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Brad DeLong on Proudhon, property and coercion, and the Royal Society’s cornucopia

Back before 1870, there’s no possibility at all that humanity is going to be able to bake the economic pie sufficiently large that everyone can have enough. Which means that, principally, politics and governance are going to be some elite constituting itself and elbowing other elites out of the way, and then finding a way to run a force-and-fraud domination and exploitation scheme on society so that they at least can have enough. When Proudhon wrote in 1840s that property is theft, it was not metaphor. It was really fact.

What does this elite consist of? Well, it’s a bunch of thugs with spears, the people who have convinced the thugs with spears that they’re their bosses, and their tame accountants, bureaucrats, and propagandists. Which means, most of the time, when you have a powerfully-moving-forward set of people thinking about ideas, whether the idea is true is likely to be secondary to whether the idea is useful to helping me keep my place as a tame propagandist in the force-and-fraud domination and exploitation elite machine.

This is a point I’ve stolen from Ernest Gellner, and I think it is very true. Yet, somehow, the Royal Society decides, no. The Royal Society decides nothing except through experiment — what we are going to demand that nature tell us, or tell one of us, or at least someone writes us a letter saying they’ve done the experiment about what is true. That is a miraculous and completely unexpected transformation, and one to which I think we owe a huge amount.

COWEN: Where does that impulse come from, of the Royal Society? It seems not an accident that it’s in England — the same era when you’re developing rule of law, constitutional thought, some theory of the rights of man, other stranger movements.

DELONG: Right. I don’t know. As I go looking back, starting around 1600, the intellectual air starts to smell different. You have Tommaso Campanella writing in The City of the Sun about how there has been more technological progress in the past century than in millennia before. He then ruins the effect by saying this is a result of the astrological influence of the moon and Scorpio, which as a theory of a technological progress we would find rather lacking in many ways.

You have Francis Bacon saying that the world has been utterly transformed by the compass, by movable-type printing and gunpowder. The utopia he goes on to paint is one in which there is indeed Solomon’s House, a bunch of scientists devoted to uncovering the secrets of nature to the enlargement of the human empire and to the effecting of all things possible.

That utopia, or cornucopia at least, is on our future and is going to be because we’ve figured out how to use our minds to understand things, rather than because we’ve managed to recover a golden age, or because some theological being has come to our rescue, or because we’ve finally figured out the right static social order. That’s unusual.

I got to trace it to what happened between 1500 and 1600, which was the discovery of the New World, the subsequent Columbian exchange, the great reduction of the prices of carrying goods across the world as a result of the first globalization. That and the tinkering culture of Western Europe meant that, in 1600, you could look back and, for the first time in history, really say, “Wow, things are a lot different than they were even 100 years ago.”

In fact, we know more than anyone in the past ever did. In earlier ages, you look back and you see monuments of at least some ancient civilization that look pretty impressive to you. By 1600, no.

By 1600, the idea that knowledge was a possible thing that humanity could grab for was in the air, and as you say, it all concentrates in England. It all concentrates in England, or maybe better to say it all concentrates in a circle 300 miles around the port of Dover, because Hume and Smith and the other Scottish Enlightenment people head for London fairly quickly in order to get inside the circle and get inside the discourse.

That is a wonderful and marvelous thing to have happened. I think it is a systematic change from the House of Wisdom in Baghdad in 900, or from the empirical and metaphysical and alchemical researches of the researchers of the Song Dynasty. As I say, we’re very lucky it happened.

Brad DeLong and Tyler Cowen – Conversations with Tyler Ep. 172: Brad DeLong on Intellectual and Technical Progress

See Also:

Technology series
Writing and Reading as Technology series
Little by Little series
Economic Growth, poverty and inequality

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