How Social Justice and Cooperation Made Us Rich

The Great Enrichment: solving the deepest puzzle of the social sciences

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By Will Wilkinson

The great strange fact of human history is how it came to be that a good chunk of our species, after more than 100,000 years of scraping by, suddenly got rather wildly rich. Deirdre McCloskey, the eminent economic historian and social theorist, calls it the “Great Enrichment.”

Here’s a picture:


(Source: Alex Tabarrok and Tyler Cowen, Modern Principles of Economics.)

The suddenness of the Great Enrichment is nuts. Graphs like this one actually conceal how nuts it is. Imagine a linear horizontal axis that is nothing but a flat line hovering above zero for, like, a mile. And then, about a second ago in geological time, wham! And here you are, probably wearing pants, reading about it on a glowing screen. Nuts is what it is.

Accounting for the Great Enrichment is the deepest puzzle of the social sciences. Some think it was all just a matter of figuring out how to exploit natural resources, or some combination of enslavement, exploitation, and colonial plunder, or maybe it was just geographic and genetic good luck. None of that really explains it.

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Joel Mokyr says it was the development of science and technology. Douglass North and his followers, such as Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson, say it was a matter of stumbling into the right political and economic “institutions”—of getting the “rules of the game” right. Acemoglu and Robinson say institutions need to be “inclusive” rather than “extractive.” They become more inclusive when ruling elites take a little pressure off the boot they’ve got on people’s backs (which they do mainly when cornered by effective collective action from below) and allow economic and political rights to expand. Deirdre McCloskey says the Great Enrichment came about from a shift in beliefs and moral norms that finally lent dignity and esteem to the commercial classes, their “bourgeois” virtues, and the tasks of trade and betterment. This revaluation of values was the advent of what has come to be known as “liberalism.”

Each of these views is part of the truth. The debate is mainly a matter of how beliefs and norms, institutions and incentives, scientific knowledge and technical innovation all fit together. Which are the causes and which are the effects? There’s no way to adequately summarize the involuted nuance of the debate. But it’s not wrong to sum it up bluntly like this: humans rather suddenly got immensely better at cooperating and now a lot of us are really rich.

Before I go on, I hasten to add that not all of us are really rich. Most humans don’t live in the places first touched by the Great Enrichment and aren’t that rich now. Moreover, the path from “extractive” to “inclusive” institutions in the places that did get rich has been bumpy and brutal, and the liberal revaluation of values has always been opportunistically applied and rife with hypocrisy.

Here’s a familiar example. When the American colonial elites, piqued by their lack of power to set local policy, rebelled against their king and seceded from his empire, they drew on compelling new liberal ideas about natural equality and set up a constitution that was, at the time, a huge leap forward toward more “inclusive” institutions. But their rebellion and new liberal legal order locked in place an absolutely monstrous, maximally exclusive, maximally extractive system of human enslavement—which, it so happens, was abolished across the British Empire in 1833, three decades before the Emancipation Proclamation. Suffice it to say, the complaints of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson against King George were completely trivial next to the complaints of the people Jefferson and Washington bought and bred and worked and whipped like so much livestock. The enrichment has been great, but its progress has been greatly uneven and its riches unevenly, unfairly spread. These inequalities shape our world, and our politics, to this day.

Still, a lot of us did get rich, and it happened through grand improvements in the scope and fruitfulness of cooperation. We cooperate because we do better together. When we effectively coordinate our efforts, we produce gains over and above what we could have done acting independently. Those gains are the “surplus” of cooperation. Enrichment—that is to say, economic growth—is about creating ever more and ever larger surpluses from cooperation.

But whenever we produce a surplus there’s always the question of how to divvy it up. If it’s a question about how to divide it fairly—about who ought to get what, rather than about who has the power to snatch the mostthen it’s a question of “distributive justice.”

Questions of distributive justice are hard. Who did how much work? How well did they do it? How relatively valuable were the efforts of the various contributors to the common enterprise? Maybe everyone agreed to the division in advance. But was the distribution of bargaining power that led to the agreement itself fair?

Our answers to these questions matter. When the distribution of the burdens and benefits of cooperation aren’t fair, we get fed up. And we want to keep positive-sum games going. We need to keep them going. But if we keep getting less than those doing less, we feel used. So we fight for our share. We develop enforcement mechanism to punish free-riders. We impose sanctions. We negotiate. According to some thinkers, the adaptive function of some of our most basic emotions is to police compliance with cooperative norms and bargain over who does and gets how much of what. An indignant fit of pique, slow-burning resentment, an explosion of petulant anger—all are common “moves” in everyday distributional negotiation. If we can’t negotiate a fairer deal, we’ll withdraw or minimize our efforts, one way or another. The surpluses will get smaller. Positive-sum enrichment might turn into negative-sum conflict. Lacking good exit options, mainly we press on and bargain the best we can with the leverage we’ve got.

Humans may be natural cooperators with a built-in instinct for distributive fairness, but we’re also natural opportunists who will negotiate over everything, including the very idea of distributive fairness, to increase or preserve our shares. “That’s not fair!” is always a bargaining move and only sometimes a fact.

Surplus-promoting distributive fairness is so hard to achieve in part because we rarely agree when it is a fact. People with outsized bargaining power have always found a way to convince themselves that they deserve it, and they tend to use that power to crush those clamoring, often righteously, for a bigger cut of the surplus. Indeed, the powerful get nervous when a fairer distribution of burdens and benefits induces greater cooperative effort, spurs creativity, and creates larger surpluses—even if it makes them richer. The trouble is that growth makes others richer, too, decentering power, inviting challenges from rival, new-money elites. So the old guard sooner or later tends to close ranks and reassert rules of exclusion and exploitation and stagnation. Acemogulu and Robinson say something like this happened to the Venetians, to the Romans, probably even happened to the Mayans. We’ve always had the potential for great enrichment in us, but we always managed to crush it with domination, expropriation, and war. Until, miraculously, we didn’t.

When people talk about “social justice,” sometimes they’re really talking about “distributive justice.” The immense influence of socialist ideology in the 20th century encouraged the idea that social and distributive justice pretty much came to the same thing. But 1991 was a long time ago, and these days when people agitate for social justice, or refer derisively to those who do as “social justice warriors,” they’re likely to be talking at least as much about the distribution of rights and dignity as they are to be talking about the distribution of material resources and economic opportunities. That’s a healthy development. Social justice is about a lot more than dividing up the surplus from the totality of society’s manifold, interlocking cooperative schemes. Social justice is also about (but not exhausted by) the way we need to treat people in order to get cooperation off the ground in the first place. How do we bring people to the table? How do we encourage them to bring their best? How do we get them to adhere to and enforce the norms that make cooperation more productive and that keep it from falling apart?

