history Politics

Political Diversity Drives Innovation

Humans are most ingenious when challenged.  China’s best innovations and culture came from the period of warring states.  Greece’s best advances came during an age of competing city states.  So too with renaissance Italy and later, from Germany.  The rise of Europe was itself a phenomenon of political diversity with no one empire ever able to dominate for long.
The rulers of societies normally have every reason to oppose change — it’s good to be king.
But the threat of competitors forces rulers to challenge their natural conservatism in the quest to grasp for any possible advantage over their rivals.  Only a Pope desperate to show off legitimacy commissions the most skilled — a disagreeable autistic like Michelangelo — instead of someone from a better family, better versed in sycophancy.  Art, culture, science, philosophy, mathematics all surge forward when the rulers must struggle.

Political monopolies, on the other hand, suffocate innovation as surely as a commercial monopoly.  The US is a state with no serious external threats.  Its GDP is 60% larger than that of a distant second place China, 3 times as large as Japan in 3rd place.  No power on earth poses an existential military threat nor has any compelling reason to fight an all out war.  What’s more, the US is geographically isolated from what few possible rivals it could possibly have.  Never has a great power enjoyed such incredible security.

In the total absence of serious competitors, the US is sinking into an age of stagnation and darkness.
Despite the largest, best educated population any nation has ever had with the most wealth to make productive activity possible, with the best access to information anyone has ever had, innovation is slowing and more labor is sunk into activities that produce nothing or are even harmful.  Many of the institutions that run American society have ossified so that the adoption of new ideas becomes impossible.
The trouble perhaps isn’t the threat of collapse but that a mediocre, destructive society and way of life can linger indefinitely if by virtue of its critical mass, its errors are never fully punished and corrected by the harsh forces of reality.  The self destructive Soviet Union lasted as a major power for half a century even with powerful enemies.  Perhaps the greatest horror is that a USA with no opposition could spend a couple hundred years degenerating before finally ceasing to exist, much like the Western Roman empire.

Comparisons with Rome are perhaps cliche by now, though, so China provides another comparison with the state America is becoming.
China like America has long been isolated from most external threats by geographical boundaries and has tended to be politically centralized.
Chinese dynasties would often have a high period of art and achievement but then sink into complacency until they were sufficiently vulnerable to outside invaders and internal dissent.
Once rulers realize they can simply plunder their own people without competitors taking advantage of the weakened structures they leave behind, they happily do so until finally, often a few generations later, the racket is up.

The printing press proved to be a major disruption of old patterns as too many people came to know too much.  The internet is the new printing press that will for the first time make internal forces more of a challenge to the state than the rivalry of other states.  Simply speeding up the spread of ideas will make it harder for rulers of states to sink into satisfied complacency, dabbling in disastrous policies and fostering the mediocre until their rotted house finally falls down.  For now, though, the most powerful state in history ambles onward, seemingly oblivious of the forces of change.
No other state is a threat but a US superpower finds itself struggling for the recognition of its existence from within rather than the preservation of its sovereignty from without.

By Giovanni Dannato

In 1547 I was burnt at the stake in Rome for my pernicious pamphlet proclaiming that the heavens were not filled with a profusion of aether, but rather an extensive vacuum.
Now, the phlogiston that composed my being has re-manifested centuries in the future so that I may continue the task that was inconveniently disrupted so long ago.
Now, I live in Rome on the very street where I (and others) were publicly burnt. To this day, the street is known as what I would translate as 'Heretic's Way'. My charming residence is number 6 on this old road. Please, do come inside and pay me a visit; I should be delighted to spew out endless pedagoguery to one and all...

3 replies on “Political Diversity Drives Innovation”

The internet is less of a discontinuity than the printing press. It does lead a new kind of what Szabo calls consciousness, but less so.
That said, perhaps the faster pace of change means the discontinuity will be traversed faster, and thus perhaps be intense enough to do something.

There is an absolute threshold that has little to do with publishing.
“Once rulers realize they can simply plunder their own people without competitors taking advantage of the weakened structures they leave behind, they happily do so until finally, often a few generations later, the racket is up.”
Better communications, perhaps sensors too, make it easier to spot weaknesses. In the Warring States era, one could take a disastrous risk and possibly recover from it before anyone found out, if their scouts didn’t happen to wander in your direction. Now your enemies find out as soon as you breathe the decision. Indeed, likely the only reason America hasn’t already been ravaged by such an enemy is down to nuclear weapons. Can you imagine how quickly a modern Hitler would rip through America’s corpulence? Except, that is, his army would vanish in a puff of nuclear hellfire.

I enjoyed your link to that gentleman’s(Szabo’s) papers. How technologies change consciousness is of interest to me.
The printing press did make a more abstract consciousness given by the written word widespread.
I have long thought internet is something more than an upgrade of mass printed books.
The 20th century was the peak age of one way information whether school, the television, or the public library. Reality was dictated to isolated individuals as never before by a crushing monolithic hive.
The internet is not just a boost to printing because of the way it enables everyone to participate in the discourse.
Entire new spheres of dissent are arising around the world where once there would have been a monoculture of opinion.
I for one was isolated in a sea of the dog-eyed obedient, but given a new tool I sought out those who thought aberrant thoughts in the darkest recesses for years. And now what once was a mirage of a spark in encapsulating darkness begins to become a comfy candle lit chamber.

There may be nukes now, but conflict never ends. If groups of people cannot fight in the open, they will fight silent wars over control of wombs, jobs, status, and territory. All beneath the surface. Humans show no end of ingenuity when it comes to passive aggressive barbs right under the nose of authority. We have only to remember the playground at elementary school.

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