There’s been more technological innovation in the past 20 years than there was over most of the previous 200,000 years. For most of our existence as a species, humans tended to use the same sort of primitive tools, to perform the same tasks, from one year to the next.
When there was, for example, a slight improvement in the design of a stone-age hand axe, it seems to have come about over centuries. Today, by contrast, we take it for granted that the tools we hold in our hands today, such as the latest smartphone, will be a better design than the clunky mobile phone we had only a few years before.
While most people that have ever lived would have not noticed any improvement in the technology around them over the course of their lives, today improvements happen over a matter of months.
It’s not just technology that’s improving at an ever faster rate, either. Human living standards have risen dramatically, too.
Pick almost any time in human history, and until very recently most people that lived only just about managed to get by, with hunger never far away.
Even when slow improvements in technology – the switch from stone tools to ones made of metal, for example, or improvement in agriculture – increased output, people stayed poor. Better tools might have enabled people to produce more food, but they also tended to produce more people, too. People almost everywhere remained poor – until remarkably recently.
It’s often claimed that England was the first country to increase per capita output, when she underwent an industrial revolution. In fact, there are examples of other societies achieving sustained increases in per capita output even earlier; the Dutch from the fifteenth century, Venice in the Middle Ages, as well as perhaps Song China and Abbasid Iraq. If you look back even further, there are examples of sustained increases in per capita output in the republics of Rome and Greece, too.
Apart from in those societies, almost nowhere else did anyone enjoy any sort of sustained increase in per capita output – unless it was by taking wealth off someone else.
What was exceptional about those societies that achieved per capita increases in output is that power within them was dispersed; either by accident – Greece was a mosaic of city states – or design – republican Rome and Venice had constitutions that prevented anyone person holding too much power.
This dispersal of power meant that the default tendency for a small elite to rig society in their own interest was curtailed. As I argue in my new book, Progress Vs Parasites, this was the essential precursor for the improvement in the human condition.
With those at the apex of society constrained, the productive were able to engage in specialisation and exchange. It was this that allowed dramatic increases in output per person. When, as happened in all of these pre-modern societies, the parasitic eventually overwhelmed various constraints, they were able to predate off the productive and per capita output fell back to what it was before.
Over the past 50 years, its no longer just the West plus Japan that’s now open to specialisation and exchange. In the 1950s and 60s, four small Asian states – Hong Kong, Singapore, Taiwan and South Korea – opened themselves up to the global economy, and dramatically began to catch up with the West.
Then starting with China in the 1980s, the larger Asian states started to follow. Today, the process of specialisation and exchange — and the higher living standards it brings — is starting to take root in Africa too.
Unlike some of the previous, episodic periods of human progress in the distant past, the process of specialisation and exchange seems well established. Have we reached a point where further progress is now inevitable? Is it now impossible for parasitic elites to take over again?
In Progress Vs Parasites, I argue small elites persist in trying to parasite off the productive. Contrary to what many assume, rationalism is no guarantee that we will remain free. Indeed, I show in my book how small elites invoking a kind of uber-rationalism have been responsible for the hideous reversal of human progress on several occasions since the French revolution. So, too, today with the insistence by powerful elites within the West that we move towards a new kind of technocratic system of government.
If we want to ensure that tomorrow is better than today, we need to constantly confront those that insist human social and economic affairs are best arranged by blueprint. The priesthood and their creed might change from one generation to the next. The danger posed by small elites is unrelenting.
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