Sunday, September 05, 2010

You already knew glibertarians were ludicrous. Now it has been proven, by Science.

(Updated below)

Okay, not quite. But the notion that we should just do away with all regulation, let the individual thrive, trust in the magic of the free market, and oppose SOCIALISM!!!1!, when carried just a little too far, has to be seen as an idea not to be taken seriously. We've gotten ourselves to where we are by creating an enormously complex interdependent society.

I just came across a good article by Matt Ridley, "Humans: Why They Triumphed," [1] that elaborates upon this. Here's a section that really rang the cherries:

The more scientists discover, the bigger the evolution puzzle has become. Tool-making itself has now been pushed back at least two million years, and modern tool kits emerged very gradually over 300,000 years in Africa. Meanwhile, Neanderthals are now known to have had brains that were bigger than ours and to have inherited the same genetic mutations that facilitate speech as us. Yet, despite surviving until 30,000 years ago, they hardly invented any new tools, let alone farms, cities and toothpaste. The Neanderthals prove that it is quite possible to be intelligent and imaginative human beings (they buried their dead) yet not experience cultural and economic progress.

Scientists have so far been looking for the answer to this riddle in the wrong place: inside human heads. Most have been expecting to find a sort of neural or genetic breakthrough that sparked a "big bang of human consciousness," an auspicious mutation so that people could speak, think or plan better, setting the human race on the path to continuous and exponential innovation.

But the sophistication of the modern world lies not in individual intelligence or imagination. It is a collective enterprise. Nobody—literally nobody—knows how to make the pencil on my desk (as the economist Leonard Read once pointed out), let alone the computer on which I am writing. The knowledge of how to design, mine, fell, extract, synthesize, combine, manufacture and market these things is fragmented among thousands, sometimes millions of heads. Once human progress started, it was no longer limited by the size of human brains. Intelligence became collective and cumulative.

In the modern world, innovation is a collective enterprise that relies on exchange.

And later on:

Self-sufficiency—subsistence—is poverty.

Read the whole thing to see how he supports this conclusion. See also my source for this, Jeremy Keith's post, "Listening," for audio of a lecture by Ridley on this topic, as well as other fascinating-looking talks.

[Added] And this bit ...

Where population falls or is fragmented, cultural evolution may actually regress. A telling example comes from Tasmania, where people who had been making bone tools, clothing and fishing equipment for 25,000 years gradually gave these up after being isolated by rising sea levels 10,000 years ago. Joe Henrich of the University of British Columbia argues that the population of 4,000 Tasmanians on the island constituted too small a collective brain to sustain, let alone improve, the existing technology.

... reminded me of an earlier post.

[1] Not sure why it's not "We" instead of "They," but maybe the WSJ has robots writing their headlines.


2010-09-05 18:00

In Comments, claymisher offers a couple of useful links. Ridley has some serious warts, especially as pertains to the way I began this post.


claymisher said...

You may have missed the part about Matt Ridley being a class-A moron libertarian:

Governments aren't perfect, but it's the libertarians who bleed us dry

This state-hating free marketeer ignores his own failed experiment

Brendan said...

Huh. I did know that Ridley had that bank failure under his watch on his resumé, but I had no idea he was that bad. Many thanks.

That George Monbiot, huh? I especially liked this bit from the first link, which at least supports the larger point I was trying to make:

The democratic challenge, which becomes ever more complex as the scale of human interactions increases, is to mimic the governance system of the small hominid troop. We need a state that rewards us for cooperating and punishes us for cheating and stealing. At the same time, we must ensure that the state is also treated like a member of the hominid clan and punished when it acts against the common good. Human welfare, just as it was a million years ago, is guaranteed only by mutual scrutiny and regulation.

Hard to believe that Ridley could have laid out an argument that is so powerful, and as Monbiot observes, comes to such ludicrously wrong conclusions.