Bryan Caplan  

Northian Pessimism in FP2P

Failure to "Get" Hayek... Democratic Fundamentalism and ...
Doug North has never sounded wiser or clearer than he does in his interview with Arnold and Nick.  North's concluding statement is the highlight for me:
I'm moderately pessimistic about the future of the world...

What particularly bothers me is that the world is evolving more rapidly now than it ever did before. The degree to which we can catch up with it and deal with it, I think, is more and more strained now that we've devised ways to blow each other off the face of the earth. The time horizon we have to solve problems is much more abbreviated than it used to be; whereas before we could make mistakes and kill a few hundred thousand people, now we can blow everybody up. And we don't seem to have gotten very far in solving social disorder. I hope I'm wrong.
This is one of the better cases for pessimism I've heard.  But it's still pretty weak.  Yes, we have greater destructive capacity than ever.  But the will to use it has fallen even more.  As I've argued before, riches atrophy the martial virtues/vices.  As long as the major countries slip past the awkward transition period of (modern weaponry + pre-modern brutality) - and we're already almost done - the future is bright.  If you think the recession of the last two years is bad, imagine trying to tell the World War I or World War II generations about our troubles.  In proper perspective, it's no more than a minor setback.

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COMMENTS (11 to date)
SydB writes:

I'm not trying to sell pessimism here, and I find historical analogies often false, but your optimism is not unlike the optimists at the turn of the last century. You're an optimistic person so you're going to be optimistic. It's not really an argument.

Oil production will go into decline--we seem to be on a plateau. Energy production may follow--optimism for alternatives may be too high. And from this we may find--problems.

Human social systems and their relations to the environment/ecology are complex and therefore you cannot predict the future, particularly past what may be fairly sharp phase transitions (energy production).

E. Barandiaran writes:

Bryan, you say
"As long as the major countries slip past the awkward transition period of (modern weaponry + pre-modern brutality) - and we're already almost done - the future is bright."

Yes, it depends. First, it depends on what you mean when you talk about mayor countries. My list would include, in addition to some old ones (USA, UK, Japan, Germany, and France), Rusia, China, India, Brasil and Mexico (there are a few others that cannot be totally ignored). Second, it depends on what you mean when you say "almost" done. I think the last five countries I mentioned still have a long way to go to anything that resembles a social order in which serious conflicts hardly arise but if they do violence can be controlled (see what's going on in Mexico as an example of what one should be concerned).

simone writes:

An institutional view suggest that change can become more difficult as institutions ossify. This would suggest that the ability to accommodate change is diminished as institutional forces grow rigid.

I fear not the ability of individual destructive acts as much as the inability of institutions to accommodate the social and technological change.

Mike Moffatt writes:

"What particularly bothers me is that the world is evolving more rapidly now than it ever did before."

I don't buy that at all.

In the 42 years between 1903 and 1945, the world went from not having heavier-than-air human flight to having nuclear bombs. In the 58 years between 1903 and 1961, the world went from not having heavier-than-air human flight to having manned space flight.

Has the world really changed at a *faster* pace than that in the 49 years since 1961? I just don't see it.

ajb writes:

Mike's points really only apply to the developed world. Only now is much of the rest of the world moving from pre-industrial to industrial society, esp. China and India, so the risks from the 20th c. carry over from the 21st with the complication of a low probability of recidivism even for the developed world. And nuclear weapons have still been kept out of the hands of small country terrorists but no reason to suppose that must continue. Finally, the kind of frenzied explosion in Japan or 1930s Germany is still possible, for many countries that might seem otherwise stable today. [Certainly the Hitler takeover would have been dismissed as unrealistic by the West circa 1920 even.]

And of course the real problem is that Bryan is dealing with an optimistic period. Before this last recession, there was no thirty year period in history in which US stocks were beaten by bonds. That is, alas, no longer true. Should we assume that our foreign policy luck in the last 100 years should continue? The narrowness of our victory in WWII should make us more not less pessimistic.

