Monday, October 21, 2013

The Cost of Progress

By almost all measures, people throughout much of the developed and developing world enjoy a standard of living unprecedented in history.  Even the poorest individuals today live a life that a king did not enjoy even two centuries ago.  Consider: climate controlled living environments, entertainment of all sorts on demand, travel around the world, instantaneous communications, an infinitely wide diversity of food and drink.  The list can go on – and none of it available to King George or King Louis, yet most if not all of it available to everyone except the poorest of the poor in the least developed regions of the world today.


From the beginning of recorded history until about 1800, living conditions did not change significantly for much of the world.  Certainly, one could time-travel from Rome to the 18th century North American colonies of Britain and carve out a living without much difficulty and with no additional training: a farmer, a cobbler, a shopkeeper.  Little had changed.

However, take that colonist and bring him to today.  A productive individual of even two-hundred years ago would find his options at gainful employment today severely limited without significant training.  He could hardly even make a living as a farmer today, except in the barest sense of subsistence.

I will not attempt to identify even a small fraction of the technological advancements that have been brought to market that have made this possible.  However, I will offer that along with each advancement – allowing a more advanced standard of living – has come the possibility of making it easier for others to control us.

This trade-off, it seems to me, is inevitable and is the cost of progress.

Tools are Tools

We advance by means of the introduction of new tools into the marketplace (of course preceded by savings, requiring some recognition of private property).  By tools, I don’t mean simply hammers and screwdrivers.  Tools include such “hardware,” but also “software”: ideas, designs, business practices, and the like.  Tools include the ability to pool capital efficiently through intermediaries.

Tools are almost always amoral – not having a quality of right or wrong.  (The only exception, in my opinion, would be weapons of mass destruction, where, in the use of the weapon as designed, innocents are killed.)

With each new tool that offers the possibility of an improved standard of living comes the risk of further centralization and control.  This is especially obvious today with the advancement of computing and telecommunication technology, but it has been true throughout the history of man’s development.

Money and credit – the single-most important tool for improving man’s standard of living: there is no division-of-labor economy without it.  Yet, control of money and credit by kings and states is one of the most sinister methods of control ever devised.

Firearms – the one equalizer when it comes to providing for self-defense.  A ninety pound weakling is able to defend himself against all manner of bullies if properly armed and trained.  Yet, control of weaponry – especially control of advanced weaponry not available to the general public – is the means by which kings and states turn their desired monopoly control into reality.

Modern telecommunications – an opening to a world of ideas and experiences; the means by which like-minded minorities can find each other and communicate with multiple parties simultaneously regardless of geographic distance.  This was virtually impossible before the development of the fax machine, and extremely difficult before the internet.  Yet, who by now is not aware of the uses that the state is employing of these same tools against virtually every connected person in the world?

Money and credit; firearms; modern telecommunications: would you voluntarily go back to a world without any of these?  I would rather not.  While each one of these comes with additional opportunities for control, each also allows for significant protection and advancement of freedom.

Level the Playing Field

Every advancement, while it brings possibilities of further centralization and control, also brings opportunities to level the playing field.  It seems clear that the division-of-labor economy made possible by the advancement of money and credit has been beneficial to the relative position of the vast majority of mankind. 

The availability of relatively inexpensive firearms – capable of defending against an aggressor regardless of the physical strength of the individual so armed – has brought relative equality to the concept of personal protection.

What of modern telecommunications – the internet?  Many are rightly focused on the possibilities (and realities) that such a tool offers to a coercive state.  Fair enough.  But what of leveling the playing field for the minority?  What of those who advocate for individual liberty, for the non-aggression principle?  What of the remnant?

Many have come to learn the ideas of liberty, non-aggression, and Austrian economics thanks to the internet.  It is the most wonderful tool for allowing a decentralization of ideas.  And it is only though ideas that real change will come.

The internet has leveled the playing field for ideas.  True, it is a home for ideas of all sorts – including every form of statism; however, in the political field there are only two-sides – statists of one version or another, and us.  The statists (of whatever stripe) always had avenues to get the word out – the gatekeepers ensured that only statist ideas were represented in the dialogue.

Through the internet, we have an avenue outside of the control of the gatekeepers.  Even if we reach a small handful, it is a larger handful reached than in the days of mimeograph machines and snail-mail lists.

The promises of the state will slowly be broken.  What comes next depends on the ideas that an active minority embrace.  This is where the battle lies.  Our only limit is reach, and the internet breaks that barrier.

Every advance in technology offers opportunities for coercive control to go along with the benefits of progress.  The internet offers the opportunity to avoid the gatekeepers.

In the war of ideas and in a world of gatekeepers, this is a tradeoff worth embracing.

But the State is Worse than Ever

Are you sure?

Was there ever really “the good old days” in the post-renaissance west?

Many rightly point to the myriad violations by various governments in the west – first on the list being the United States government.  The violations are visible at home, and especially abroad.  The ability of the US government to track and monitor every detail of individual activity appears almost limitless.  The ability of the US government to murder countless millions of people is also limitless.