There’s not a single answer to that, but here are some good ones. Treat people as though their lives matter. Treat them as equals. Treat them with respect. Honor their rights.

You know what’s nuts? What’s nuts is that nobody kicks off a discussion of justice, distributive or social, with the fact of the Great Enrichment. Because the upshot of our best accounts of the most important thing that has ever happened to the human race seems to be that equalizing the distribution of rights and liberties, powers and prerogatives, respect and esteem led to an increase in the scope and productivity of cooperation, generating hugely enriching surpluses.

And these gains spurred further demands for and advances in inclusion and dignity—that is to say advances in giving people what they’re morally due, in virtue of being people—which led in turn to broader, more intensive, more creative cooperation, producing yet more enrichment, and so on. There appears to be a very happy relationship of mutual reinforcement between what is very naturally called “social justice” and the sort of enrichment that is known to produce longer, healthier, happier, human lives.

This seems incredibly important, but we haven’t heard that much about it. Why not?

Here’s my best guess: an unintentional 20th century left-right conspiracy made it all-but-impossible for anyone to take seriously the idea that gains in social justice launched and sustained the era of modern growth, and that enrichment in turn reinforced and promoted further gains in justice, and still does.

The 20th century socialist-leaning left misdiagnosed the sources of the economic growth. The Great Enrichment was rooted in the exploitation of labor and the depredations of colonialism, while ongoing post-capitalist production was largely a matter of technology and rational state management. Poverty is toxic and the effects of widespread wealth are beneficial. But wealth in excess of potential-realizing sufficiency isn’t improving. Stable equality is improving, and brings out the best in us. Continuously rising market-led prosperity, on the other hand, encourages un-civic avidity and generates inequalities that undermine the amiable stability of egalitarian social justice.

The left-leaning 20th century literature on the distributive aspects of social justice as often as not treated wealth like manna from heaven. It’s as if the astonishing bounty of the Great Enrichment was something we’d just stumbled upon, like a cave full of naturally-occurring, neatly-stacked gold ingots in a newly-discovered cave beneath the village square. How do we divide up the gold among the villagers? Equal shares seems fair!

Or else wealth was something workers produced automatically by working only to have it stolen by the idle rich, who control the state’s goons. Or wealth was something that mechanical and social engineers could get together to produce with the right combination of workers and machines. Since it was no problem whatsoever producing more than enough for everybody (our best men are on top of it!), there was no good reason for anybody to have more than everybody else.

John RawlsTheory of Justice, the 20th century’s most influential text on the nature of social justice, was controversial on the left because it provided a supply-side argument against the assumption that socialist equality was the end-all-be-all of distributive justice. Rawls recognized that incentives to production have something to do with levels of consumption and argued persuasively that unequal shares are justified if they leave society’s least advantaged as well off they can be. For many socialists, admitting that justice can possibly admit of unequal shares gives away the store. Rawls sold them out.

Yet Rawls himself, like many other mid-century social democrats, had an uneasy attitude toward enrichment, and tended not to see much to admire in the human motives or legal rights that tend to produce it. Rawls was a liberal who saw society in liberal terms as a “cooperative venture for mutual advantage,” but there was in Rawls’ theory very little appreciation of the possibility that liberal rights and economic growth might need each other. Indeed, he thought that, after a certain modest level of material comfort had been achieved, a regime of fair cooperation founded on liberal rights would do better—and would still be the most desirable of all regimes—without any growth at all.

When you take a certain level of productive, surplus-generating social cooperation more or less for granted, and consider economic output to be a sort of engineering problem, the moral problems of political economy, the problems of social and distributive justice, have to do with consumption, not production. Assume a pie. Now, who should get how much of it? This consumption-side fixation led thinkers on the left to prescribe measures that would and did harm the productive institutional, cultural, and moral underpinnings of the Great Enrichment.

Now let’s flip the ideological coin. Those on the classical liberal/libertarian right, who I think more clearly grasped the causes and moral significance of the Great Enrichment—thinkers like Ludwig von Mises, Friedrich Hayek, Milton Friedman, and Ayn Rand—inclined toward indifference or outright hostility to the idea of “social justice.” They tended to see it, not entirely unreasonably, as a stalking horse for a technocratically managed economy, confiscatory levels of taxation on the wealthy, and progressive redistribution in the name of socialist material equality.

Hayek thought the liberal market order could survive only if its champions were able to articulate moral ideals as inspiring as socialism. Yet he found it inconceivable to argue for his own ideal of the liberal market order as a realization of social justice. It wasn’t that the left was wrong about what social justice requires. It was that “social justice” was pernicious gobbledygook. For Hayek and the mid-century liberal right, capitalism was a goose that lays golden eggs. “Social justice” was a euphemism for breaking its neck.

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In Free-Market Fairness, John Tomasi, a political theorist at Brown, makes the case that the classical liberal and libertarian allergy to social justice, which he calls “social justicitis,” is based on a number of intellectual mistakes. I think he’s right, and will have a thing or two to say about what’s wrong and right in the attacks of Hayek and others on the very idea of social justice in a future post. In Tomasi’s forthcoming book with Matt Zwolinski, Libertarianism: A Progressive Intellectual History, they argue that 20th century libertarians became so obsessed with combating socialism that libertarianism narrowed into a sort of codified anti-socialism, fixated on defending the underpinnings of the free enterprise system against technocratic economic planning and redistributive leveling. In the process, they argue, libertarianism lost much of what had made 19th-century classical liberalism such a powerfully progressive and emancipatory force. Having hunkered down in a defensive anti-socialist posture, libertarians become unable to see, for example, that the feminist and civil rights movements were fighting for forms of freedoms earlier classical liberals had devoted their lives to. Social justictis, in my view, is a further symptom of this anti-socialist monomania. And it saddled classical liberals with a distorted and enfeebled message that forces a false choice: whatever liberty is, whatever free markets and limited government are good for, it ain’t social justice.

In McCloskey’s magisterial “bourgeois” trilogy, she shows that moral rhetoric has real, often profound political and economic consequences. I don’t think she says so, but her argument led me to suspect that it was a big intellectual and rhetorical mistake for classical liberals to concede social justice to the socialists and technocratic welfare-state liberals.

