Conservatism, Libertarianism and the Anglosphere Perspective.

I recently had a conversation about how both American and British conservatives have gotten mixed up too much with the idea of “tradition”, and have tried to “conserve” the wrong things. It makes a certain amount of sense that this error occurs in England, where there really are castles and grand houses and people called Lord This or Sir That. But it is odd that this stuff got going in the USA.

The American Right tried, after World War II, to come up with an Oakeshottian traditionalist basis for itself. This effort was manifested in the writings of people like Russell Kirk and Richard Weaver. Kirk in particular devoted his life to this project. It failed. It failed because they were trying to find something that looked on the surface like a continuous traditionalist way of life. Kirk’s The Conservative Mind ended up with Santayana, a Spanish pessimist and T.S. Eliot, an idiosyncratic expat. Weaver and his successors like Wendell Berry have tried to look to the South as a source of a traditional way of life, etc, but are forced to deal with slavery and the fact that the agrarian South is a waning part of American life. Conservatism was left as a ragbag with its smartest participants being 19th Century liberals reborn. The problem with them is they speak in the generalities derived from their economics background, hence no rootedness or traditionalism works for them — Reading someone like Douglass North who tries to make simple facts about culture fit an “econ” model shows the futility of building further from this side. The other smart guys were Cold War realists (and often ex-communists) like James Burnham, who represented an atheoretical pragmatism and a rough-and-ready moral stance that was sufficient for waging the Cold War. Burnham sensed the existence of an Anglosphere but did not articulate its roots or meaning. The foot-soldiers of the Conservative coalition were church-goers who bought into various often simplistic narratives of rugged individualism, Catholic Cold Warriors, and the suburbanites whom Walter Russell Mead calls crabgrass Jacksonians. The impresario of all this was William F. Buckley, who managed to purge the lunatics and find common ground in anti-communism, free enterprise and some general notion of traditional American values. Buckley was acutely aware that the movement lacked total coherence, but pressed on anyway, with remarkable political success.

Those conservatives who are seeking a “tradition” have therefore been orphans, since the problem was initially approached the wrong way. Such people can now find a living tradition via Alan MacFarlane and David Hackett Fischer, but especially MacFarlane, who takes the story back many centuries before the American founding. They can see themselves as part of a centuries-long continuity which goes back to the middle ages, and which came over here in various regional forms. This answers a need from that wing. It also shows that the Econ-side was missing a big part of the puzzle. The economic model only works if the cultural, legal and political institutions are in place. So, they need to understand those, both here and abroad, to find out what works. The libertarians need to bite the bullet and find out what, historically, has made people, regions, eras, countries or civilizations more “dynamist” than others. The answer will not please some of them — Classical civilization, Christianity, Germanic tribal practices, English practices and English insularity and English legal peculiarities, leading to an exceptional type of civic and political order (nothing remotely like statelessness) which in turn allowed economic growth and the “Exit”. Those on the “Hayekian” pole of libertarianism will be better able to grasp all this, since Hayek himself said that capitalism draws from sources it did not create and cannot replace.

So, the Conservatives get a tradition, which they have always wanted. Those who come from the “econ” side get a new research project, to understand differing performance in light of historically developed institutions. The libertarians have to choke down that freedom does not equal merely getting rid of the state, but cultivating civil society, something they ought to be good at since so many of them are techies and that is what the new technology should be about.

The critical contribution that Jim Bennett is making is providing a unifying framework to do re-found both conservatism and libertarianism. He is taking Macfarlane’s insights and a bunch of other stuff, identifying a genuine tradition which really is ancient, common to us all, at the core of what makes us what we are, that has caused the freedom and prosperity we value. These ideas are not really new, but they needed to be repackaged and re-presented. This means that the question of “what do conservatives want to conserve” can be coherently answered, finally. The question “what liberties do libertarians value” can be answered better, by showing where the liberties they value came from, and how they they got here.