Brent Buckner writes:

This is one of the standard speculative explanations of "the great silence".

Tuttle writes:


Were the optimists of the late 19th century incorrect?

agnostic writes:

"As I've argued before, riches atrophy the martial virtues/vices."

Only when we escape from what North, Wallis, & Weingast call a "natural state," where the elite factions compete on the margin of violence, into what they call an "open access order," where elites are commercial and compete on the price and quality of their goods & services.

If you look at pre-industrial societies at any time, it's the richer ones who wage wars and launch empires. Because the economy is Malthusian, there are always aspiring elites who'd like to join but can't because it's at carrying capacity -- so you basically have to acquire more land for the aspirants to rule over. (Now we can grow the economy without that.)

Among hunter-gatherers, the richer ones -- that is, more well-fed ones -- launch the wars against the defenseless poor ones. The Yanamamo of the Amazon basin are a case in point.

Even as late as 14th C Venice -- a pretty commercial, proto-modern society -- the elites were much more violent than the poor and working class. That only turned around after the War of the Roses. Data on Venice:

So I think that's what North has in the back of his mind -- most of the world still lives in natural states and aren't anywhere close to leaving. Unlike during the English Civil War or the Fronde in France, though, the elite factions in today's natural states have much greater destructive capacity. And remember that that's the margin that they compete along, not peaceful price or quality-based competition.

SydB writes:


Physicists were optimistic that they had physics all wrapped up and then BLAM everything changed.

Mathematicians thought they were on the verge of placing mathematics on a sound foundation and then BLAM paradoxes and incompleteness blow up those plans.

Optimists thought science and sociology would lead to peace love and understanding and then BLAM WWI--to end all wars--and then BLAM WWII. Double BLAM.

My point is that statements about the future, particularly more than a few years forward, are more an indication of the mind of the predictor than they are of the future.

Dirtyrottenvarmint writes:


SydB is far too restrained. Forget about the optimists, the Pessimists of the 19th century were largely incorrect.

Imagine yourself telling a group of people in 1850 that by the end of the next century two world wars would have resulted in millions of deaths, including the wholesale destruction of entire cities, that democratically-elected leaders would support genocide, that violent crime rates would increase ten-fold or more, that incidence of unwed pregnancy would skyrocket, as would divorce rates, that religious zealots would purposely kill themselves in order to rain death on women and children...

What do you think their reaction would be? Even Schopenhauer, Carlyle, Nietsche, and the like did not predict such dire outcomes. I think your 1850s audience would quickly become convinced that Judgment Day had occurred sometime about 1913, and that you were a messenger from Hell.

Heck, forget about the 20th century. What do you think your 1850s audience's reaction would be to the news that 15 years later more than 600,000 soldiers would be dead as a result of a Civil War between the U.S. states?

Bryan believes that because ONE GENERATION grew up in the direct aftermath of the Holocaust genocide and the bombing of Hiroshima and Nakasaki, and has (thus far) chosen not to repeat those particularly delightful examples of human action, that this is conclusive evidence that human nature has changed for the better and that the wealthy, advanced, progressive, modern nations of man will never again engage in such "pre-modern brutality". Despite 4000 years of evidence to the contrary.

Bryan is like a man who has fallen off the top of a tall building, checks his watch two seconds later, and concludes that because he has not yet encountered the ground, he must be flying.

It may be that we have learned to fly, but the evidence is sparse at best.

Mark Bahner writes:

For each decade from 1900 to 2010, plot the percentage of total human population (military and civilian) who have died in wars.

I think you'll find that the decade ending January 1, 2010 had one of the lowest percentages of people dying from war of any in the last century.

Now plot deaths from malnutrition. Again, I think the most recent decade will have the lowest percentages.

Now plot deaths from communicable diseases. Even including AIDS, I think the most recent decade will have one of the lowest percentages.


The fact is that humans have never in history lived as long and as healthily as at present. The preponderance of evidence is that that trend will continue.

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