Hostility to the very idea of social and distributive justice lent weight—and continues to lend weight—to the charge that those who defend robust economic rights, regulatory restraint, and limited government are heartlessly indifferent to the welfare of the poor and working classes. Moreover, libertarian and conservative hostility to social justice creates a strong, though illogical, presumption of hostility to whatever social justice is thought to require. That’s why many advocates of economic liberty—even those who don’t believe in the absolute inviolability of property rights and the inherent injustice of redistribution—reflexively badmouth the welfare state with little regard for the possibility that the welfare state is an efficiency-enhancing institution that helps maintain popular support for relatively free markets by ensuring they more or less benefit everyone. Meanwhile, people who like social insurance, and worry about bad luck and the human costs of capitalist creative destruction—that is to say, most people—turn away in contempt or bemusement from what’s advertised to them as the politics of freedom.

More importantly, and more disastrously, rejecting the very idea of social justice, letting it harden into principle, hobbled classical liberalism’s ability to make the argument it has always been making, in less attractive terms, all along: that social justice is, first and foremost, a supply-side concept; that social justice is about the moral equality, respect, and rights that call forth cooperation and foster the creativity and cultivation of potential that generates ever larger surpluses, which, once they’ve been created, we can worry about divvying up; that social justice is a cause and effect of the Great Enrichment; that increasing social justice will make us greater and more greatly enriched.

It’s a potent and beguiling argument. It is an important argument. I’m convinced that it is, in broad strokes, a sound argument. The failure of our forebears to make it shouldn’t stop us from making it now.

Originally published at the Niskanen Center.

2016 May 16

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  • The rise of eukaryotes produces the same sort of graph — although on a different time scale. I would think that a similar explanation — control over energy — is behind each.

    • >a similar explanation — control over energy — is behind each

      Or: a quantum leap in the mechanics (technology) of cooperation? Ditto when the first single-molecule replicators started combining, and outcompeting the non-cooperators. Voila, RNA! https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Major_Transitions_in_Evolution

    • Swami

      On the broader issue, I must disagree. There has never been broad scale, long term, widespread flourishing on a “per capita” basis in the world studied by biologists. IOW, evolution is not progressive in terms of average standard of living. The Malthusian trap always springs.

      Humans have learned to solve the problem of cooperation while simultaneously solving problems faster than Malthusian forces throw them at us. You are correct that energy capture has been essential, though it is necessary not sufficient as an explanation. The deeper issue is how we learned to cooperate in such a way to solve more problems together than we create. For the last two hundred years or so, we have –for the first and probably only time in the history of life on earth– done so.

      • A Kaleberg

        That’s not true. The eukaryote revolution with its oxygen metabolism dramatically changed the energy resources available to each cell. Eukaryotes run faster, do more, have bigger genomes and so on. While cells don’t have heads, productivity per cell soared.

        • Swami

          Dude, read more carefully. I didn’t argue with increased energy use. Yes, they are faster, bigger, with more energy and so on. But this isn’t progress any more than blue whales are more progressive than dolphins. The essential Malthusian problem is that their competitors also were faster and bigger with more energy. It was a zero sum game.

          Absent cooperation, evolution just leads to one step forward and at least one back. The reproductive process is both the solution generation process and the problem generation process. Our competition (both within and outside the species) evolves as fast as we do.

          I agree completely with Brin (and you) above that constrained competition is essential for progress. But so is cooperation. You need both.

    • A Kaleberg

      Good analogy. Granted, they just discovered a eukaryote without mitochondria in chinchilla guts. (Who goes looking there?) That’s an exception that proves the rule.

    • Blissex

      «a similar explanation — control over energy — is behind each.


      That’s a one line summary of my post above where I credit the vast majority of the improvement to the mass adoption of very cheap coal first and oil afterwards. Then the question is what enabled and motivated this mass adoption, and here most explanations advanced here, cooperation, science/technology, institutions, the black plague, bigger populations, changes in status, all contributed, but without coal and oil they would have not given as big a boost, or they would not have been likely.

  • Ormond Otvos

    Fatally missing from this gloss on social economics is any sense of How We Consume and Multiply. If you don’t address the damage that massive overpopulation does, or unbridled consumption AND income inequality, you’re just talking for the fun of it. D- on this paper.

    • John M Legge

      Your comment refers to the future; Wilkinson is discussing history. The problems you mention will be solved by cooperation or an ecological holocaust. Wilkinson identifies the people and movements whose policies reflect a choice of holocaust over collective action. E for your comment.

      • Ormond Otvos

        Yes, I know what will happen if social scientists can’t crack capitalism. I was commenting on the lack of comprehension of the total picture in the article.

    • Jim_Satterfield

      And yet on a consistent basis widespread education of both sexes and an increased standard of living produces a reduction in the rate of population increase and in many places stops it entirely.

      • Ormond Otvos

        Islam is countering help and education with vigor.

  • John M Legge

    The Glorious Revolution and the passage of the (English) Bill of Rights at the end of the seventeenth century paved the way for the Industrial Revolution. The bourgeoisie obtained a share of political power and the absolute power of the monarch was curtailed. The ostensible motive behind the Glorious Revolution was preservation of the Church of England under an openly Catholic King; but the effect was general religious toleration. Dissenters weren’t allowed into the magistracy or House of Commons, but they could become entrepreneurs without the threat of noble or royal confiscation. Arkwright and the other cotton masters deployed the factory system and technology; Wedgwood’s factory system built on the division of labour supported by the invention of marketing; and both developed substantial economic surpluses.
    Watt and steam power came well after Arkwright and Wedgwood; so at least in the beginning the industrial revolution was based on changed social relationships. The most visible symptom was the dual rise of the bourgeoisie and the proletariat. I believe that history supports Wilkinson’s argument. Growth through the nineteenth century was certainly largely based on the exploitation of fossil fuel, but that wasn’t the primary cause.

  • This article is quite good as far as it goes, but (as others have noted) it leaves out far more than it includes, and what was left out needs mentioning, at least in passing.

    Sure cooperation/social justice – and there is a games theory perspective on that, and a nested set of evolutionary contexts both genetic and cultural that at many levels have attendant “cheat prevention” strategies (some of which are detailed above). Games theory demonstrates that raw cooperation is always vulnerable to exploitation by cheating strategies, and requires attendant strategies to deliver effective countermeasures against cheats – which develops into something of a multi-level strategic arms race.

    Every individual has base level survival needs that must be met if they are to be at all open to cooperation. Throughout history all sorts of events have interfered with meeting those needs. The frequency of destabilising events (human, geological, biological, meterological) is an important factor. Famine, pandemic, earthquake, storm, invasion, etc all tend to force individuals from cooperative to competitive modalities.

    A far more useful and realistic view of societies is as an n dimensional landscape of probabilities where groups of people tend to collect in the dips, but the whole dimensional landscape is constantly evolving – it is not a static thing, and it has a certain dynamic relationship to John Maynard-Smith’s Multiple Stable State equilibria concept (except with dimensional conditions that are complex {in the complexity theory sense},.and constantly changing).