The Anglosphere idea, with its historical narrative, provides a unifying intellectual framework for many seemingly disparate elements on the political right.

Cross-posted on Albion’s Seedling.

If you have not read Jim Bennett’s Anglosphere Primer, I strongly suggest you do so.

22 thoughts on “Conservatism, Libertarianism and the Anglosphere Perspective.”

  1. Peter Viereck, the forgotten father of modern American conservatism had an answer to the mix up implied in your first paragraph. He said that the true conservative held values as more important than institutions. Therefore the conservative was a values conserver first. This, of course, is not easy since it requires having core values and then teasing them out of complex situations.

    Here is an excellent summation in the New Yorker

    I discovered Viereck when I was an freshman in college in 1957 and he provided me with the framework upon which I have built my political understanding of the world. Humane, never a polemicist, a lucid, graceful, writer; as befits a Pulitzer poet. I am now acquiring the republished Transaction Press books from Rutgers to supplant, but never replace my old, dog eared copies with a lifetime of my marginal notes. If you read nothing else, read the Unadjusted Man.

  2. You have conspicuously failed to mention that wonderful madman, John Randolph of Roanoake, you naughty man. Randolph is/was a brilliantly incisive crank who wanted to become America’s Edmund Burke but found such efforts a hard slog in Jefferson’s Virginia — but he raises the question that the rest of us find hard to answer (to focus on just one “meme”) — how do you “conserve” a revolutionary moment? We tend to forget that that is not just a rhetorical question. Russell Kirk understood the significance of Randolph and anyone who wanted to follow Randolph, but only highlighted the flimsiness of his efforts by transforming Randolph (and Burke!) into Catholic Naturl Law Theorists (or, technically, theoretically anti-theoretical thinkers). But what a great on going question. When I extract myself further from the LA mud will ponder it further and again.

  3. MHWood, thank you very much. I have heard of Viereck but never read him. I will add this reference to my rather insane list of books I “must” get to.

    Carl, good to see your name on the blog, nudge nudge. Yes, of course, Randolph of Roanoke. But this overview was not even from 20,000 feet, it was from low orbit. Cannot fit them all in, obviously. So, I deny that this post is any evidence one way or the other that I am a naughty man. I can poke back at you, sir, and say that I at least know something about Randolph but that you must, must, must read Macfarlane’s Riddle of the Modern World. (A post from you about JRofR would be nice). Dig out of that mud, sir.

  4. Mr. Bennett’s contribution is enormous, and his core references such as Macfarlane and Fischer reveal many critical beliefs and institutions which made the Anglosphere what it is — man’s chief source of freedom and prosperity. I agree that people who read Macfarlane can learn much about the Anglospheric tradition.

    The ideas found in Macfarlane’s books are so important they deserve much wider dissemination, even among people who are unlikely to read him. We have another road to Anglospheric enlightenment in the U.S., one that can be packaged and sold in a variety of ways, from local schools to homeschooling curricula to online learning networks like this one (but the network I’m envisioning would teach cultural values and not limit itself to math).

    I’m talking about the elite “St. Grottlesex” tradition, a model for secondary education that originally was largely based on English traditions and values. John Taylor Gatto discussed this brilliantly in his Underground History of American Education. (This chapter focuses on the class characteristics of Anglican boarding schools, but nevertheless provides a fascinating historical perspective.) His ideas on the subject are also here and here (see list titled “Secrets of Elite Private Boarding Schools”). There are models for these schools throughout the Anglosphere — Eton, St. Paul’s, Melbourne Grammar School, St. George’s, etc. This educational model is completely different from the Prussian-derived U.S. public school system, and as Gatto notes, it need not be limited to children of well-off parents — rather, anyone can study what elite schools do and borrow those methods for their own children.

