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Tag Archives: city states

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.

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