    Another factor is the size of stable groups and the size of group networks leading to stability. Being able to create and maintain trust and value networks across time and space – very important to stability.

    In the context above, hitting the stochastic sweet spots has been important, to many level of evolution.

    Perhaps the greatest single thing, which links back into all of those mentioned above, is the exponential growth in information and technology.
    It seems that evolution originally started out as basically a random walk through the available possibility spaces, and in a sense it still does that, and along the way it has evolved systems that all it to direct evolution along paths that have proven fruitful in the past. So at every level, evolution has this recursive ability to evolve more rapidly into areas that are more productive, until we get to the idea of intelligence (which continues the trick of recursively looking at itself and optimising).
    And even with intelligence, what we get to see is very much a function of the distinction sets we have available to us, most of which we adopt from culture and some of which we learn from more or less unique experiences. The youtube video “Pouff – Grocery Trip” ( https://youtu.be/DgPaCWJL7XI ) is created from DeepDream in conjunction with Samim’s DeepDreamAnim. DeepDream is a computer vision program created by Google which uses a convolutional neural network to find and enhance patterns in images. This one was trained with images of animals from the internet – mostly dogs and cats (being the internet). And it is definitely “over the top” and it does give a very clear feel for just how much what we “see” is defined by the experience of our neural networks.

    Another major aspect is the sources of energy for production. Animals, fire, water, slaves, wood, coal/steam, oil etc. Now efficiently and exponentially moving into direct solar, and energy abundance beyond anything in our past.

    Another aspect is relaxation of the many levels of authoritarian views (the curse of being “right”). These come in many flavours, religious, intellectual, political, cultural, logical.
    Wolfram has clearly shown in NKS that there are many classes of process (many common to life) that are maximally computationally complex – which means there is no shortcut to finding out what they will do other that letting them do it and seeing what happens. That wasn’t supposed to be how the world works. Science was supposed by many (from Plato onward) to be able to tell us what would happen. Even Wolfram – who accepts that reality is completely causal, has concluded that even though causal, it is not predictable in many important aspects. Some like me go one step further, and see in the evidence available very strong indications that reality is fundamentally stochastic within probability distributions at the lowest levels, and only in the vast numbers that we humans normally deal with do those things display a very close approximation to hard causality.

    Then there is the power of money as a glue, to hold interests in other places, and thus build complex networks of intersecting interests that, in domains of real scarcity, do act as a force for peace and cooperation and prosperity. It’s just that once technology gives us the technical ability to deliver a large and expanding set of goods and services in universal abundance, money and markets start delivering really perverse incentives that become a serious danger to everyone.

    Then there is the disruptive aspect of money, as it tends to centralise benefits, leaving a disenfranchised mass to rebel at many different levels.

    Evolution starts as a stochastic random walk through the infinitely dimensional landscape of possibilities, and evolves ever higher levels of sorting and directionality to the exploratory tool-sets available in different contexts. Evolution is really complex. It starts simple, and as a fundamentally recursive process, rapidly becomes anything but simple.

    So I like the idea in the article of hybrid systems.

    Let’s try and forget money for an instant.

    Ask people what they actually want.

    It’s relatively simple to ensure every person has access to a smart phone capable of using a tool like SenseMaker – so that they can answer questions in real time (or someone who can read who knows them can answer on their behalf – children are great at that – Afghanistan proved that).

    Ask everyone what they actually most need and want.

    Devote half of the productive output of society to that (not as measured by money, but as measured by energy consumption). Survival needs taking priority.

    Repeat at least once a month, and more frequently if there are any changes of situation (like tornado, earthquake, volcanism, pandemic, etc).

    Let individuals rankings count. Make fresh air and clean water and wholesome food and sanitation the highest priorities universally – with half the world’s productive capacity, would take less than a year to sort out.

    Followed closely by education and communication.

    The other half of our societal output can be unequally distributed, on a wide range of systems, economic, social rank, ability, etc.

    Everyone gets to keep at least half of what they make, to use or give away as they see fit.

    That would be something different.

    Not equality. I’m not interested in that.
    Humans aren’t equal. We’re all different. We want different things.

    Let’s just try giving people real freedom, and see what sort of diversity results.

    Anyone who, in the face of all the evidence above, thinks they can control this mess, is an idiot!!!

    We are all in this together.

    Let’s try a little freedom, a little use of these world wide information networks.

  • The difference between the rich and the poor is that the poor have less of whatever the rich have. The world economy currently hinges on money. You either have it or you don’t. Social justice would be best served by a redistribution of resources, not money.

    The article mentions that commonly shared needs like food and water are not privileges, they are rights. I think that has been commonly agreed upon among all the people. But the new trend of blaming the rich for everything bad which has happened is not the way to solve the problems of income equality.

    It was not individual rich people who disenfranchised the employees of major corporations, it was the executives of those corporations who chose to lay off thousands in favor of a bottom line more in tune with their stockholders, and placed vast amounts of profits offshore to avoid paying their fair share of income tax; which by the dint of the sum owed to governments, would go well to addressing the needs of the poor. Indeed, these same corporations pay thousands of lobbyists to prevent politicians from enacting legislation which would be fair to all the people, not just a few demographic groups. It is not about money, it is about power and greed. Change that at the political level and one would not need to protest.

    • Swami

      “The difference between the rich and the poor is that the poor have less of whatever the rich have.”

      On a naive level, perhaps. On a deeper level, the important difference is that wealth is an indication that value has been created and preserved. Those of us, like you and I who are rich by historic standards (I am sure we are both in the top tenth of one percent in standard of living since the advent of agriculture) have been able to create and enjoy substantially more value.

      The dichotomy isn’t between the rich and the poor. It is between those who create value and those who take it from others who have created the value. It is between value creators and parasites and predators. And parasites and predators are often not rich. And as you point out below, the rich are not necessarily parasitic.

      “The world economy currently hinges on money. You either have it or you don’t.”

      Money is just a fungible shared unit of exchange. It is a utilitarian device which facilitates complex decentralized cooperation, and exchange. Most of us were born with no money. However our social environment educated and prepared us to foster our talents to create value for others. We then leverage that skill and effort into things of value to others. Money acts as an (admittedly imperfect) incentive and signal that our efforts are worthwhile. Those who don’t have it are getting a signal to do something different so they can get it. If society works well they will do it in a positive sum way. If it works poorly, they will take it from others in a zero or negative sum way.

      “Social justice would be best served by a redistribution of resources, not money.”

      Absolutely not. You need a lesson on the issues of justice and fairness. Your statement is only true in some simplistic, childish world where fairness is determined by equality of result or outcome. For adults, fairness is substantially more complex and multidimensional.