    The St. Grottlesex model is conservative. Students attend mandatory chapel, read Homer and Charles Dickens, and learn to value the school’s unique traditions. It is also libertarian — it emphasizes debate, careful attention to facts, and writing with clarity. Students learn to state and defend their own positions, and to search and destroy the weak arguments of others. They question authority. They also adopt many English customs, like playing rugby and other ball games, forming associations, and engaging in Wordsworthian nature worship. They form a high-trust society in microcosm, with competing and conflicting organizations getting along reasonably well under the rule of law.

    What I’ve outlined is really an ideal form of America’s elite Anglospheric educational system. St. Grottlesex produces its share of burnouts. Worse, some of its schools have broken free of their Anglocentric moorings and become multicultural, megaphone-wielding, self-loathing parodies of their former selves.

    But the central ideas and techniques of these schools are Anglospheric in nature, revelatory, and potentially accessible to a much wider audience. Goods and services based on this model, using modern technologies, could provide highly popular vehicles for delivering Macfarlane’s ideas to families who are dissatisfied with their children’s current (Prussian) schooling options, and want to ensure their sons and daughters have a deep understanding of the institutions and traditions that lead to the best results.

    As Mr. Bennett writes, the Anglosphere provides the world’s best hope of successfully coping with the future challenges of the Singularity. We need to teach a wider audience how to preserve the traditions that ensure freedom and prosperity while simultaneously experimenting with new ways of maintaining that freedom and expanding that prosperity. “Miss Matheson’s Academy of the Three Graces” in Neal Stephenson’s The Diamond Age is a sort of 21st-century “St. Grottlesex” meant to help its students accomplish these things. The book’s protagonist, Nell, has an interactive primer that teaches her many important lessons, but those lessons are driven home by the live actress who communicates with her through the primer, and by her teachers and classmates at Miss Matheson’s academy. The cultivation of civil society, by interacting with others, is critical.

    In short, the traditional Anglican educational model, in its ideal form, is conservative, libertarian, and available throughout the Anglosphere. Distillation of that model into tangible products and services (such as this website) will provide a valuable (and popular) means of spreading critically important ideas to a wide audience that includes children as well as adult readers of history.

    (Note: I tried to cross-post this to Albion’s Seedlings, but it was rejected due to “questionable content”!)

  5. Another seminal work other than Viereck for me has been Max Weber’s The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. Although written from a European perspective it provides an understanding of the immense impact that the Reformation had on the economic and societal level.

    Oddly enough, the fiction trilogy by Neal Stephenson called The Baroque Cycle is what brought it to mind. All three volumes are full of the fundamental influence that the Reformation had on Europe in general and England in particular. We tend to forget that many of the English Calvinists fled to Europe, especially Geneva, and, when they returned to the mother country brought with them many of the ideas that were to fuel the Industrial Revolution. It was in England that the seeds of the protestant ethic came to full flower.

    This influence can be brought full circle by a reading of the 1954 Bancroft Prize winning book and series by Clinton Rossiter, Seedtime of the Republic; The Origin of the American Tradition of Political Liberty.

    In these times, where the Academy has become a captive of particular interests, we tend to forget the really wonderful work that has been produced. In fact, if I were teaching an introduction to American Conservatism, I would use Vierck, Weber, Hoffer, Rossiter and Stephenson as the texts. The first four authors to provide the underpinnings and the last to provide a very readable political, social, economic, scientific and historical context for the changes that took place in the world during the Reformation, Counter Reformation and the eventual triumph of the Anglo-Spheric intellectual tradition.

    Lurking in the above works are some very subversive ideas for contemporary commentary.

  6. Interesting idea about the search for a unifying tradition.

    As a historian, I’ve been intrigued by the fact that many in the political sphere (I’m deliberately trying to be more inclusive than just politicians and bureaucrats) don’t seem to know where their ideas come from. You almost get the feeling that they believe they thought them up themselves over coffee and bagels while reading the Op Ed pages. (Needless to say, this does not apply to ANY of the heavy hitters Lexington mentions by name.)

