We covered so much ground in the last post, that I felt a summary was in order, before I move to Part 2. Where do we stand? I will do my best to restate the core argument. I’ve also summarized it in 10 slides here: http://bit.ly/196aZPx.
In the beginning, there was matter and energy. There was this cosmic explosion called the Big Bang that flung it in all directions. Gravity eventually caused these clouds of dust to collapse into galaxies, stars and planets.
Matter and energy produced Darwinian Evolution. On a pale blue dot at the edge of one galaxy, there was enough of the right stuff, that genetic life forms were created and began to evolve.
What is evolution? Evolution is that process whereby capable entities respond to internal or external pressures by making or undergoing improvements and then spreading these improvements to others, such that, over time, improvements compound.
Evolution is fascinating because it can help us understand how market opportunities unfold through time.
Darwinian Evolution (random genetic mutations which improve survivability propagate) is passive, non-intelligent and extremely slow.
Darwinian Evolution produced Man. Also known as Homo Sapiens. Sometimes referred to as the pinnacle of creation. Other times, as its bane.
Man produced Civilization.
Civilization evolves through an interplay of three elements: tools (aka technology), community (aka culture, networks, organizations, society), and ideas (and their agents: individual radicals or visionaries, or groups, such as startups or movements).
Civilizational Evolution (the ongoing invention and spread of intentional improvements in both tools and communities designed to better meet human needs and wants) is an active, intelligent and increasingly fast process.
Man observes Civilizational Evolution and the Great Debate ensues…
Any basic civilization requires [Leviathan (aka the State)](https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Leviathan_(book) to impose peace through centralized force before improvements can be invented or compound.
Any advanced civilization requires Liberty as its basic organizing principle. Liberty is the idea that people should be free, as long as they don’t interfere with each other’s freedom. The purpose of the State is to protect, enforce, and guarantee the perpetuation of Liberty for all citizens, both now and in the future. From that, we have derived our notions of property rights, free trade, capitalism, limited government and civil law.
Liberty increases the pace of Civilizational Evolution, because it allows for rapid de-centralized improvements. All of the progress since the 18th century has, I would argue, originated with the spread of this idea. It has allowed for the Industrial Revolution, for the reduction of poverty and rise in the standard of living in the developed world, and for all the technological progress we have inherited and continue to see unfolding before our eyes.
Thus, I argue that liberal societies will evolve faster than non-liberal societies, which historically have all relied on the State to centralize the coordination of improvements. In the last hundred years, two non-liberal (statist) approaches to organizing society have utterly failed: fascism and communism. It is worth noting that they failed, not just relative to liberalism, but relative to progress itself – they were regressive in their outcomes, they brought about mini-Dark Ages, and threatened to bring about a real, second Dark Age.
Some societies are still experimenting with a third non-liberal approach to organizing society called socialism, which derives from egalitarianism. If it succeeds in its aim – which is to impose equality as the primary organizing principle of society, and liberty, at best, as a secondary principle, and by subordinating liberty to equality whenever the two come into conflict – then it will, I believe, slow down the progress of Civilizational Evolution. That is because it is an Unholy Union, for the two come into conflict in their very nature, such that any progress towards equality results in some regress in liberty, and that any regress in liberty will slow down Civilizational Evolution, because its three pillars – technology, networks, and ideas – rely on the de-centralized economic activity, which liberty allows, as their foundation.
This is my opinion, but it is not only mine. This is the orthodox position of classical liberalism, as I understand it. So I believe I am speaking for all those who still believe that liberty is the only proper way to organize a society.
Some people disagree with this position. There are three ways, logically, to do so, and all three are popular, although they are mutually exclusive. Here is the first: one may argue that while yes, socialism slows down the pace of progress, it is a necessary evil, because it ensures social harmony (prevents working class uprisings, etc.). For the best statement to this effect I have yet read, see the essay “Capitalism and Inequality”, by Jerry Muller, in the last issue of Foreign Affairs. A much bolder defense of socialism, the second argument, would assert that the more equal a society, the more innovation will occur, etc., such that socialism actually speeds up the pace of progress.
Of course, I disagree with both of these disagreements. But I am not going to refute them now. I am going to move on to the third, which is, the most radical. That is, that civilization is a fraud: that progress is an illusion created by the strong stealing from the weak, the rich stealing from the poor, the imperialist developed world stealing from the neo-colonized developing world, and mankind itself stealing from the environment, and that ultimately, it will collapse, if it is not fundamentally re-engineered.
I am a liberal because I believe that civilization is a good thing, not a bad thing, that it is our great accomplishment, hope and legacy, not the worst evil, our moral shame and ultimate doom. To believe in liberty is to believe that mankind, if given as much freedom as possible within the constraints of law, will thrive and flourish. It is a humanist idea. That is why its flag has always carried with it the promise of the renaissance, the flourishing of the human spirit, and the outpouring of all our potential.
