Slavery vs. Innovation, Then and Now

Tuesday, June 22, 2021

Over the past couple of weeks, I have encountered two interesting arguments that have deepened my understanding of how slavery -- both the ancient practice of chattel slavery and its modern fascist/socialist/communist variants -- stifles innovation.

Regulars here would, correctly and quickly, think of such incentive-sapping facts pertaining to the potential inventor himself as: no control over one's own time or possessions in the first place, and no chance to profit from his efforts. These are profound, but they are hardly the only obstacles. There are also cultural and epistemelogical obstacles, as we'll see with two brief looks at what I encountered.

First, in ancient times, when chattel slavery permeated every facet of the economy, we see a general failure to appreciate not having to throw the bodies of other people at a problem -- paired with a disdain for the kind of work that could most easily be automated.

Mark Koyama of the Foundation for Economic Education, commenting on Aldo Schiavone's The End of the Past, summarizes the what he calls the "first leg" of the problem:

Image by Fabio Fistarol, via Unsplash, license.
[T]he ancient economy -- its manufacturing, trade, and commerce rested largely on slave labor. The expansion of trade and commerce in the Mediterranean after 200 BC both rested on and drove the expansion of slavery. Here Schiavone notes that the ancient reliance on slaves as human automatons -- machines with souls -- removed or at least weakened, the incentive to develop machines for productive purposes.
Regarding the second, he quotes Schiavone himself:
None of the great engineers and architects, none of the incomparable builders of bridges, roads, and aqueducts, none of the experts in the employment of the apparatus of war, and none of their customers, either in the public administration or in the large landowning families, understood that the most advantageous arena for the use and improvement of machines -- devices that were either already in use or easily created by association, or that could be designed to meet existing needs -- would have been farms and workshops...
And later:
[T]echnology, cooperative production, the various kinds of manual labor that were different from the solitary exertion of the peasants on his land -- could not but end up socially and intellectually abandoned to the lowliest members of the community, in direct contact with the exploitation of the slaves, for whom the necessity and demand increased out of all proportion...

Thus the elites were both unfamiliar with -- and thought themselves above -- the concerns of their slaves. So, for reasons already noted, there was generally little opportunity or incentive for a slave to invent, nor reason to believe a member of the elite would want or see the advantage of anything a slave might invent.

I cannot help but note that many miseducated, inexperienced youths exceed the ancient elites in their appalling ignorance and disrespect for matters of production and trade.

It is too bad that those aren't their only problems.

And what might the others be, Gus? For the answer, one would do well to listen to at least part of Yaron Brook's recent debate with Ian "Vaush" Kochinski and his post-mortem of that debate (in the early part of the second link) as well as his analysis of how two other leftists think (to use a verb loosely) about the problems of production and distribution of goods (afterwards in the second link).

You will see that our modern mystics of muscle basically cannot even conceive of a role for the mind in the matter of production or trade. (This would be outside, I would argue, perhaps any intellectual work they themselves might perform or appreciate.) Think of the legions of leftist programmers or computer-aided designers out there who might appreciate, say, copyright law or getting paid, as they pertain to work in their own fields -- but think the job of a CEO is easy -- if, that is, it's a job at all and not just a form of slave-driving. 

But don't take my word for it: Glean Brook's argument for yourself and, importantly, reinforce it with concrete examples.

Many modern victims of our failing educational system and corrupt, Marxist-infused culture are at least as intellectually isolated from and morally aloof of the practical concerns of production and trade as the Roman elites. (This is why the good work of people like Jason Crawford is so important.)

For these victims, it's as if a good, like the mRNA vaccine two of them prattle about, grew on a tree and the only reason it hasn't been distributed worldwide is due to the meanness and "greed" of the people who somehow have it. (News flash: They created it.) (Second News Flash: It's hard to profit from sick and dead people.) They have the handicap of not even being able to conceive of how the mind might play a role -- such as in discovering a need, finding a practical solution, organizing and instructing labor, or coordinating supply chains. And there are plenty of lies -- such as the one Brook ably demolishes about Pfizer's vaccine being "created" by the government -- to keep such people in high dudgeon.

We know what happened to ancient Rome. As for ourselves, we are astronomically better off and are saddling ourselves with an incomparably more handicapped elite. We will overcome this problem, or we will ultimately endure a spectacular-enough fall to fuel legends for the millennia it might take mankind to recover.

-- CAV

PS: I should have elaborated more on the modern problem for innovation. In addition to the kinds of problems the Romans had, many measures leftists support, notably the Biden IP waiver for vaccines, would do great damage to the legal structures the West has in place that encouraged and made possible such wonders as the speedy development of the vaccines that are ending the pandemic less than two years after it started. That idea doesn't just disincentivize innovation. It also makes difficult or impossible many kinds of legal cooperation necessary for development, manufacture, and, yes, distribution, of such goods.


Today: Added PS. 

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