    You, and M.H.Wood, put your fingers on why I don’t consider myself a “conservative” even though I support many of the policies of those who label themselves so. My politics are derived from a philosophy of natural rights that dates back to Classical Greek rationalists like Aristotle, appears in the Medieval theology of Thomas Aquinas, and in the Enlightenment philosophies of English and Scottish empiricists, the political writings of Jefferson, Madison and Hamilton, and reappears in the politics of Abraham Lincoln and the philosophies of Leo Strauss and Harry Jaffa. In that sense I’m a traditionalist.

    However, I don’t accept these ideas because they are old and/or traditional, I accept them because I find the arguments for them persuasive. The value for me of their age derives from the fact that they have been extensively critiqued and debated over the years and my understanding of them comes as much from the attacks and defenses as from the original statements. For example, I find Mortimer Adler’s objections to Aristotle, Locke and Hume persuasive too.

    “He said that the true conservative held values as more important than institutions.”

    I haven’t read Viereck, so I would be curious to know if he really said “values.” The Aristotle/Locke tradition as epitomized in the phrase “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” advocates the importance of virtues, not values.

    “The economic model only works if the cultural, legal and political institutions are in place.”

    That’s another one of those problems that historians see all the time. It is convenient for some purposes to divide history up into political, economic, military, social, &c, &c. But any historian who pretends that reality consists of spheres that don’t intersect ends up making a fool of themselves sooner or later when they miss something really important to their subject.

    Which brings me to another related topic. How come nobody ever mentions David Hackett Fischer’s most popular book? “Historians’ Fallacies: Toward a Logic of Historical Thought” has been in continuous print for over 30 years, and yet it never gets mentioned. Another odd thing is that it is more popular in law schools than in humanities courses. Is a system of logic relating evidence to analysis of more utility to lawyers than historians?

    My last question is, not having read Bennett’s book, how does the AngloSphere relate to Greco-Judaio-Christian traditions? It seems to me that things like the British empiricists, the Scottish Enlightenment, the Mayflower Compact, the charter of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, the Declaration of Independence, and the US Constitution are all firmly rooted in the Greek rationalism that Victor Hanson talks about in “Who Killed Homer?”, the Judaism of Maimonides, the Christianity of Aquinas, and the Protestantism of Luther and Calvin. How much Greek, Latin, Hebrew, and German, does an Anglophone have to know? (I’m speaking metaphorically, not literally.)

  7. It does seem a bit odd to attempt to invent a “conservative” movement in a country that was born in (as a commenter above pointed out) a revolutionary moment. There is nothing conservative about: We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal… This sentence is the most radical of political statements. Following it to its logical conclusion does not lead to conservatism. Rather it frees the individual from forced membership in prexisting groups (e.g. tribes, races, traditions etc). America is a place where an individual can invent himself anew and create a life for himself. This kind of individualism is radical and it drives socialists, Islamic fundamentalists, tribalists, racial nationalists and many others into an insane fury.

  8. Mr. Hollywood, I see we are walking the same path. Even so far as having our comments being rejected. As an enthusiastic supporter of the St. Grottlesex model myself I also wondered if Nell’s primer could be made virtual now.
    To the right of the desk upon which this computer lives are many of the books you mention.

    Fortunately, I survived the California public education system of the the late 1940’s and 50’s to attend university before the great American cultural revolution swept it all away. I thank God for graduate school since it taught me how to teach myself and that being an autodidact was a jewel of great value. “A mind forever questing”

  9. Thanks Lex & everyone else. You are giving us all the fruits of what must be many many hours work. And I can’t begin to assimilate it.
    By the way, probably the most important popular American essayist and lecturer of the 19th century, Buell describes him as America’s first “public intellectual,” was Emerson, whose gospel was pretty much individualism and whose views generally fit closest to libertarian ones. His vision was of process far more than of any conclusion. And he’s often criticized (and lauded) as the quintessential American defining the American tradition.

