Reason for a New Age


Posted by publius2point0 on 2010/02/22

By the Renaissance (14th-17th centuries), Europe had paper, loans, and the scientific method. One might expect it to take some time for these to mature within the society, but still one might think that given these ingredients, you would see the beginnings of rapid technological advance. Instead, it wasn’t until the 18th and 19th centuries that this change actually occurred–i.e. the Age of Reason and the Age of Enlightenment.

This is largely personal speculation, but I believe the issue to be the introduction of meritocracy. When you look at modern Mexico or the ex-USSR, you note that though technology can advance, in general it doesn’t. They have loans, paper, and know how to go about scientific endeavors, but that still doesn’t amount to anything. But, in Mexico, you are largely restricted to your birth. If you are a white Mexican, you were already born to a wealthy family, you will marry another white Mexican, you will go to university, and you will inherit your father’s business or enter politics. If you are an Indian Mexican, you will work on a farm in a little village, probably not go to school, maybe not even learn proper Spanish, and inherit your father’s farm or establish your own. While as in the USSR, there weren’t classes so much, but there was The Party. Membership and status in the party was really the only social ladder, and that could only accept a very small number of people, not the whole population–similarly to the Catholic Church in Medieval Europe. Most people were stuck as the slave class for the party minority. The children of those in the party probably became party members themselves. They got to go to the best schools, and they had the nicest fashions and best hygiene.

In a society without meritocracy, where one has practically no ability to climb the social ladder, no one has any particular motive to try and envision and make a better future. The purpose of loans is negated. The upper classes consider themselves satisfied and know that their children will be securely positioned as well; that something better exists that could be created doesn’t occur to them. And the lower classes know that they would never be given a loan in the first place. If a lower class man persists in his attempt to work his way up, he would just end up being mocked and derided by those of the upper class for a while, until they grew bored of it, and took everything away from him again. No one trusts the intelligence, gravitas, or trustworthiness of an Indian Mexican in Mexico. Eventually “saner minds” prevail and leave him stranded.

The lack of meritocracy also leads to corruption. There is no guarantee that the son of the king will have the qualities necessary for ruling a nation. You can’t fire him though since kingship is a hereditary role. The whole of society is similar to this, you have unqualified people in many roles and overly qualified people in many other roles. All of those who are at least qualified must operate around a mass of people who are dead weight. The people who are dead weight can’t be threatened with anything since their position is secure, and so the only alternative is bribery. Or, alternately, if someone wants to succeed beyond his position, he must operate outside the law–for instance, creating or joining the mafia.

Corruption is a difficult beast to fight. Once it becomes habitual for all transactions to have some amount of graft, there is little incentive for a qualified newcomer to turn down this money.

When you walk into countries in Africa, the Middle East, South America, or South-East Asia, believing that you can introduce modern technology and democratic government and see a modern nation come out of it is something that will fail because the people are still classist and they expect graft. To turn such a country around, you need to introduce a social revolution or slowly eat at it over a few generations via top-down force (for instance, the British occupation of India and Hong Kong.)

A Brief History of Meritocracy

In 1199, John of England was crowned king of the nation. Within the first 16 years of his kingship, he proved himself to be amazingly ineffective as a monarch, leading the barons of the land to throw something of a miniature rebellion. They charged the capital–though no one there attempted to stop them, thinking they were in the right–captured the king, and forced him to sign the Magna Carta. Most key of the provisions within it were that a council of barons could veto and supersede the king, and that every person had recourse to defend himself from the law.

300 years later, the Spanish conquest of America lead to a debate between Juan Ginés de Sepúlveda and Bartolomé de las Casas over whether or not the native Americans should be considered to be equal and free men, or if they were natural slaves and underlings.

Another 150 years later, John Locke developed the idea that government exists for the people, not the other way around. Humanity develops and accepts governance for the organization and prosperity of the group and so while the government does command the people, at the same time it is beholden to them and its purpose is theirs.

John Locke’s ideas, which were descended from English law that descended from the Magna Carta and philosophical debate that had continued on since the Valladolid debate, began the true work between philosophers on this topic. Thomas Paine, Thomas Jefferson, John Trenchard, and Thomas Gordon are the writers within the English-speaking world, however, that brought these ideas to the every day man’s table, rather than simply in the realm of philosophy.

But of course, all of this had actual impact because meritocracy had slowly been growing within Europe. By the 18th century, one could purchase a title for instance. Standing armies had developed and if a man had shown bravery, honor, and talent within the military, he was considered to be worthwhile of high standing and hence worth investing in. With the desire to conquer or administrate foreign lands, finding and paying people to go to Africa, India, or the Americas made the government very much like a business and desiring talented people. All of this slowly eroded the class system. By the time the US was formed, the nation had little difficulty throwing off almost all ties with a class-based society.

True, it would still take some time for women and blacks to be enfranchised, but there was a large enough selection of white men to establish a working modern economy that produced new technologies and a rapidly changing social landscape.

Education and Meritocracy

As I pointed out in Methods of Growth, a society of 1000 people will experience greater technological breakthroughs than a society of 100 because it will have ten times as many geniuses. But, minus meritocracy, there may be little difference if almost no one has any ability to do anything creative. Enfranchising a greater number of people leads to a greater number of developments without expanding your population.

A thing to note is that the best predictor of financial success in modern day America is educational attainment. The greatest predictor of that is quite likely your parents’ financial standing.

In general, I would argue that you do not want to hinder the greed motive. The ability to protect your family, and see to their futures is a strong motivator for working hard and trying to come up with more efficient or revolutionary ideas. But the simple fact is that whatever seems to work best is our winner. If you look at the number of patents granted per capita, you’ll find that the Scandinavian countries are doing impressively well compared to the US, even though they tend to be quite socialistic. Comparing them on a GDP per capita basis shows that they are not significantly different from the US.

Economic growth is an issue of technology. The rate of the discoveries of new technologies is probably best summarized by the number of patents granted to a populace.

If we want to stay ahead, we need to make sure that as many people who are capable of impressive things have a chance to achieve that success. The children of the wealthy will always still have an advantage, be it due to personal tutors, connections, or simply from the parent-to-child direct education of how to be successful. You don’t really need any more than that, so you are better off to focus on making it otherwise an even game.


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