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Enlarging the Bounds of Human Empire: A History of Economic Growth
Time for Another Book Project, a Follow-Up to "Slouching Towards Utopia"? Quite possibly. Here is an opening bid...
“Enlarging of the bounds of Human Empire, to the effecting of all things possible”—that was and is economic growth is, as Francis Bacon wrote early in the 1600s in his [New Atlantis]. This was, as Bacon correctly saw, to be accomplished by gaining “the knowledge of causes, and secret motions of things” through research. And Bacon was very confident indeed of his vision. For, he wrote in [The Great Instauration]:
Observe the force and effect and consequences of discoveries…. Three… unknown to the ancients… printing, gunpowder, and the magnet. For these three have changed the whole face and state of things throughout the world; the first in literature, the second in warfare, the third in navigation; whence have followed innumerable changes, insomuch that no empire, no sect, no star seems to have exerted greater power and influence in human affairs than these mechanical discoveries…. We judge that far greater things remain to be discovered… promise ourselves much greater things from our methodical way of seeking knowledge…. Nothing stands in the way of this search… These things are near at hand and within our very grasp; seeing that it is not a case of creating new worlds or finding new kingdoms…
And he was right. But it wound up taking a lot longer than he thought it would. When he wrote, the process still had more than half a milennium to run.
I believe that there are thirteen key takeaways from the history of economic growth—a Baker’s Dozen:
There has been a lot of it: The value of the human knowledge stock for manipulating nature and organizing ourselves productively today is perhaps 1000 times what it was back in the year –8000; but that was not all, for there had been a lot of gaining “the knowledge of Causes and of the secret motions of things” between –8000 and –800,000, and a lot gained between –800,000 and –3,000,000, when “we” (for some suitable definition of “we”) had the same rough knowledge level as our proto-chimpanzee cousins then and our chimpanzee cousins now.
We have succeeded at economic growth and knowledge accumulation because we are a culture-creating anthology intelligence: individually each of us is so stupid that we cannot reliably remember where we left our keys last night, but together we are brilliant—especially with language, and then especially with settlement after which we can inscribe our knowledge in the form of our individual and societal physical capital, especially with writing and printing that turn us into a space- and time-binding anthology intelligence.
Economic growth has been astonishingly rapid in the modern economic growth age since 1870: averaging 2% per year or so—that’s a doubling ever 35 years in the value of the stock of human knowledge, every generation.
Economic growth was astonishingly slow before 1500: it was 0.2% per year or so in the commercial-society and industrial-steampower transition ages from 1500 to 1870, 0.03% per year or so in the agrarian-age years –6000 to 1500, 0.004% per year or so in the out-of-Africa gatherer-hunter years from –48000 to –6000, and even less before that.
We have failed to use post–1870 growth to create a truly good society—one in which our wealth is distributed equitably, and used wisely and well so that people feel safe and secure and are healthy and happy; killer robots stalk the skies above Ukraine, and around the world a great many are very upset at the idea that the undeserving have as much of the good things of life as they do.
That said, today’s world is nearly infinitely closer to utopia than the world of any past century: from –6000 to 1500, even 1870, even 1950 in large parts of the world, humanity was caught in a Malthusian trap in which there could not be other than widespread desperate poverty, and lives that were short and brutish even if not always nasty.
Successful post–1870 growth is due to five factors: (1) the mercenary institution of the market economy, (2) the fiduciary institution of modern science, (3) their interface in the form of the industrial research lab and the modern corporation, (4) governments that seek to and are competent at supporting economic growth, and (5) the globalization that has enlarged our productive division of labor to maximum scope.
Growth failure before 1500 was due to oligarchy: in spite of all the technological low-hanging fruit, it was then materially and psychologically more rewarding for the élite that controlled society’s deployable resources to use them to run a force-and-fraud exploitation-and-domination game rather than to devote them to economic growth.
There were efflorescences back in the agrarian, the commercial-society, and the industrial-steampower ages: places where in some eras the exploitation-and-domination game was less vicious, or possibly just more efficient, and many or even most could be less uncomfortable.
But there were no breakthroughs, no escapes from ensorcellment by the Devil of Malthus, until the 1800s; then escape came in the 300-mile circle around the port of Dover at the southeast corner of Britain.
The reasons for the 1800s Dover-circle breakthrough remain a mystery: there is no fully convincing story for why the breakthrough had not come before and yet came there and then.
The value of what economic growth there was before 1500 is difficult to assess: a world in which, in spite of greatly improved technology, ensorcellment by the Devil of Malthus keeps most people poor and desperate while the élite runs its exploitation-and-domination game; yet also a world in which humans have increasing access to a more sophisticated high culture, which includes increasingly complex and satisfying stories that make sense of their lives and of society.
It is likely that the process of the enlargement of the human empire is near its end: if it is not, then the principle of mediocrity tells us that we almost certainly had predecessors here in our galaxy, yet we see them not.
Is there a Grand Narrative?
If there is, it is that:
Humanity finally managed, after a long struggle, to evolve the fiduciary institution of science to harness our anthology intelligence to exploring and discovering how the world works.
Humanity managed to evolve the mercenary institution of the market economy, which could then be turned to harness our anthology intelligence to the crowdsourcing of the creation of the process knowledge needed to apply science to produce enough to create the possibility of freedom from want.
But in the course of that process humanity also evolved—certainly culturally and possibly in our genetic heritage too—institutions that keep us from using our wealth properly to promote human flourishing.
And so humanity is still hag-ridden by our practices of domination, exploitation, force, fraud, jealousy, and spite.
And there is no clear way out and through.