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Any Technology Can Be Improved

August 13, 2009

The discussion riffing off Charter Cities has been fairly interesting – for the latest see Will Willkinson’s Arnold Kling on Freedom as Exit, especially the comments.  On the one hand I’ve found it a bit frustrating because Wilkinson seems to be operating from such different assumptions, but OTOH, elucidating differences in assumptions is often a productive and stimulating exercise.

I don’t want to clutter up the blog with constant back-and-forth posting, which is why I’ve been using comments instead, but in the comments on my last post Wilkinson obligingly gave me a straight line that I simply can’t resist, because it relates to the very core of our political philosophy.  In much of the other discussion in this engagement (“How free are liberal democracies compared to past societies?” “In what context do voice and exit work best?”), the discussion comes down to definitions and knowledge of history and I don’t have high confidence in my positions.  But here is where I feel sure that I have hold of a piece of important truth that is missing from most people’s political worldview, including Will’s.  He writes:

So far, in the natural experiments that have been run, democracy works. So I’m not sure why you insist on predicting that successful seasteads will not be democracies of some form. I predict that if there are successful seasteads, they will be democracies of some form on the basis of democracy’s actual winning record. The basis of your prediction, if you’re making one, is not so clear to me.

Imagine it is 1850.  Will predicts that successful personal transportation systems will involve horses of some kind on the basis of horse’s actual winning record.  He is very wrong, and he could have known that he would be.  You can think of many more examples in this vein, I am sure.

Technology advances almost inexorably.  If no planet-wide disaster happens, technology will continue to advance.  No one expects the best possible computer, best possible car, or best possible psychedelic drug to remain the same forever – for the current best technology to stay the best.

Now, it may be that the best accessible computer, car, or psychedelic drug remains the same or even goes backwards, because society sometimes limits our ability to use the best possible version of a given technology.  But it is very rare for the state of the art to decline – for best practices to be lost.  And it is also very rare for the state of the art in an active technological field (one being used to meet people’s needs) to not advance.

With economics, we can add more nuance.  The rate of progress of a technology is intimately related to the degree to which the technology is developed and sold in a competitive market.  The greater the barriers to competition and profit – whether regulation, barriers to entry, overly restrictive IP laws that  prevent building new discoveries on old, whatever – the slower a technology advances.

A prediction that the best possible technology in the future will be the same as the present is almost guaranteed to be wrong.  If there is a competitive market for the technology, we can remove the “almost”.  Thus it only remains to point out that rules, governance, political systems, decision-making mechanisms, social arrangements, whatever you want to call them, are technologies.  Thus, they can be improved, and will improve, with time.

Unfortunately, the market for them is not very competitive, and so our knowledge of the best possible forms of political organization advance in quality quite slowly.  But to say that democracy will always be the dominant form of social organization merely because it is the current dominant form is a claim of immense technological pessimism.  It is a claim that this particular technology is so unique that unlike almost every other technology, a market for it will never produce any new discoveries, new products, inventive new arrangements that we would never have thought of in advance.  For it to be true, not only must, say, my dad’s favored new governance technology fail, but so must every other idea of every other political theorist!

This is an extraordinary claim, and it requires extraordinary evidence.  I grant that the technology of political organization has numerous peculiar qualities which render its progress extremely bumpy.  And democracy is a very broad category.  Predicting that democracy will always be the best form of social organization is less like predicting that horses will always be the best form of transportation and more like predicting that combustion will always be the best way to get energy.  But while we still haven’t moved past combustion to fusion, fission, or photovoltaics, we inevitably will.  Technologies improve – that is their nature.  And the idea that our young race on our single planet has come close to exhausting the possibilities for technological development in any area, including governance, seems extremely far-fetched.

As Robin Hanson recently wrote:

a vast space of possible forms of government remains unexplored, and it is high time we explored it. Yes, democracy beats a dictatorship, but there might be better systems.

I only disagree with the “might”.  If one views my claim narrowly: “I know some better form of government than democracy, and if we build seasteads, we will have it!”, then of course it is absurd.  The winning record of democracy favors it over any single challenger.

But the point of Letting A Thousand Nations Bloom is to make the much broader claim: “Markets improve technologies.  Governance is a technological field.  Democracy is the current best technology.  Markets can improve it.  If we have a more competitive market for government, then we will get better technologies.  The market will produce solutions that we can’t even imagine now.  When given a chance, it almost always does.”  Against all possible challengers, democracy is an overwhelming underdog.

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11 Comments
  1. August 13, 2009 3:08 pm

    Imagine it’s 1900. Someone predicts that in 100 years deliberative assemblies will still be using Robert’s Rules of Order. What a chump! There’s thousands of homeowners associations and political groups and social clubs out there, and surely competition among them will produce a wildly-different, better “technology” for running their meetings!

    By your reasoning, the M1911 should be long-defunct, and bicycles should look completely different from 100 years ago. Neither of those is the case. Technology has improved pistols and bikes, but only at the margins.

