Caged predation versus open order or, why didn't the Industrial Revolution happen somewhere other than 19th Century Britain?
Good, if necessarily difficult, exploration. Thanks. It is increasingly clear that success of any culture or nation state depends on the interdependence between economic prosperity and individual value. Occasionally even nation states show a brilliant observation which can serve as a beacon. This flash of brilliance is often all too brief and fails to be fully faithful to their own brilliant ideas. The understanding of the US Constitution which recognizes that not the document or the nation state may confer unalienable rights already conferred by a creator represents such brilliance. That we as a nation failed to live up to this puts the ball squarely in our courts today. Civilizations fail because like people they are weakened from within.
An argument that I didn't see made here directly, but which seems rather central to the project of associating technological optimism with human liberty, is that the connection between technical dynamism and political decentralization is related to the fact that technological progress tends to be politically destabilizing from the perspective of established elites. Britain is a very obvious example, where the landed aristocracy was largely displaced by the industrial bourgeoisie. The development of a potent new technology will invariably create a new power center, and while existing elites will generally make a play for control by leveraging their own power base, their lack of familiarity with the new paradigm places them at an intrinsic disadvantage. Therefore, if they are to guarantee their place in the hierarchy, the only safe option is to discourage innovation.
It follows from this that decentralization of political power is a pre-requisite to sustained technological progress, particularly of the highly disruptive variety - i.e. development of qualitatively new technologies, as opposed to quantitative improvement of existing technologies. Consistent with this, China hasn't really come up with anything fundamentally new. However, we're only a bit better off ourselves. It's been decades since the West produced any genuinely new technologies ... and this slowdown in the rate of fundamental innovation has coincided with an increasingly centralized political and economic system presided over by an increasingly entrenched elite class.
This is really interesting. Thanks for a great read!
The two pictures here of Roman soldiers are both excellent. The AI one is also terrifying -- what would it do if I asked "The Terminator is Real"?
Also thank you for the word "Bottomry", it's good to learn something new in the morning.
You've mentioned before that the Romans had limited liability. Did they have limited companies in the way we understand them, or was it all things like Bottomry loans?
How the World Became Rich by Mark Koyama and Jared Rubin is well worth looking at for anyone interested in this question. They survey many of the ideas proposed for why Britain, Europe and the US took off when they did and why it didn't happen in India or China.