"I am not an advocate for frequent changes in laws and constitutions, but laws and institutions must go hand in hand with the progress of the human mind. As that becomes more developed, more enlightened, as new discoveries are made, new truths discovered and manners and opinions change, with the change of circumstances, institutions must advance also to keep pace with the times. We might as well require a man to wear still the coat which fitted him when a boy as civilized society to remain ever under the regimen of their barbarous ancestors."- Thomas Jefferson
From the time of Homer (roughly 1,000 BC) until Marco Polo (about 1300 AD), incomes were stagnant.
Starting about 1300, productivity began to rise and with it came a remarkable transformation in life. In the 18th century, life expectancy in England was about 35 to 40 years and now it's about 80. Incomes are up about 30X from when Shakespeare was buying ink. What happened in England was fairly representative of what happened in the US, Canada, Germany, France and the rest of what we now call the West.
|Change in income from century earlier|
The West started this parade but it no longer leads it. Singapore has higher per capita GDP than the US, England, or Germany. There is nothing uniquely British about industrial economies or uniquely American about entrepreneurial economies. Anyone can lead this parade but why did the West start it? I think it's because of a unique approach the West took to its defining institutions.
Social invention is an overlooked component of progress. Banks, corporations, and nation-states matter as much in this story of progress since 1300 as trans-Atlantic ships, steam engines, and computers. The very notion, though, that these institutions are merely tools - no different than engines or electronics - is what has made the West different.
People within the the West have taken three distinct approaches to institutions.
Social Conservatives and Social Inventions as Sacred
The first approach is the most obvious. You come to awareness as a small child, growing up with the wonder of a church, the splendor of a king, the wealth of a bank and when you become an adult you accept that this is the way things are. Realizing how instrumental are these institutions to your world, you fight to defend them as they are.
Social conservatives treat social inventions as sacred. These are the loyal Catholics who see in the Protestant Revolution a route to hell and social chaos. These are the royalists who see in challenges to the crown a tumult of conflicting claims for authority, a challenge to all that is sacred. These are the capitalists who see conspiracies in the Central Bank that "runs" things, feeling instead that the banker should be left inviolate and unregulated.
They are quite right that these institutions keep us from chaos. I personally feel like institutions - social inventions - are the simplest reason that we have more control over our lives than do the great apes.
Radicals and Social Inventions as Disposable
Radicals go to the other extreme. They are well aware of how awful the church or state or bank has been. The French Revolutionaries outlawed religion at one point. The Enlightenment was about science and rationality and religion was all about superstition and dogma; it had to go. Radicals knew the church was merely an obstacle to progress and had to go.
Whether it is atheists who want to eradicate the churches, communists who want to shut down financial markets, or anarchists who want to outlaw laws, the radicals quite accurately see all that is awful about these social inventions and want them gone.
They also don't have a clue about how important are these flawed institutions to civilization, to modern life.
The radicals and social conservatives are an important part of the conversation and should always be heard; left in charge, though, they'll only ruin things. They're important voices who should never actually be given power to change anything but instead should only have power to point out problems and make suggestions.
Power over these social inventions should instead be given to people who are not naive enough to believe we can live without them or naive enough to believe that they should be defended in some current or (more often) idealized past form.
Social Inventions as Tools
Progress has been made by the folks who see social inventions as tools. Not sacred things that need protection. Certainly not as disposable. Progress has followed from people who realize how important the church is to how people construct meaning and gain empathy and compassion, become more loving and happy even when life hits one with the inevitable tragedies of illness, death, financial setbacks or even wars and pandemics.
The ones who see church, state and bank as mere tools realize that - just as with cars or can openers - these tools are more valuable as more people are able to use and define them. "We are all priests," as Martin Luther claimed, or "All men are created equal," as Jefferson wrote express the sentiment of those who don't think that popes or kings should have a unique right to define the institutions that so define us.