    Do I believe your claims that competitive government will improve upon American republican-democracy? I’m inclined to. Do I believe your claims that competition will produce some new, unimaginarily awesome forms of government? I kind of don’t.

    • August 15, 2009 1:09 am

      Technology has improved bikes enormously. Carbon-fiber frames?

      Anyway, that is not understanding the point. The point is not that a specific solution will improve (which is also true) – if that was true I would be saying “Democracy will get better” (which is also true). The point is that the best solution to a given problem will change. The M1911 is for doing violence. Now we have F-16s and ICBMs. The bicycle is for personal transport. Now we have Ferraris and Ducatis.

  2. August 13, 2009 5:52 pm

    @Joel – What reason do you have to think that “some new, unimaginarily awesome forms of government” won’t be produced, besides garden variety pessimism? How does the progression of systems from 5000 BC until the present day inform this question?

    This also seems pretty tenuous to me, based on how you define “margins” and “democracy”. I’m convinced that you could strip “democracy” down to some extremely simple core that ended up being present in the Best Government Techonology of the Year 2250, but also that it wouldn’t resemble very closely the American democracy of 2009.

    I think it’s folly to proclaim limits or boundaries for any existing technology (save, perhaps, for the “laws” of physics, though I’m even wary there) when time and progress have so conspicuously wrought immense and unpredictable changes in technology over the course of our history. For as many bicycles and pistols as a boundarist can cite in pessimism, another can cite ten more examples of steam engines, sextants and sundials.

  3. happyjuggler0 permalink
    August 13, 2009 6:21 pm

    Surely the US had a better governance system 200 years ago, excepting of course the treatment of any who was not a white male. Like you said, we need competition to ensure things will get better.

    Is a republic doomed to become a democracy? Perhaps.

    Is a democracy doomed to never become a republic? Don’t bank on it.

    On another note, just as there are optimal currency areas, I strongly suspect there are optimal governance areas for any one type of governance. When 100 elected officials in Country A represent about 100,000 people each, and 100 elected officials in Country B represents about 1,000 people each, which one do you think is more likely to responsive to his constituents needs?

    • August 15, 2009 1:06 am

      Agreed that size matters, and this is another area where seasteads & charter cities can provide diversity.

  4. Mike Gibson permalink*
    August 13, 2009 9:10 pm

    @ Joel– You write: “Technology has improved pistols and bikes, but only at the margins.”

    This is patently false. Ask Lance Armstrong or any other cyclist in the Tour De France. The bikes they ride may bear a family resemblance to the bikes of 1909, but the materials they’re made out of, their components, and even their shape all constitute radical improvements in the technology.

    For state of the art bike technology, please see Armstrong’s bike here:

    http://twitpic.com/1i8t1

    As for recreational biking, the same holds, only to a lesser degree.

  5. August 13, 2009 10:51 pm

    @Brad — I wouldn’t call myself a “boundarist” — how about a “non-inevitabilist”? I consider it possible that competition might produce some better form of government that’s currently “unimaginable,” but I don’t consider it a necessary outcome. I love markets and competition as much as the next guy (in fact, probably more than the next guy), but I think Patri’s overselling their virtues, and his conclusion comes off to me like the punchline to a “how many libertarians does it take to change a lightbulb?” joke.

    (Perhaps it’s just his job to oversell their virtues, in which case — as someone who wishes him success — I’m just being counterproductively difficult. It’s happened before.)

    @Mike — I’m sure Lance’s bike is awesome, but it operates using the same basic principles as the bicycles of 100 years ago. I suspect that if you could show its picture to some 19th-century cyclists, they’d pretty easily recognize, “sure, that’s some kind of bicycle.” I understand Patri’s claim to be that markets will necessarily produce some awesome new kind of government that will be completely different from democracy.

    • August 14, 2009 12:54 am

      “@Mike — I’m sure Lance’s bike is awesome, but it operates using the same basic principles as the bicycles of 100 years ago. I suspect that if you could show its picture to some 19th-century cyclists, they’d pretty easily recognize, “sure, that’s some kind of bicycle.” I understand Patri’s claim to be that markets will necessarily produce some awesome new kind of government that will be completely different from democracy.”

      Now that’s just silly. If it weren’t recognizable as a bike, we wouldn’t call it a bike. We’d call it something else, like a motorcycle or something. Think of all the improvements that have been made to things that make them unrecognizable as their former selves. Telegraph-radio-television-ipod. Possibilities are more infinite than the imagination is.

    • August 15, 2009 1:14 am

      I didn’t say “necessarily”, I said “overwhelming underdog”. That may be too strong. It is certainly true that the case for general improvement is much stronger than the case for phase shifts. The rifle is still the best handheld personal defense weapon for use against small numbers of people. (But surely we’ll have laserbeams someday!). The bike is still used by people who want exercise, a phase change to gas-powered vehicles has rendered it obsolete.

      It is possible there will be no phase shift away from democracy. And I think it is likely that many people will prefer democracy for its warm fuzzies even when we have something better. But I think it is an underdog to be the most effect form of political organization after a 100-year cambrian explosion of easy-entry competitive government.

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