There is something to that third disagreement, though. They associate liberalism with imperialism. Liberalism, it is true, unleashes the expansive, possessive spirit of man. It is a conquering spirit. But it is tamed by the Rule of liberty, which is to not interfere with the liberty of others. What is conquered is not fellow men, but frontiers of space, science or innovation. Whenever a liberal society has become imperialistic, it has ultimately recognized it as a betrayal to its own values, usually resulting from not respecting the rightful claims to liberty of all people, even foreigners and those less advanced.
The only truly liberal society which had an empire was Great Britain’s from the Victorian Era through the Second World War, shortly after which, it was unwound. Although I will not defend the excesses of that empire, I have studied, and continue to study it, and I will say with confidence that when weighed in the balance, it did less harm than it did good; indeed, by spreading liberalism, it began the process of globalization which ultimately created the modern world, and by expending all its energy into one final stand against fascism, saved civilization from a Dark Age.
With liberty comes peace: “when trade crosses borders, armies don’t”. So there is hope, that if liberty continues to spread, we will not destroy ourselves in warfare, but instead, by applying our expansive energies to innovation and endeavor, we will ultimately become not just masters of ourselves, technology, science and this planet, but then, of space…
To summarize: Man had a Great Debate about Civilization, and so far, Liberalism is winning. Advanced Civilizational Evolution requires Liberty, which allows for accelerating progress, through de-centralized action by individuals and corporations, and specifically, startups.
If Civilizational Evolution continues to progress, what does that progress look like? Where will it take us? What are the threats to progress?
In answering the question, “What does that progress look like?”, we can look to the 19th century philosopher Hegel and Chris Kelly from WIRED. Kelly’s book is titled “What technology wants”. What the progress will look like partly depends not just on what we, humans, want and need, but on what technology itself wants. What does technology itself, inherently, intrinsically, want? When we apply Hegel’s philosophy, as I understand it, to technology, we realize that it has an internal pressure to evolve: it wants to take The Next Step. It wants to progress in motions of thesis, counter-thesis, synthesis, or measure, counter-measure, equilibrium. The Next Step follows, by dialectic, from the previous two steps.
It is important to note, that one of the consequences of the Great Debate, above, is that Liberalism forced us to give up centralized control of Civilizational Evolution. No one can say “STOP!”, unless it breaks the Holy Rule of Liberalism, which is interfering with someone else’s Liberty. If The Next Step is Google Glass, for example, and you think that’s a terrible, awful, horrible invention that is an abomination, you can’t stop it. Unless, of course, you argue that it deprives you and everyone else of Liberty. Even then, you probably can’t abolish it, because by doing so, you would be depriving Google and its willing customers of their Liberty. The best you can do is restrain it, a little bit. This is a car with no brakes.
I repeat, this is a car with no brakes! That is scary. It has scared a lot of people. It even scares me. Change is scary. It would be far safer to stop time in some bygone halcyon era, when things were simpler, and good. But to stop it, the chemotherapy would be worse than the cancer. In today’s world, you can’t stop technology. It is going to take The Next Step. If you somehow succeed in banning it here in the United States, not only will you make this, in some sense, a less liberal country, but the technology will just go elsewhere. To truly STOP it, you would need to get the governments of every major technology centre to agree to arrest a development, or instate a World Government with unlimited power to do the same.
But while technology keeps taking The Next Step, at least for now, it is still ultimately bound to human needs and wants. Therefore, in order to understand what progress will look like, in other words, to think intelligently about the future, a subject we explored in three posts earlier in this series – The Philosopher Kings, Who, then, can see the future?, and To Think Like Midas – we need a model for human wants and needs. Enter Maslow.
Maslow’s pyramid places basic needs (for survival, comfort, and the means of continuing both) at the bottom, social needs (for recognition, love, and connectedness) in the middle, and actualization needs (for growth, discovery, expression, impact and meaning) at the top. This model gives us a framework for understanding the history of the economy itself and for contextualizing any innovation within it. Most of the time, money and energy in the economy go into satisfying our basic needs, less go towards our social needs, and even less towards our actualization needs. As human beings satisfy one need, they spend their surplus on the next.
Enter the startup. Liberalism produced the startup.
Startups are agents of ideas. Ideas for how to make an improvement, by inventing some new tool or community, that, if it succeeds, will better meet a want or need for humans, or a sub-set of humans, some of whom will pay in compensation for the value they have received. Humans provide demand. Startups invent and provide supply. If their inventions are protectable from competition in some way, and if there is enough demand, they will be well compensated.
Over time, startups, as an asset-class, need to either require less capital or be well compensated enough by their customers to provide excellent returns on capital relative to the risk and the alternatives, otherwise the amount, quality and terms of capital available to them to both take risks and scale will decrease. Therefore, startups become fortune-hunters. They do not just seek profitability, but outsized returns.
This puts founders in a tough spot. We have to answer the question: why are you working on THIS business and THIS idea, in a world of infinite opportunity cost, where you could be working on any other business or idea? Why will THIS one create more value than the next best alternative? With value, of course, measured in the extremes. Hence, my post “Your business is your thesis.”