      There is fairness of outcome (even-Steven)
      There is fairness based upon need (Marxist)
      There is fairness based upon effort expended compared to others in the group
      Fairness based upon actual contribution to the group (value added as opposed to effort expended)
      Fairness based upon position (captain and quarter master get double shares in recognition of position)
      Fairness based upon compliance with impartially agreed rules and conventions
      And so on.

      My take on the author’s point is that effective societies — which are a very recent phenomena — balance the complexity of fairness, mindsets, institutions and incentives in such a way to create substantially more value per capita than those societies (like Cuba, Afghanistan, and until recently China) which don’t. Your redistribution of resources is exactly the kind of nonsense which has kept so many billions poor for so many thousands of years.

      “The article mentions that commonly shared needs like food and water are not privileges, they are rights. I think that has been commonly agreed upon among all the people.”

      I can’t seem to find where the author implies this. Could you help me out? He does reference rights, but as best I can tell these rights are for dignity and respect and impartiality, not food and water. I am sure the author would agree that a successful society should ensure everyone has food and water. But I am not aware of many classical liberals who believe food is a “right,” or even that it should be a right. The reason is probably related to the fact that this empowers parasites to demand others become their slaves to fulfill this supposed right.

      “But the new trend of blaming the rich for everything bad which has happened is not the way to solve the problems of income equality.”

      I agree with the first half of the sentence, but income inequality is not a problem. Calling it one, misrepresents the real problems (poverty, privilege, unfairness, zero sum dynamics, etc)

      “It was not individual rich people who disenfranchised the employees of major corporations, it was the executives of those corporations who chose to lay off thousands in favor of a bottom line more in tune with their stockholders,”

      The executives role is specifically to ensure that production is done efficiently. Failure to acknowledge this is just admission that you have no clue how economies work or how to improve and grow the size of the pie, which is the author’s initial argument. If a job can be done with nine people rather than ten, the manager’s job is to ensure that the best nine are assigned. This isn’t cause for condemnation, but for applause. The other one can do something else of value. Thus more value is created, more efficiently.

      “and placed vast amounts of profits offshore to avoid paying their fair share of income tax; which by the dint of the sum owed to governments, would go well to addressing the needs of the poor.”

      If the rules allow offshoring, then competition will ensure executives use it. If you are arguing that the rules shouldn’t allow it, then your beef is with the lawmakers and enforcers not the executives.

      “Indeed, these same corporations pay thousands of lobbyists to prevent politicians from enacting legislation which would be fair to all the people, not just a few demographic groups. It is not about money, it is about power and greed. Change that at the political level and one would not need to protest.”

      Get real. The constitution was specifically written to address the issue of partisanship by supporting conflict. You have the “right” to lobby and vote for corporations to pay higher taxes and they have the “right” to lobby and vote against it, and to relocate their capital and business to those domains which they view as most fair. You also assume your version of fair trumps theirs.

      Don’t get me wrong, I agree that lobbying and fighting over taxes is a zero sum and self flagellating process. But the solution is deeper than accusing executives of being greedy for representing their position and disagreeing with your claim on their profits.

      I don’t think you understand fairness, justice, economics or prosperity. Indeed, I think your recommendations are the kind of nonsense which explains why it took so many thousands of years for liberal society to emerge. Most people think like you. Pity.

      • Aritz

        The primary theme of Brophy’s[1] critique of capitalist situationism is a mythopoetical paradox. It could be said that the premise of postdeconstructivist capitalist theory states that the significance of the reader is significant form, but only if Foucault’s analysis of semioticist theory is valid; otherwise, Sontag’s model of capitalist situationism is one of “Baudrillardist simulation”, and therefore part of the stasis of art. The subject is interpolated into a semioticist theory that includes reality as a whole.

        “Society is intrinsically meaningless,” says Debord; however, according to Dahmus[2] , it is not so much society that is intrinsically meaningless, but rather the defining characteristic, and eventually the failure, of society. In a sense, Brophy[3] implies that we have to choose between Debordist image and cultural dematerialism. The without/within distinction intrinsic to Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist As a Young Man is also evident in Finnegan’s Wake.

        If one examines neostructural cultural theory, one is faced with a choice: either accept semioticist theory or conclude that reality is capable of significance. But Baudrillard promotes the use of Debordist image to deconstruct the status quo. If Sontagist camp holds, we have to choose between Debordist image and submaterialist narrative!

    • Janus Daniels

      Theresa, what leads you to believe that, “Social justice would be best served by a redistribution of resources, not money.”?
      Money is a resource, and the easiest resource to distribute.

  • Swami

    I agree with much said here, especially on the importance of the great enrichment and the institutions and mindsets necessary to create and sustain said enrichment.

    However, something doesn’t sit right with me on the social justice issue. If you are arguing that *classical liberals are for social justice too, so there!* Well, then count me in. It seems kind of like arguing that we aren’t for torturing puppies though (and we are against torturing puppies, right?)

    In my experience, those arguing for social justice are not just arguing against rent seeking, slavery and privilege (points which classical liberals agree with them against). They are also arguing that free market interactions are intrinsically unfair, and thus must be overridden based upon the judgment of the keepers of the social justice score (as determined by progressives).

    In other words, they are arguing that the institutions are intrinsically unfair, so those of us calling ourselves social justice warriors get to override it as we see fit, and you don’t get to be a social justice progressive unless you agree with us.

    The issue is that they are creating privilege and injustice in the name of the guardians against injustice. Classical liberals see through the ruse — well, at least I do.

    I support impartial rules which promote cooperation, constructive competition, freedom and prosperity. This certainly includes the wise provision of public goods and effective, efficient social safety nets. I do not support a social justice elite who get to override the decentralized decisions of others to further and privilege their own vision over that of others.

    I am not sure if this means I agree or disagree with what you are suggesting, but hopefully my elaborations added some level of clarity to the issue.

    • A Kaleberg

      You are ignoring that all of those decentralized decisions rely on the government, the political elite, for their very existence. Otherwise looting and raiding are perfectly legitimate and profitable business strategies. If you don’t want your store window broken, you pay protection money. That’s just business. The reason we don’t tolerate that kind of business is that there is a social elite that has overridden “decentralized decisions”.

      We’ve seen torture, exposure to toxic chemicals, extortion, borderline starvation, theft, fraud and even torturing puppies defended as “decentralized decisions”. That’s where social justice warriors have come in, in the US and elsewhere.

      • Swami

        When did I ignore that decentralized decisions depend upon the government? I simply do not know how to respond to this comment. It is almost like you are responding to someone else other than me.

