, it’s always to remove the motivation to cross it, to satisfy the need. Teach people how.

  • Nullius in Verba

    “Gee, and here the U.S. gets such a dreadful rap for daring to try “nation-building” in Iraq.”

    Only from the isolationists and the dictator-supporters – not from me.

    “If so, you might want to discuss it with British and French Jews, and Dutch gays. They understand the issue much better than me, and unlike their American counterparts, they seem to think that the drawbacks of multiculturalism outweigh the advantages.”

    Yes, the problem again is building a higher wall instead of working to spread liberty and tolerance. Sometimes you do need to build walls temporarily, just to survive, but it’s not enough; it can only ever be a short-term mitigation while you work on it. Only the latter approach of education really solves the problem.

  • neonsnake

    “Until” is not the same as “unless.” “Until” implies some continuing effort. It implies the constant questioning to which we ought to be subjecting our fences. It implies gates.

    Exactly. I’ve been attempting (with varying levels of success) to hold the metaphor of fences in firmly in my head as referring not just to “customs”, but also to “regulations”, of the type which didn’t really exist in 1850, lack of which would have helped fuel the boost in economy, but which exist now.

    I would very much treat those as “fence”, whereby we should be reviewing them. Because I’m very clever compared to the great unwashed, I know that regulations exist purely as a barrier to trade…*cough*…and that we’d be far better off without them. So we should get rid of them all. Today.

    …except I don’t know that at all. I don’t know which ones genuinely make all sorts of sense from a health and safety perspective (a regulation that poisons should be marked “Poisonous”, to use the classic example); so we should leave the fence up, stick a gate in it and let the adventurous types through to have a good look and report back on the results.

    Might turn out that regulations that force companies to list allergens on food products are actually a bloody good idea. Might turn out that regulations that force companies to list calorie counts are a bit silly (to use two blindingly obvious examples).

    My sense is that we’d end up with far fewer fences, but I wouldn’t be comfortable risking a whole bunch of deaths because people can’t tell what does and doesn’t have peanuts in it.

    ‘Customs’ are the legacy of thousands of years of authoritarianism. Customs were all new social innovations once, and thus are largely the fruit of thousands of once-pregressive victories.

    I don’t know. I’d assumed that most customs had sprung up over time, spontaneously, and then we’d forgotten why, and enforced them with authority from religion etc – rather than them being invented by said authoritarians.

    My sense up-thread that most people, freed from constraints, will continue to lead largely “traditional” lives comes partly from a view that most customs evolved spontaneously over time because they worked; then we later applied dogma to them and forgot why they worked, or indeed if they worked.

    I feel the same about customs as I do regulations – cautious. If someone has reason to challenge the existence of a custom, we should listen, give them the fairest hearing, and absolutely let them “through the gate” to live differently to said custom; I’m not sure I think we should take a bulldozer to the fence 🙂

    And I still think that a number of the fences would probably end up coming down. But I’m less precious, as long as the gates are there.

    *EDIT*

    …bugger.

    Re-reading that, I think I actually am a conservative.

    😉

  • Jacob

    I distrust people who have unitary explanations of historic phenomena which they preset with great conviction in popular history books. Like – why the Roman empire fell, or why slavery came to be abolished, or why the industrial revolution began in “western Europe” (it began in England).

    Why was India, China and Africa dirty-poor 40 years ago, while the US, Western Europe and Japan – were prosperous? Why is India and Africa still so poor while so many in China are more prosperous?
    Why did Chinese Communism embrace free enterprise (well, somewhat freer) while North Korea and Cuba did not? Why did those countries embrace Communism (or fall into Communism) in the first place while India didn’t? And India remained poor nevertheless?

    History is very complicated. The ones pushing unitary, explain-all theses are unconvincing.

    I haven’t read Davies’ book, but the review and Davies’s own article linked above left me very unconvinced.

  • Gavin Longmuir

    NIV: “The problem is that many countries are third-world shitholes that people hate living in. So fix that problem.”

    OK, I will gladly hold your beer while you fix that problem which afflicts several billion people. But what are you going to do tomorrow, after you have taken care of that little trifle?

  • Nullius in Verba

    “OK, I will gladly hold your beer while you fix that problem which afflicts several billion people. But what are you going to do tomorrow, after you have taken care of that little trifle?”

    Drink my beer. 🙂

  • lucklucky

    I don’t agree at all with premises of this text. It seems to be written from an Anglo Saxon medieval perception and that is ignoring someone like Shakespeare.

    “The economic and cultural centre of the world, at least until the late eighteenth century, was not Europe but rather the lands around the Indian Ocean.”

    In Italy started the banking business by 1300s, Portuguese navigators were adventuring in Atlantic by 1400, followed by Spanish, Renaissance started in Italy.

    What are the concepts/word of economy and culture in medieval. renaissance Europe vs Asia? I think to reach any conclusion we will have to know the historical language concepts of Europeans vs Chinese. What narratives appeared for example. How many new words appeared each 100 years? Where was the Overton Window in those times? How a society rewarded initiative. What influence had Christian proselytism?

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