  10. Carl Hollywood and M.H. Wood,

    By all means let me know if you have difficulty posting comments here. Our blacklist software sometimes blocks valid comments, but when it does this it should indicate which phrase in your comment caused the trouble. If you can’t figure out a workaround, email me and I can probably edit the blacklist to obviate the problem.

    Seedlings uses a similar blacklist setup as we do. I suspect that the guys there will be eager to help if they know that you are having difficulty.

  11. Wow, good responses. Paul K, it would take a book to answer all your questions. That is not a criticism. As to “how does the AngloSphere relate to Greco-Judaio-Christian traditions?”, take a look at this post. As to Historians Fallacies, I have it on the shelf and have looked at it. I do not think that it was nearly as world-reordering in impact as Albion’s Seed, as good as it no doubt is.

    Carl Hollywood — the questions content is probably the last syllable of the name of the school. Try putting an * in place of the letter e and see if that works. Sorry we have to be so Procrustean about filtering, but spam is an ocean of sh*t which will enter at any crack. I know that Jim Bennett is a big fan of Neal Stephenson, and attributes the origin of the word “Anglosphere” to him.

    Ginny, my post is actually the fruit of two dashed-off emails — but those rest upon a lifetime of reading. It’s always like that, isn’t it?

  12. Along with Albion’s Seed, Fischer’s Fallacies lives on my bookshelf as well. I remember reading it with that continuing feeling of; yes, yes, of course; that you get when you find that somebody else “understands” something that has been self evident to you for years. I had the same feeling when I read Borstin’s, The Lost World of Thomas Jefferson.

    In retrospect, I realize that I had been extraordinarily fortunate in encountering two people while in high school. The first was a Latin teacher who realized I was starving to death and said two words, “Great Books”, then had the patience to help a thirteen year old for the next four years through them. There were eventually six of us in Mr. Ferrer’s “Books Club” which I now know to have been a combination seminar and tutorial. The second was a “Sunday School” teacher for my Episcopal Church parish, which was very “smells and bells, High Church, for a Los Angeles suburb. He taught the class for those of us tended to disrupt the other classes with questions that the motherly types couldn’t handle. From him I learned, for example what Judeo Christian really meant and where those pesky Greeks fit in. He also told me that the American Anglican Communion owed its’ existence to the Scottish Church who had consecrated the first American bishop. And, why our Anglican tradition was just a little different. Thus, by the time I reached college I “spoke” Greek, Latin, Hebrew and a Calvinist German and had a pretty good idea where my ideas had come from.

    And, if “virtues” are not values with their party dresses on, then I have been mislead for a long time. I also found VDH’s “Who Killed Homer” just another old friend I hadn’t met yet.

    Paul, I’ll take “traditionalist” and welcome you into the fold. It is not necessary to fall on your ass on the road to Damascus; my ten year old reading, I wasn’t listening closely enough.

    I don’t think that you will get any arguments here about about history being a continuum rather than ground to be divided into academic gold claims to be worked only by the licensed.

  13. (cross-commented at Albion’s Seedlings)

    Yes yes yes. Yay tradition.

    Let me ask you this: Is Mr. Bennett’s synthesis (of a conservative tradition – hah! a synthesis of a tradition!) the apotheosis of political theory and civil society? Because if it ain’t (and if there doesn’t happen to be any others that prove to be) then how exactly can we improve upon it?

    I mean where is novelty, intuition and indeed synthesis itself in this rush to extemporize a historical narrative to justify modern moralists? Yes, the “econ” wing of the libertarians have what amounts to essentially a politics of autism. But I say good on them! It is novel! Will their approaches work? Some will, some won’t. But to suggest that only a “traditional” politics (or a “traditional” anything else for that matter) will work is to arrogate to one’s self the prescience of God. The universe in which I live does not appear to be binary.