Some look longingly toward an American past – perhaps in their young adulthood, under Reagan; their childhood, under Ike; or maybe when they first immigrated to this land of the free; or, for the more (but not totally) cynical, the liberty under the founding generation.

Myths, all myths.  Dreamtime, to coin a phrase I first read at The Daily Bell.

From even prior to the American Revolution, there were many desirous of revolution for the sake of replacing foreign control with local, American centralized control.  Independence?  Ha!  For me, but not for thee!

Of course, eventually these forces won – not later than 1789. 

What of the Alien and Sedition Acts?  Many fondly remember Jefferson for pardoning those convicted under these acts before his presidency, yet are not aware of his own violations:

Thomas Jefferson, upon assuming the Presidency, pardoned those still serving sentences under the Sedition Act, though he also used the acts to prosecute several of his own critics before the acts expired.

Jefferson also consummated the Louisiana Purchase under cloudy Constitutional skies:

Some historians argue that Jefferson was a hypocrite in the Louisiana Purchase, primarily pointing to the fact that Jefferson was a strict constructionist in his views on the Constitution, yet allegedly took a loose constructionist view of the Constitution regarding the Louisiana Purchase.

And what of Jefferson’s lack of action in reigning in a Supreme Court that was actively engaged in expanding central government power?

I pick on Jefferson only because he is the most fondly idolized founder by those who consider the late 18th and early 19th century to be the good old days because of Jefferson’s role.

Lincoln?  His abuses are myriad, and the United States has seen nothing like it on their shores since then (of course, no state has seceded since then).  It cannot be disputed that the government was more abusive toward Americans during this time than it is today.

What of the slaves before 1865, or American Indians from the first colonial landing until today?  Life for people in these groups was much worse at the hand of the state than any abuses rained down on the majority of Americans today.

Moving on to the 20th century: World War One – a mess for Americans, and a disaster for Europeans; World War Two – a war that had its roots in American involvement in the Great War (although likely that Stalin would have attacked the west regardless of the situation in Germany).  What if you happened to live in Central Europe during the first half of the last century?  Is life so much worse today in the west than it was for individuals of any race and religion who found themselves caught up in this part of the world?

Mao’s China?  Stalin’s Russia?  Armenians in the crumbling days of the Ottoman Empire?  A Cambodian under the Khmer Rouge?  The twentieth century alone has seen hundreds of millions killed at the hand of the state.

What is my point?  Not to suggest that everything today is great, but only an attempt to keep perspective.  It is easy to get caught up in the-end-of-the-world possibilities today, the closing-in of the police state.  On the one hand, these past historical examples don’t make the current situation in the west any easier to live under.  However, as long as earth is populated by humans, the current situation isn’t so bad.

In the meantime, we have a tool that none of these other victims have had – a means to communicate with the remnant; a means to reach out to the millions of curious – those who realize something is wrong, but they just aren’t sure what it is.

The State is Losing

Don’t take my word for it.  Read Barzun and Creveld.  Better yet, read this summary from Gary North.

When the promises of safety and security fail, the state, as it is known today, will fail expire along with the failed promises.

We Are Winning

The cost of progress is often the potential loss of privacy.  However, the benefits of progress are immense.

According to Rothbard, we will win – and it is because many of our compatriots ultimately will demand it:
The clock cannot be turned back to a preindustrial age….We are stuck with the industrial age, whether we like it or not.

But if that is true, then the cause of liberty is secured.  For economic science has shown, as we have partially demonstrated in this book, that only freedom and a free market can run an industrial economy.  In short…in an industrial world it is also a vital necessity.  For, as Ludwig von Mises and other economists have shown, in an industrial economy statism simply does not work.

The calamities of the state are upon us.  Price mechanisms are quite distorted, and profit and loss are not allowed to perform their function.  The alternative to returning to a pre-industrial time is to allow markets to work.

And we are winning.  Look at the dialogue today: the Fed and empire are both openly debated and criticized.  Historical fiction is under continuous pressure: 911, JFK, FDR and WWII, FDR and the Depression, the so-called civil war.  As the myths supporting the state religion are shattered, the foundations of state worship crumble.

Austrian economics has re-entered the dialogue – at least at the periphery, for now.  Of course, today the allowed dialogue is either Hayek (grudgingly) or ridicule; however, soon even Rothbard will have to be seriously confronted.

Most interesting, it seems to me, is both the domestic and global reaction regarding the US desire to bomb Syria.

None of this was reality even ten years ago.  Thanks to the fortuitous combination of Ron Paul, the internet, and the several internet pioneers toiling for freedom, the dialogue has changed.  More importantly, under the radar, millions of individuals are looking for answers.

Write a blog; financially support those who effectively get out the message; meet the inquisitive where they are – don’t start with Rothbard or Hoppe, for goodness sakes!  Anarcho-capitalism is a hard pill to swallow with a dry throat.

Remember, Rome didn’t crumble in a day; neither will this empire.  But crumble it will, aided both by its own contradiction and the power of the tool of both decentralization and centralization – the internet.  Let us pray for a peaceful, Soviet-style ending.

Following Rome?  Merovingian anarchy.  The time of “do-nothing” kings. 

We should be so fortunate.

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