Recently, a number of us were planning to drive into the city on a night of heavy, blowing snow, for a late dinner. One of our party resisted, suggesting it would be best to stay where we were and avoid the risk of unknown driving conditions. Another pointed out, not too convincingly, that we could always turn back if the going got bad. I made the irrelevant observation that there are two ways to respond to the unknown, anticipation and denial, that both are necessary to move forward, and that we were therefore well-positioned for success. It was glib, but no matter. It accomplished its intent, which was to break the deadlock and get us on our way.
Much of what we do is like this. While logic and reason are the way we decide many small things in the course of a day, many others are decided in ways that are less clear, simply because they involve collective action.
The broad sweep of human evolution seems to follow this consistent pattern, from individual action to organized activity. This in turn extends the reach of each individual, followed inevitably by still more elaborate and diversified organization. Hunter-gatherers become tribes, tribes become city-states, and these become nations. Organization accumulates knowledge and capital, and the woodsman becomes a sawyer, who becomes an industrialist. Farmers acquire draft animals and build wooden ploughs. Then they are conscripted and given metal weapons. Later, tools and jobs.
When the products of human ingenuity require many people to produce, then many people have at least some claim to participate in the bounty. Whether the society is class-heavy, organized by tradition and edict, or more open, and organized through negotiation and law, people participate in the bounty of economic activity because they are needed.
Arguably, what separated the capitalist societies of the past century or two from other experiments in social organization is that capitalism, as we have understood it, is a system that is steered primarily by what people are willing to work for. Yet in the 1950s and 1960s, many in the commentariat of the Free World could be heard fretting that Western democracies were too soft, too open, and not sufficiently disciplined; that the centrally-planned Soviet Union held an advantage because its social and economic activities were controlled and marshalled for the good of the nation. It was said that consumerist societies would have to straighten up and accept some restrictions on their liberties, if they were to survive the Cold War.
The experiment was instructive, and followed immediately by the conclusion that Western liberal democracy represents the pinnacle of human evolution.
In the relatively short time since the fall of the Berlin Wall, at least two developments have reminded us that human evolution does not favor those who do not stay on their toes.
First, China decided to conduct its own experiment to see which of the characteristic differences between social organization Soviet-style and American-style truly matter for a developing nation, with results that are proving distinctly uncomfortable for the West, in more ways than one.
Second, and not unrelated, is that the developed world may be poised to learn (or possibly relearn) what happens when a large portion of a society’s population is no longer needed to produce its goods and services.
Where these and other developments eventually take us is of course anybody’s guess. We have our complement of Anticpators, loudly fretting over disasters to come on the road ahead, as well as our Deniers, smugly assuring us that faith in God or Adam Smith will guide us unerringly along the road of optimal results. What we can say with certainty is that, if the going gets rough, there is no turning back.