    It seems to me conservatives are the ones who are missing a piece of the puzzle: namely innovation. To wit:

    “Also, it allows the libertarians to see that the liberties they value came about in a particular place in a particular way.”

    I take you to mean that “liberty” was not an innovation and was rather some kind of epiphenomenon of the reigning social conditions at the time (so you’re a determinist then?) To this I say: pah! By definition, things do not “come about” as a result of the practice of conserving traditions. Things “come about” because someone has the temerity to engender them; often to the great chagrin of those who see themselves as the custodial staff for orthodoxy (read: conservatives).

    I consider myself eminently humble vis-à-vis my political philosophy, and as such, I am growing increasingly nauseated to be a libertarian who must, of political necessity, make nice with people who possess a deific certitude about things civil and political.

    Anyway: post hoc ergo propter hoc. That a particular set of social and religious circumstances obtained concurrently with the rise of empiricism and liberal political philosophy does not evince that it could not have happened otherwise.

    Incidentally, this comment is as much if not more “occasioned by” as it is ostensibly “responding to” the lucid and artful articulation in the above post.

  14. From a conservative perspective, the important thing about the American Revolution is not that it was a revolution, it was that it was about a certain set of values and virtues. It makes no sense to conserve “revolution”, but it does make sense to conserve the particular set of values the revolution was about.

  15. Once again, I learn and grow through reading on this site, posts and comments alike.
    One quick, meager, insufficient thought:
    I wonder if for many Americans, in everyday life, values and institutions are tied together, at least in retrospect. When generations look fondly back at the past, they remember values they feel have been lost, but rarely in the abstract. There’s often some example or institution cited to illustrate the lost value. But are those values necessarily lost, or could some of those value have merely changed the object in which they illustrate themselves (or are illustrated?)?

    If it’s the latter, then that innovation mentioned by malaclypse is ever more important for conservatives to become acquainted with.

  16. My apologies to anybody who is having trouble posting comments at Albion’s Seedlings — our new Turing filters have less-then-Turing-like commonsense. These are great comments and I will shortly post at Seedlings a discussion of several of them, Malaclypse’s and Carl Hollywood’s in particular.

    Very briefly, the Anglosphere tradition is both inadvertetly emergent and the product of individual innovation. That is to say, its longstanding characteristics of individualism and market orientation have very deep and particular roots in Anglosphere history, but the intellectual awareness of these characteristics and the socio-political institutions that we now enjoy and that are shaped around those characteristics owe much to individual genius at particular points of its history.

    The ideal of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” is indeed revolutionary. But the revolution from which it merged was the English revolution of 1688. This was so well known in 1776 that nobody then needed to have it spelled out — Jefferson was “sampling” Locke, Milton and Sydney in the Declaration copiously. An anlysis of British pamphlets written in response to the Declaration of Independence has shown that hardly any of the authors disputed the principles of the Declaration; most just alllowed that it was standard Whig boilerplate. They tended to save their disagreement for Jefferson’s particulars as to why America could consider its contract with the crown voided.

    Neal Stephenson’s work is of great interest to Anglospherists, particularly the Baroque Cycle. And the first use of “anglosphere” that I can find was in Stephenson’s The Diamond Age, a novel that also contained a character named (coincidentally, I’m sure) “Carl Hollywood”.

  17. “As to “how does the AngloSphere relate to Greco-Judaio-Christian traditions?”, take a look at this post.”

    Lex, I would have thanked you yesterday for the link, but I was interupted by the UPS man with the copy of Adam Smith’s “Lectures on Jurisprudence” I had ordered from Amazon, so I had to take time out to play with my new toy. (That’s really what happened. I couldn’t make something like that up.)

    “As to Historians Fallacies, I have it on the shelf and have looked at it. I do not think that it was nearly as world-reordering in impact as Albion’s Seed, as good as it no doubt is.”

    I agree about its relative impact: HF is a hammer, not a house. I was just remarking on the fact that it’s sold so many copies over the years and yet never seems to get ANY attention.