        Let me be specific. I see huge value in shared conventions such as property, contract law and free, mutually-agreed market interactions. I also see value in having centralized entities such as governments establish, maintain and foster such decentralized systems. And as I specifically mentioned above, I see value in state supplied safety nets and public goods.

        I am not defending torture, theft or the release of negative externalities. I am against all of these whether decentralized or centralized in origin.

        My issue with SJW’s is that they are attempting to override others’ opinions of justice and replace it with their own. They are unjustly using the rhetoric of justice to push others around. I find this repulsive. They pursue power using arguments of justice while pissing on the very concept.

        • A Kaleberg

          In other words, you want to be the elite that picks and chooses which decentralized decisions are allowed and which are not. You want to override others’ decisions with your own view of justice. You want to use your definition of justice to push others around.

          There is always going to be an elite that sets the conventions and pushes everyone else around. The nice thing about an open society and a democracy is that we have mechanisms for changing that elite and changing what that elite decides to do.The SJWs just have a different definition from the elite of your preference. That’s called politics.

          Just top pretending that the SJWs are somehow worse in some way than the folks who are currently running the show or other people trying to push it in other directions. You don’t have to like them, but you have to respect them. If nothing else, your own attitudes seem to reflect the successes of SJWs in past eras.

          • Swami

            Would you quit making up what I believe, please? It is a rude and sloppy rhetorical device that inhibits all progress in discussions.

            Good day.

  • David Brin

    A fascinating and important missive… that I believe misses several key points.
    First, while the Great Enrichment is truly a result of improved human cooperation, that cooperation featured vast improvements in harnessing human competition. The fact touted on the right by “classic liberals” is that humans are inherently competitive and competition is the wellspring of fecund creativity that propelled the Great Enrichment, via our five competitive arenas — markets, democracy, science, courts and sports.

    If the left is wrong to downplay competition, the right is simply insane to ignore the lesson of 6000 years — that competitive systems always collapse due to cheating… that is, unless the competitive arena is very very closely regulated to prevent it. The great example is Sports, the arena wherein even a sniff of cheating can is pounced upon lest it wreck everything.

    This bipolar madness… leftists denouncing competition, which generated all the wealth that leads to social justice… and the right ignoring all of human history and the desperate need for cooperative regulation… is the awful, simplistic mess that we now see.

    In my own article on Evonomics (in a week or two) I contrast the tradeoffs between cooperation and competition… between consensus controls and cheating … and show how these are not opposites at all. They are key elements in a positive sum game.

    Finally, one psychological reason for leftists to reject the Great Enrichment is simple. Puritan cynicism! The assumption is even mentioning any good news will reduce pressure to act upon injustice and world-dangers. This contempt for the masses is counter-productive and (frankly) loony, since the progressivism product will sell better if its salesmen point at past successes. This fetish for only pushing gloom is proof that the right does not have a monopoly on craziness.

    • Swami

      Look forward to it as usual, David.

    • A Kaleberg

      Humans have had competition for over 100,000 years. Most of that was the long flat line before something changed a few hundred years ago. I think it had to do with the plague shattering institutions and the rise of cities and nationalism in the 14th century. If you think of people as sheep, it was about replacing loyalty to the shepherd with loyalty to the breed.

      I think of free markets and competition as being like fire. Fire is amazingly useful for lighting, cooking and keeping warm, but fire needs to be controlled, managed, and constrained to be useful. The controlled use of fire was one of our kind’s great triumphs. Some peoples even hold fire sacred which is not all that unreasonable given its benefits, at least when it is properly under control.

      • David Brin

        A good comparison!

  • Janus Daniels

    I’d like to see a critical cause list after 1500CE:
    ~1400CE: phonetic alphabet meets movable type; Gutenberg Press invented.
    ~1600CE: democracy begins to grow and gain power?
    ~1800CE: industrialization, the slow decline of slavery, and the behavioral sciences (economics, management, psychology, etc.) begin to become sciences.
    ~1900CE: The United States turns from WWI and the Great Depression to lead victory in WWII; other nations study the unprecedented and continuing success of the US, and apply it…
    While the US haphazardly dumps its successful policies, causing the Great Recession.

    Obviously, something dramatic happened in 15th century Europe, and we know what it was. Our phonetic alphabet joined movable type in the mind of a business minded inventor. Books became cheap, knowledge became ubiquitous, ideas whose time had come took root and grew instead of withering to dust. The Renaissance required that; so did the Industrial Revolution.
    Why did the United States supersede Europe? I give much of the credit to our Founders respect for communication. They put the USPS, and then the First Amendment, in the Constitution, and Franklin franchised printing shops. (Maybe he invented franchising too.) The US led the development of communications all the way to the Internet.
    That helps to explain why we also led the development of social, political, and economic practice from the Depression till at least Nixon and Republiconomics.

  • Eli Levine

    My only critique of this would be to be careful about subscribing so much success to the supply-side of anything. This is simply because the only way you get relevant supply is for there to be demand for what you’re trying to supply. Social justice, I think, is something that people demand. Therefore, it is in the interests of the productive institutions (everything from government through to the private sector) to provide the reasoned levels of social justice that people living in society demand. The principles you stated, “Treat people as though their lives matter. Treat them as equals. Treat them with respect. Honor their rights”, are all basic concepts that every human (and, indeed it seems that any sentient animal) wants. What I see as being the problem, at present, is that we’ve got an Establishment class at the helms of our private and public institutions that neither seem to care about or understand the value of providing these basic rights and the institutions that support these rights. On the Establishment Left, you see the Democratic Party shutting down a broadly popular candidate and idea set in the form of Bernie Sanders, on the Establishment Right, you see the old money conservatives giving way to the frank insanity of Donald Trump that the old money called into being with Nixon’s “Southern Strategy” and Reagan’s reactionary “Conservative Revolution”. What I see as a present solution to our conundrum is for reasoned progressives/Socialists to meet with reasoned Libertarians to come up with a new consensus for the Establishment that puts people first, not corporate profits or other nonsensical measurements of economic success and well-being. The goal is to get people to be willing to buy the society/social construct. Without that buy-in, you get alienation, anger, and possible violence which upends the necessary social order as we know it that produces the wealth and well-being that we depend on and want as a society.

  • The work of John Gray — not the mars/venus dude, but the post-liberalism dude — is essential reading for the discussions here, including this post. He is someone that is aware that neo-liberalism has a fatal flaw: it is based on infinite growth. While this may seem obvious to some, it is missed by many. I have read his books in reverse order — with the exception of his latest book or two — and it has worked for me. I am considering founding a self-sufficient — in as many aspects as possible — organization that starts with a review of his work as the cornrestone in building a sustainable future.