And the social inventions as tools people are the ones who are unafraid to change these institutions to make them work better for who we really are and aspire to be than who we imagine our ancestors once were. A church is not sacred but it is precious. What does this mean? Everything about it should be challenged except for what it does for people; a church is more important than a juicer only because of what it makes. Fresh orange juice is lovely but meaning and compassion can make the difference between whether or not you even feel like it's worth it to get out of bed to make that orange juice.
The West has led the great parade of progress in no small part because it has treated its vital institutions as mere tools and subject them to challenge and redesign as if they were products no different than cars or radios. They're not sacred. They're not disposable. We've made progress by changing our relationship to church, state, and bank, making them tools for anyone rather than just popes, kings, and bankers. We will make progress again in this generation by making a similar shift in how we treat corporations, turning them into tools for employees to create wealth and jobs and not just tools reserved for CEOs (who, by the way, are also employees). Freedom of religion, the spread of democracy, the American Dream and the popularization of entrepreneurship have treated - and will treat - our big institutions as mere tools. That orientation is essential to progress.
So why mention all this? Because in the wake of the Great Depression, extremists seized governments everywhere; fascists and communists took control and progress halted or reversed everywhere they did. Now, in the wake of the Great Recession, extremists are again gaining power.
On the left we have activists who see banks as evil. And on the right we have activists who see banks as sacred. The first group doesn't understand the importance of banks, the second group doesn't understand the importance of regulating them and subjecting them to a central bank. Those on the left aren't numerous enough in the states to spoil capital markets but those on the right actually are in Trump's government. Trump is moving to deregulate banks so that banks are tools for bankers and not the community, not for everyone. The social conservatives don't believe in Keynesian economics (most recent evidence of that is the fact that they protested deficits when unemployment was high and now want larger deficits now that unemployment is low) or monetary policy.
Social conservatives are also working to reverse democracy. In 1789, only white, property-owning Protestant men could vote. About every 50 years, another group gained voting rights until, by the end of the 20th century even minority women who rented could vote. Courts have repeatedly ruled that Republican efforts to reverse voting rights are actually targeted at reversing that, taking power from minorities and the poor to vote.
Finally the continued effort to impose a religious definition of when life starts (at the instant of conception) and dismissing any other reasonable definition is an attempt to encroach on freedom of religion, the freedom of women to follow their own conscience and belief about when sperm and egg become a baby.
Social conservatives are wonderful to have in a community. They remind us that family as an institution really does matter, that churches make lives better for so many, that banks and the state create order we would not have without them. We should listen to them. But social conservatives are better reminders than managers; put in power, they treat as sacred what any forward moving community treat merely as as tools that are best used by many rather than a few.
Prosperous and happy communities will continue to construct institutions that are tools that help people to create meaning and be compassionate. They may not even call these institutions churches - and that is part of the genius of lumping freedom of religion under the first amendment along with freedom of assembly, speech, and press, the realization that it is the freedom to form thoughts and express them that is at the heart of religious freedom.
Prosperous and happy communities will continue to construct institutions that are tools to allocate and create capital that helps to fuel progress in productivity and profits. Again, they may not even call these banks but they will be tools that make people richer and able to afford now what they cannot pay for until later.
Prosperous and happy communities will continue to construct institutions that are tools for governing, for creating policies that make their world safer, easier to navigate, and more likely to offer them lucrative options and freedom to live a life as they please - whether in the form of neighborhood planning boards or the UN or any level of government between.
Prosperous and happy communities will continue to construct and revise institutions that are tools for creating wealth and jobs, new technologies and new products and services and in the process of creating value for customers, suppliers, stockholders and the community.
And the communities that prosper the most will never pretend that these tools should be reserved for the elite. They will never pretend that they are not necessary. They will never pretend that they are anything but tools.
What has fueled progress for the West is treating these great institutions as tools. Every time we've instead treated them as disposable or sacred, progress stalls or even reverses.