    Lots of the comments here seem to relate to the tension between conservatism and revolution. As others have noted, some of this is semantic. I’ve personally always been uncomfortable with the use of the word conservative in American politics because I don’t know what it means. When you tell me Benjamin Disraeli was a Conservative, I think I know what you mean. When you tell me that Clarence Thomas is a conservative, I’m not so sure I know what you are intending by that.

    Same thing applies to revolution. If you mean something that is new and radically different from past practice, as opposed to armed insurection, then I think a very good argument can be made for the “Tradition of Revolution” in America dating back almost 400 years. For example, I’m currently working with a living history museum in Salem, Massachusetts that recreates the town as it was in 1630. The reason that the museum chose the year 1630 is because that was the year that the royal charter arrived in Salem. This was the first colonial charter granted by the King that allowed the directors of the corporation to reside outside of England and take the charter with them. At a director’s meeting of the corporation in London on July 28, 1629 Governor Cradock proposes “encouragement of persons of wealth and quality to remove themselves and families thither…that the government of the plantation should be transferred to those that shall inhabit there.” The appeal of self-government was what attracted over 1,000 colonists, including prominent merchants and lawyers to Salem in 1630. The same year that Charles I signs the Mass Bay Colony charter, he violates the Petition of Rights and dissolves Parliament for 11 years. Therefore, the colonists are conserving their rights as Englishmen as defined in the Petition of Rights by leaving England and establishing a completely new government of their own devising somewhere else. It’s an interesting idea to build something new to save something old and to build it in a new location in imitation of the old location.

    Does that address the need for innovation in traditionalism that Malachlypse and james d ask about?

  18. The question of “what is a conservative” is asked with the practical purpose of answering the question “how can we keep what we got going” which is refined to “lets keep the good part growing and excise the bad” to the navel contemplating reductio ad absurdem” of “which part is good and which is bad” sending everyone in search of “values”. Books get written in which old words get new definitions, new words get coined, synbols get manipulated, and readers befuddled.

    There is one question, which if answered cuts through all this nonsense and gets to the heart of the matter.

    “Why didn’t Julius Ceasar drive a Ford?”

    This is a very serious question. It requires answering why Man needs technology. There is no limit inherent in the human genotype that says a Ford cannot be invented until 1915. In 50 B.C. there were people just as smart as the Fords. Gears had been invented and oil seeped out of the ground in Parthia. Romans built roads.

    To answer this question we must swallow our pride and realize they had the same abilities, the same dexterity, the same intelligence as we do. That means that if we can build our modern society in the 150 years from 1800 to 1950, so could they have done the same between 200 bc and 50 bc.

    By learning what we had in 1800-1950 that they did not have, and what they had that we did not have, we can determine why we drive Fords and they do not.

    The urgency of this question is huge because the progress made from 1951-2005 is nowhere near as great as that made from 1895 to 1950. And the progress that will be made from 2006 to 2060 will be even less.

    Which leads to the second question. Having had a century of progress, do we want another? And “Why did Cyrus McCormick come to Illinois to invent his reaper?” which is also a very serious question that helps answer the first question.

  19. “The urgency of this question is huge because the progress made from 1951-2005 is nowhere near as great as that made from 1895 to 1950. And the progress that will be made from 2006 to 2060 will be even less.”

    Making claims without evidence is fun!

    Anyway, the above thesis strikes me as incredibly dubious on its face. The personal computer? The Internet? OOP? The repeated demonstration of the efficacy of quantum mechanics (despite earlier objections from Einstein and his coterie) ? The hyper-miniaturization of integrated circuitry? Nanotechnology? The mapping of the genome? Cognitive science breakthroughs so profound that we have been able to create the almost human AI construct Teddy Kennedy? The Super Bowl?