  • Matt Beaven

    No mention of population growth as cause of new material wealth? As Adam Smith famously said, “The division of labor is limited by the extent of the market.”

  • A Kaleberg

    This ignores the entire New Deal of the 1930s as backed by the progressive business community and powerful into the 1960s. Go through a few years of Fortune in the 30s or Business Week in the 60s. The idea, constantly stressed, was that business was inherently progressive in that modern business methods combined with science and technology had managed to massively increase productivity. In the 1930s, the Great Depression made a lot of people take stock of the two and three orders of magnitude increase in industrial production and the one or two orders of magnitude increase in agricultural production and say two things: (1) we did that and (2) we are in a depression because we haven’t figured out how to distribute everything we can make. They produced a demand side consensus with the Federal government enforcing higher wages directly and indirectly and producing public goods that would benefit everyone.

    There were always dissenters, particularly in the business community, and by the late 60s they started a campaign to discredit the consensus. They were aided by the civil rights movement which was about expanding the benefits of the consensus to include albedo and testicle deprived people. The Vietnam War helped divide and conquer as well. The unions backed the war, so they were split from their traditional allies. By the 1970s, the reaction was well underway and we have the distributional statistics to show for it.

    It’s good to see more public discussion of the distribution of productivity gains. In the 1960s, it seemed as if the distribution could grow increasingly fairer even as productivity rose to Jetsonian levels. The reactionaries drowned out everyone else and pretended we were an impoverished agrarian society without so much as an iron tool or sack of fixed nitrogen fertilizer. They won. It’s time for some push back from the demand side.

    • Swami

      Your account of the depression (and its elimination) is revisionist to the extreme. I could provide a better narrative of the 20th C, but I suspect I would be wasting my time.

  • Blissex

    «Those gains are the “surplus” of cooperation. Enrichment—that is to say, economic growth—is about creating ever more and ever larger surpluses from cooperation.»

    So far so good, but only as a distant second order cause.

    By far and away the most part of the Great Enrichment has come from the consumer surplus from adding to expensively farmed foods/fuels vast quantities of very cheap mined “foods”/fuels, coal and oil, which are also energy dense and can be mined usually from areas that are anyhow unsuitable for farming human food, like underground or the arabian desert. It turns out that coal mines and oilfields in the desert have been the most fertile land ever discovered.

    The driving factor for living standards improvements thus has been the consumer surplus from the exceptional fertility of that land, from the adoption of coal and oil, because they cost a lot less than their value, compared to farmed food/fuel. When a man and a dozer can do the work of 50 men with shovels, that is thanks to the tank of diesel in the dozer, not so much the dozer, the man, or the undoubted benefits of cooperation and group endeavours that resulted in the dozer or the training of the man.

    Without the enormous consumer surplus of coil and oil, in an economy still based on very expensive farmed hay/corn/wood/oils, better cooperation, science and technology, institutions, social norms, would still have had an effect, but perhaps an order of magnitude smaller (and probably smaller still) than the effect the adoption of coal and oil had in the “first-world” economies.

    Important note: the early segment of the graph above grossly underestimates GDP, or more precisely standards of living, of past millennia. There is quite a bit of hard evidence that living standards in 1000-1500CE for low income workers were roughly those of an income of $2,000-$4,000 in a “first-world” country today, and probably had been at that level for a very long time.

    • Swami


      Could you link me to some sources on the higher GDP, please? I know there is a lot of uncertainty, but most sources I am familiar with revolve around $3 a day or less. Any insights you have would be appreciated.

      I certainly agree that stock fuel adoption — the transition from inefficient solar flow to huge fossil fuel and nuclear stocks — is necessary for the great enrichment. But nothing was physically preventing prior societies from using coal or petroleum, and nothing prevents the poor countries in Africa from using them today. What they lack(ed) was knowledge on the science, technology and institutions to capitalize on this potential.

      This knowledge is the result of long term cumulative learning and cooperation among millions of people. Millions of people with the right mindsets, right institutions leading to effective utilization of coal and such. In addition, higher energy will not lead to higher standards of living unless used constructively. WWII used a lot of energy to destroy life and prosperity, not create it. North Korea has fossil fuels. No prosperity.

      Before we get prosperity we need energy (and communications, and technology and germ theory and institutions), but to get these things we need cooperation. But to solve the problem of cooperation (defection, cheating and exploitation is the greatest challenge in the social sciences) we need between-community competition.

      European divergence occured in a place with a thousand year integrated competition between states vying for survival and power with their neighbors. Competition externally among closely interconnected entities led to an arms race for internal cooperation where any winning move could be quickly replicated and improved by ones neighbors. By the end of the 18th C Britain emerged as the leader, putting together a winning combination which had the institutions, mindsets, tech, science (and method), coal, steam engines and such.

      Integrated competition led to enhanced internal cooperation which led to technology and problem solving which led to higher living standards.

      • Blissex

        I think your argument and mine are compatible, because

        * mine is an argument about quantity, that the vast majority of the enrichment is due to the switch to mining far cheaper/better fuel than farmed/food fuel.
        * Yours is an argument about logic, that the mining of cheaper/better fuels is not sufficient for the Great Enrichment, even if it is necessary, and that cooperation is *also* necessary for the Great Enrichment, and for the investment in mining those better/cheaper fuels.

        I think that indeed the mere availability of coal and oil was not sufficient, but that still means that it has given the vast majority of the Great Enrichment. A quote that I came across recently perhaps shows the point quite a lot, on the farming of quinoa with traditional andean methods versus coal/oil based methods:

        «Their new competitors, tilling better soil with modern farming equipment, manage yields that are up to eight times higher. An ox takes six days to plough land a tractor can handle in two hours,»

        Now an overall factor of eight is pretty huge, and the ox/tractor factor is “just” 24 if counting only 8 hours per day for the ox.

        Is that factor of 24 because of the tractor? Because of the “invisible hand” or visibly wilful cooperation that built the tractor and mined the diesel fuel in the tank? Or because of the diesel fuel in the tank?

        Obviously they are all equal necessary on a *logical*/*lawyerly* basis, but equal logical/lawyerly necessity should not obscure that *quantitatively* it is the tank of diesel fuel that produces the overwhelming majority of that factor of 24 in productivity. Cooperation on its own might result in 2-3 times better ploughing times per unit of human effort, not 20-30.

        You can tell people that both coal/oil and cooperation are logically necessary for the Great Enrichment (as well as Great Inventions, markets, rule of law, … in varying degrees), but it is quite more informative to add that coal/oil account pretty much directly for 90% of that enrichment.