To find a fortune, you have to have a better treasure map than everybody else. Maslow gave us an amazing treasure map. The secret is, you just need to turn it upside down. Right-side up, you see the economy of the present. Upside down, you see the economy of the future. If you want to make money, turn the biggest market into the smallest market, or turn the smallest market into the largest market. Don’t touch the middle, it’s boring. Disrupt platforms at the bottom, create platforms at the top. These are the arguments I made in The smallest market is about to become the largest market and From the Pyramid to the Rectangle.
I concluded A new way to be human with the following thoughts: …
What will Civilizational Evolution produce? Startups. Which in turn, will produce what technology wants and what humans need. It is not stoppable, except by either abandoning Liberalism or by an Apocalypse event.
There are Six Horsemen of the Apocalypse, or Six Dystopian Visions, which are existential threats to homo sapiens: death by nature, economic collapse, terrestrial warfare, extra-terrestrial warfare, mutant takeover, or hostile AI.
In the next post, I will add one more thought:
- There is one Utopian Vision: The Once and Future Renaissance.
Again, to summarize:
- In the beginning there was matter and energy.
- Matter and energy produced Darwinian Evolution.
- Darwinian Evolution produced Man.
- Man produced Civilizational Evolution, which occurs through an interplay of technology, networks, and ideas.
- Basic Civilizational Evolution required inventing Leviathan, or The State, which allowed for basic progress, through imposing peace through centralized action.
- Man had a Great Debate about Civilization, and so far, Liberalism is winning. Advanced Civilizational Evolution requires Liberty, which allows for accelerating progress, through de-centralized action by individuals and corporations, and specifically, startups.
- What will Civilizational Evolution produce? Startups. Which in turn, will produce what technology wants and what humans need. It is not stoppable, except by either abandoning Liberalism or by an Apocalypse event.
- There are Six Horsemen of the Apocalypse, or Six Dystopian Visions, which are existential threats to homo sapiens: death by nature, economic collapse, terrestrial warfare, extra-terrestrial warfare, mutant takeover, or hostile AI.
- There is one Utopian Vision: The Once and Future Renaissance. (Part 2)
Here is a link to these points as slides in a presentation version on Google Docs.
Response to reader objections to A new way to be human
I’d would also like to address two objections I received to my last post.
The first is to my statement that Darwinian Evolution is over. “It is not over!”, one said. Scientifically speaking, I’m sure he’s right. I am sure there is movement in the gene pool - it is in the nature of the thing to be dynamic. It may even be going faster today because of “admixture” (increased inter-racial breeding as a result of globalization and cultural tolerance) and other forces, as the reader pointed out. I concede! Ultimately, these things don’t matter. They are moving, at best, on 10,000 year time scales. They are irrelevant because they are too slow when compared to the speed of Civilizational Evolution.
In my last post, I argued that Civilizational Evolution actually slows down, if not stops, Darwinian Evolution, by removing survival pressures, but even if I am wrong, and it still marches on, or even has picked up pace, it does not change the fact that it is entirely outclassed and outmoded by a more sophisticated process… Darwinian evolution produced man, which produced civilization. Now its role in the story is over.
The second is to my six dystopian visions of the future. This reader did not like where my last post ended, which was an exploration of negative and bleak outlooks on the future, and even on human nature, with the reference to WALL-E, where our descendants end up drinking milkshakes and watching TV while reclining poolside in space stations. This reader pointed to how civilization has also produced excellence, giving several examples of individuals, like professional sportsmen, who have all their needs met, but who still strive to achieve at higher and higher levels, because of some inward drive (he specifically mentioned “competitive” desire, but there are others).
Again, I concede! Civilization does produce super-humans, and thank goodness it does. You would only hope that the more advanced the civilization, the more super-humans it produces. Can we observe this to be the case? I think it largely holds. There are so many extraordinarily accomplished individuals alive today, hard at work, advancing in their field. Numerically, there are probably more than there ever have been before. Although, against this encouraging thought, I would observe that socialist Europe lacks the culture of meritocracy and celebration (some would say “cult”) of exceptionalism that we have in the more liberal (using the definition of my last post) United States. Does this discourage greatness, or frustrate restless ambitious individuals enough to cause them to leave (and come to the U.S.)? It’s worth thinking about…
But it is undeniable that civilization is also producing, at present, lazy coach potatoes. Obesity measures are all up across the developed world. Hours spent on TV, movies, games and other forms of entertainment are stratospheric. I hear the voice of Maximus shouting in the arena, “Are you not entertained?” Give the people panem et circenses, bread and circuses, and they will be appeased. This is WALL-E and it is also the Matrix. Plug us in. Give us the blue pill.
Suppose civilization naturally produces both of these end-states - the lazy couch potato and the striving super-human - because we can observe both of them in modern society. Assuming you agree with me that one of these outcomes is bad and the other is good, how do we produce just the good?
That is the question I will wrestle with in my next post, in Part 2.