  20. I second the macalypse’s response. This assertion about the period 1951-2005 is wrong. If it is not wrong, it certainly requires some argument and explanation, since it appears on its face to be very wrong. If you look only at gross variables like life-expectancy, per-capita income and population growth, this period shows extraordinaty gains compared to any prior historical period.

  21. “If it is not wrong, it certainly requires some argument and explanation, since it appears on its face to be very wrong.”

    I’m enough of a sucker to pick up this guantlet, even though it’s way off topic.

    The problem, it seems to me, is in the definition of “progress.” US life expectancy at birth for white males in 1850 is 38.3 years; in 1900 it’s 48.23 years; in 1950 it’s 66.31; in 2000 it is 74.8. That means it goes up 9.93 years or 26% by 1900, 18.08 years or 37% between 1900 and 1950, and 8.49 years or 13% between 1950 and 2000. By that measure, 1900 to 1950 is the clear winner.

    However, that is not the only way to measure changes in life expectancy. Firstly, the rate of change has not been linear during the last 150 years. It is accelerating again in the last 5 years. But that doesn’t mean it’s going to keep accelerating either.

    Secondly, those statistics were life expectancy at birth. If you look at life expectancy at age 80, (In other words, if you make it to age 80 what is the average amount longer you will live?) you find that it was 5.9 years in 1850 and 5.89 years in 1950. However, it is 8 years as of 2003 (the last year I have data for). That means a 36% increase all in the last 53 years.

    The big declines in infant mortality and the big improvements in diet and basic hygiene were in the first half of the 20th century. The big improvements in geriatric medicine (organ transplants, open heart surgery, joint replacements) were in the second half of the century.

    A lot of technology-based cultural changes are quite old. The first communications at the speed of light is in 1844. The first reliable transatlantic cable is laid in 1866. It is a big change to go from taking 10 days to send a message from London to NY down to 10 minutes.

    The transcontinental railroad is completed in 1869. Suddenly the trip from NY to San Francisco goes from taking 100 days down to 7 days. When Jefferson was President, it took him two weeks to get from Monticello to Washington.

    Pan Am institutes transatlantic commercial passenger flights in 1939 with a scheduled time of 29 hours. By 1960 most flights are jets and times are 6 hours. Except for the grossly inefficient Concorde, flight times haven’t improved at all in 45 years.

    Pennsylvania RR steam locomotives are going over 100 miles an hour on regularly scheduled passenger runs in New Jersey in 1911. You still can’t drive that fast on the New Jersey Turnpike.

    Richard Gatling tested an electrically powered version of his gun in the 1880s that had a sustained rate of fire of over 3,000 rounds per minute. When General Electric developed the M61 20mm aircraft cannon during the 1950, they used both of Gatling’s 60-year old electic prototypes.

    Laparoscopes were first used for arthroscopic procedures around 1918. Kenji Takagi was using color photography and B&W video for arthroscopy at Tokyo University in 1936.

    The Boston Gas Company mailed out 1/4 million machine-generated invoices a month in 1910.

    The way I try to combine all the disparate measures of this kind of stuff is to ask how would a person react if I was able to transport them 50 years into the future. If I transported someone from 1835 to 1885, how much would they recognize? If I transported someone from 1935 to 1985, how much would they recognize.

    A person from 1835 wouldn’t know what an electic light bulb was. What would they think of taking the elevated railway to the Brooklyn Bridge? A person from 1935 would think that a 1985 cell phone was a really clunky version of the two-way wrist radio in the Dick Tracy comics. A person from 1935 would want to know why we don’t have a colony on Mars yet.

    I was using the Internet at work in 1985, but that’s because I worked in defence electronics. Part of my work included working on radar systems for B-52s that were older than I was. The ARPANet took 35 years to get were it is today.

    I think there are a lot of good arguments that the rate of technology-driven cultural change was higher in the past than now. But I don’t predict the future, so I make no claims about the future rate of change.

    I also don’t have an answer to the Ted Kennedy or Super Bowl arguments.

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