I wrote about the non-collapse of civilization in a post called Good News. I credited two things: 1) the remarkable power of even a hampered free economy; and 2) the invention of the computer.
The rule of law, which protects property rights, is a powerful economic force. Statists can enchain half an economy and the free half will still cause so much economic growth that the chains feel light.
( Digression. When I see how much wealth is created in our semi-free economy, I lament what might have been. If America had a laissez-faire capitalist economy, the wealth created would be… well, it’s unimaginable. I don’t think it’s unrealistic to suppose that major diseases such as heart attack, stroke, cancer and alzheimer’s would be cured or at least prevented better. Man would live longer. Middle-sized cities would have ballets, symphonies and regional theatres. People would be living on the Moon and Mars.
If you want something far out, try this:
Recently in his book The Sun as a Gravitational Lens: Proposed Space Missions, Claudio Maccone, a space scientist at Alenia Aerospazio in Turin, Italy, suggests implementing the sun’s gravitational lensing effect (as predicted by Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity) in a telescope. In other words, the Sun could be used as a lens producing an aperture the diameter of the sun. Its focus is at about six hundred astronomical units away. If the proper equipment were placed at the Solar focus, extremely detailed images of extra-solar planetary surfaces could be captured.
Someday we could have a telescope that sees planets around other stars. It won’t happen in our lifetime, but who knows what might have been in a free economy.
The more wealth that is made, the more wealth there is for medical research, science and the arts. We’ll never know what we’re missing because such geniuses as Barbara Boxer and George W. Bush would rather control part of the economy for our own good. End of digression.)
The second thing keeping us afloat is the invention of the computer, which makes every aspect of the economy more efficient. Remember when stores had to do inventory? Retailers had to work overtime counting everything on their shelves. Today computers keep inventory automatically and order replacements as soon as goods leave the shelves. That is just one example out of millions of the stunning power of computers.
There is a third factor I might speculate about: the influence already, today, of Ayn Rand’s philosophy. How has it changed the world? What would the world be like without it? Martin Anderson credited the Reagan Revolution to free market ideologues who had read Rand in their youth. The libertarian movement would be even more insignificant than it is now without people who have read Rand. The self-esteem movement in psychology would not exist. I would be a liberal.
How many people read The Fountainhead or Atlas Shrugged and did not pursue the philosophy further, but were inspired by Rand's picture of achievement enough that they thought, "I will go back to school and get that MBA" or "I should move to that city I've always wanted to live in"? Their lives changed in little ways that spread more change in the lives they affected positively like ripples in a pond.
It’s hard to measure the impact of philosophy on anything less than the scale of centuries. Right now Objectivism is still too far underground to tell, but I think it has made some difference already. We’re dealing with another might-have-been like laissez-faire capitalism, but in reverse: the world would be better with capitalism and worse without Objectivism.
So where do I come down? Is the world getting better or worse?
Here is the x factor, the question that must be answered before we will know for sure: Is the welfare state stable? Both Ayn Rand and Ludwig von Mises said the mixed economy/welfare state is an unstable transition phase between freedom and dictatorship. In the laboratory of history exhibit A was the first welfare state that began in Bismarck’s Germany and deteriorated within two generations into the Nazi dictatorship.
Mises explained a process in which the state intervenes a little, creates a crisis, blames the crisis on the remaining element of freedom and finally takes over total control. The only problem with this theory is that the American welfare state is now 70 years old and we are still semi-free.
Could it be that the computer has been such an enormous boon to the economy that it has kept crises from crashing down and thus stalled the process that leads to dictatorship? Could the statists in Washington, D.C. continue intervention to the point that they catch up with the good computers have done and finally create a crisis? Are we just living on time borrowed by the silicon chip?
Or is it possible that our heritage from the Enlightenment of individualism and freedom and the rule of law written in the Constitution are so powerful that an American welfare state might muddle along in semi-freedom for centuries? If so, then there is hope that Objectivism will spread and the culture will change before America collapses in dictatorship.
I have noticed one thing: America’s politicians don’t show much lust for nationalizing industry. Hillary wanted to sink her fangs into health care, but that power grab failed. The thing is, if the state owns industry, then the state is responsible for it and the state gets the blame when things go wrong. Perhaps we should say a quiet word of thanks that our politicians are spineless cowards who are afraid to take over the whole show. They want property to remain in private possession; they just want to tell people what they can and cannot do with their property.
As long as we stay semi-free, a hampered free market with computers will probably continue to create wealth.
Better or worse? I’ll guess better, but no one can predict the future. A series of crises such as retiring baby boomers sucking wealth from younger workers, President McCain mandating two years of service to the state by every young person, an exotic virus killing tens of millions, China attacking Taiwan, and totalitarian Islam attacking everyone else could easily plunge us into dictatorship. And the growth of religion is another x factor.
It’ll be close.
(On Tracinski’s theory of history, I’ll wait until he is done. I’m not sure about it yet.)
UPDATE: I forgot to note that today, January 14, 2007, is my 50th birthday. I was born the year Atlas Shrugged was published. 1957 was also the peak year of the Baby Boom; lots of people my age. I'm surprisingly optimistic about the future for someone who is almost dead.
ANOTHER UPDATE: Slight revision.