        • Swami

          On GDP, you are shifting the conversation from extremely long term global per capita GDP to post Black Death English productivity per worker not adjusted for family size. It is well known that wages were substantially higher in England than most of Europe, and much higher than in most of the world (I have seen estimates of 4X), especially after the plague. You switched the topic.

          All the data I have seen is that most of the world was just above subsistence for pretty much all of history. Your link even mentioned that close to a third of people in England were at subsistence at start of 19th C.

          On the conversion from energy flow (primarily solar capture via plants, animals eating plants, people eating plants and animals, and wind, water energy supplied indirectly via solar) to stocks (coal then oil/gas then nuclear), as I stated, this was necessary for the great enrichment. We could not have done it without it.

          But this just pushes the question back… Why didn’t prior states capture all that energy? And why didn’t living standards go up everywhere after the leading states discovered how to capitalize on that energy? Why are living standards still so low in much of Africa and SE Asia? They have access to tractors and fossil fuels.

          When I said it involved cooperation you assumed I meant cooperation to do farm work. I didn’t. I meant that it took the cooperation of millions of people across time and space accumulating knowledge to figure out how to build steam engines and internal combustion engines, and make Bessemer steel, and form inclusive institutions, to create the scientific method and so on.

          Energy doesn’t answer the question. But it is certainly an important part of the answer.

      • Blissex

        «underestimates GDP, or more precisely standards of living, of past
        millennia. There is quite a bit of hard evidence that living standards
        in 1000-1500CE for low income workers were roughly those of an income of

        sources on the higher GDP, please? I know there is a lot of uncertainty,
        but most sources I am familiar with revolve around $3 a day or less.

        As I wrote *very clearly* I was talking «living standards», which is especially in pre-industrial economies with a lot of self-production quite a different thing from GDP of today, especially as to «low income workers», by which I meant “typical” rather than “average” incomes.

        In England in the 14-15th centuries (a favourable time for wages) a tyoical bottom-worker like a farm serf as paid enough to buy 15-20 pounds of bread a day. A little bit up the scale “craftsmen” were being paid around twice that:

        Figure 8 of this paper, which is based on hard documentary evidence, is particularly interesting:


        For a later period but still interesting:


        Now even at current prices of around $0.60/pound for bread in England that means that farm labourer were being paid around $8-$10 per day, and craftmen $15-$20 per day, and that provides a *lower* bound to their standard of living, for example because of greater self-production and self-consumption.

  • sleepmon

    A Farewell to Alms: A Brief Economic History of the World (The Princeton Economic History of the Western World) http://www.amazon.com/Farewell-Alms-Economic-History-Princeton/dp/0691141282

    The 10,000 Year Explosion: How Civilization Accelerated Human Evolution

    Genetic technology Social technology Technology Economic growth and propserity

  • geonomist

    Why you should think for the first time they have. Also, redefine your terms. American as you may be, get an historical POV, thanks.

  • Coming back to this after a couple of months, and reading everything again, I am struck by how much great stuff is in the article, and how much more is in the comments, particularly those of David Brin and Swami, and how much we all missed first time.

    David and I often argue definitional issues around cooperation and competition, and I suspect we agree on far more than we disagree, and it is mainly a perspectives thing. For me, cooperation is the rules that make competition work for all, and we see it at many levels in biology, and it always requires attendant strategies to prevent overrun by “cheats” – games theory 101.

    And going back to the original thesis, there seems to me to be much more at play.
    Many factors, all important, many stochastic.

    A major one is climate stability.

    The sea level stability of the last 10,000 years in unprecedented in the past million years.

    Over most of the previous million years sea level was either going up on down about a meter per century (3 ft for Americans). That constant change prevented the establishment of stable coastal trading settlements. It was hardly worth the effort of building large ports if the sea would reclaim them within a couple of generations.

    For most of human history – orthodoxy reigned supreme. Challenges to existing ideas mostly resulted in death – a famous example being Socrates.

    Stable trading centre allowed trading with distant places, which exposed people to the diversity that comes with distance.
    Slowly, very slowly, such diversity became acceptable.
    Yet still many institutions fought it, guilds and priesthoods of all manner.
    Yet there was money to be made, trade for mutual benefit. And eventually the money won.
    Yet without the climate stability, it would have been unlikely.

    Then there was the transmission of information.
    Writing may have started with trade, and initially been a guild thing, closely protected, and eventually the printing press brought literacy to the masses.
    With literacy people could share ideas beyond their immediate circle of contact, and across generations.
    Mimetic evolution really got its kickstart to a new level.

    The pressures of business to innovate to survive directly conflicted with orthodoxy, and orthodoxy lost (mostly).

    Then in the late 1800s computation hit its exponential stride.
    Eventually this led to automation at whole new levels.

    Various forms of technology had previously increased productivity (animals, water, fire, steam, factories), but the rate of doubling of information technology was something else (every year).

    This coupled with all manner of innovation in tools and conceptual understandings led to a rapid evolution in ways of understanding.
    Simplistic ideas of truth and right had to give way to uncertainty, complexity, and chaos.
    The ideas of purpose and balance in nature supplanted by nature as an open ended evolving complex system – neither knowable nor predictable, except by approximation within various dimensions of uncertainty.
    Newton’s view of God’s certainty gave way to profound uncertainty from Heisenberg and Goedel and many others. Now we have ideas like Bayesian uncertainty, maximum computational complexity, chaos and fractal systems bringing new aspects to unknowability, and new opportunities for novelty.

    At the same time is a growing awareness amongst individuals that our experience of being is not of reality directly, but rather of a subconsciously created and slightly predictive model of reality that our brains produce. So there is a lot of seeing and experiencing what we expect rather than what is, at different levels – which is kind of a logical necessity, and it requires active mitigation strategies on our part when we suspect real novelty is present.

    So it seems to me beyond any shadow of reasonable doubt that there are many levels of contribution by many different systems to this prosperity that some of us experience.

    And I have no doubt that it is possible to take cooperation to an entirely new level, supported by the ability of automated systems to do all the “grunt” work that once required other people, and empower every individual to do whatever they responsibly choose. And that “responsibility” is not a simple thing. It is very complex, multidimensional, constantly evolving, with lots of unknowns, lots of negotiation, and lots of need of associated strategies at all levels to prevent invasion by cheats.

    And such cooperation does not imply sameness or equality of distribution, and it does imply that everyone have a high minimum standard of the goods and services and opportunity and freedom available. And with automation, that is a relatively simple thing to organise – once we stop seeing everything through market values.

    And with distributed trust networks, and hi fidelity long term memory, cheating at any level becomes a high risk strategy. Digital systems will allow us to extend Dunbar’s number from about 150 to beyond the 10 billion currently living.